from Africa in Transition

Fits and Starts in South Africa’s Journey Toward Non-Racial Democracy

February 04, 2014

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Sub-Saharan Africa

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South Africa

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Heads of State and Government

The collapse of a short-lived, and much ballyhooed, presidential candidacy by Mamphela Ramphele on the Democratic Alliance (DA) ticket appears to be a “fit” rather than a "start” in South Africa’s move to “non-racialism.”

Initially, the Ramphele candidacy on a DA ticket looked like an arrangement made in heaven for those looking for a genuine alternative to the governing African National Congress (ANC) as the artery of government and the replacement of race by issues as the touchstone of politics. The DA emphasizes the constitution and the rule of law and its spokesmen accuse the ANC of cronyism and corruption.

So, too, does Mamphela Ramphele. She founded her own political party, AgangSA, which sought to attract the support of the black, educated middle class. In terms of political principle, there seemed to be little to distinguish between the DA and Agang. DA leader Helen Zille has sought to give a black “face” to the DA, which Ramphele could do.

Ramphele has impeccable “liberation” credentials–she was a founder of the Black Consciousness Movement and the mother of the children of Steve Biko, a liberation martyr. With her rule of law, anti-corruption, and pro-business orientation, she could broaden the DA’s appeal to a black constituency moving into South Africa’s modern economy. For its part, the DA could offer Ramphele and Agang funding and organization. Agang has, according to the media, had difficulty raising money.

But, the DA is widely perceived to be the party of whites, Coloureds, and Indians, while Agang aimed for a black, middle class constituency. Ramphele appears to have done too little to prepare the Agang rank-and-file (such as it is) for her DA candidacy. Nor, apparently, had there been consultation or consensus building within Agang on a potential merger with the DA. Ramphele has been accused before of being too much of a lone wolf and not enough a consensus-building politician.

But, it looks like race was the hurdle that could not be overcome. After the alliance fell apart, Ramphele said: “Some cannot or will not transcend party politics. We see people still trapped in old-style, race-based politics.” She also said that the DA and Agang both were mistaken to think that “what so many people distrusted could magically disappear.” This would appear to be a reference to the non-black image of the DA.

Presumably Ramphele will contest the April presidential elections on the Agang ticket. It is not clear who the DA presidential candidate now will be. Though unlikely, it is possible that there will be a further effort at reanimating an Agang/DA electoral alliance.