Mamphela Ramphele - Helen Zille: South Africa merger collapses

Anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele speaks at a news conference with opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party leader Helen Zille (R) Mamphela Ramphele and Helen Zille had said they represented South Africa's unity

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A deal, which would have given South Africa's main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) a black presidential candidate, has collapsed.

Last week's agreement would have merged the DA with the Agang party of anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele.

Ms Ramphele had been put forward as the DA's presidential candidate for this year's elections.

The merged party had been billed as the strongest challenger to the ANC since it came to power in 1994.

Ms Ramphele was the partner of one of the veterans of the struggle against white minority rule, Steve Biko, who died in police custody in 1977.

Mamphela Ramphele launches her new political party, Agang, in Pretoria, 22 June 2013 Despite the optimism at the launch of Agang in Pretoria in June 2013, the party has not made an impact

DA supporters had hoped Ms Ramphele would have helped the party tap into voter dissatisfaction with President Jacob Zuma and the ANC (African National Congress), under fire over corruption scandals and stubbornly high poverty levels.

It was a political marriage that some believed would transform South African politics - giving a fragmented opposition its first real chance to unseat the governing ANC, if not in this year's election, then perhaps the next.

Today the ANC is the only real beneficiary of the acrimonious collapse of the deal between Helen Zille's Democratic Alliance and Agang's Ramphela Mamphele.

In the short term, the collapse must be very bad news for Ms Mamphele, whose new party was already struggling to make an impact with voters, and who has now been cast as an unreliable partner, and allegedly even a dishonest one, who has alienated many in her own party and in the DA.

The DA has certainly been bruised too - and the judgment of its leader Helen Zille called into question. But some short-term ridicule is unlikely to make a serious dent in its stature.

The impact of the past week's events on South African democracy - now 20 years old - is harder to judge.

The ANC remains by far the most popular party, but many here believe a strong, united opposition is necessary to curb its excesses. The collapse of this merger deal is only the latest in a string of blows to that prospect.

The short-lived union had been billed as a historic change to South Africa's political landscape, as it would have been the first time the DA had fielded a black presidential candidate.

Analysts say it has failed to make significant headway among the majority black electorate amid accusations that it was a vehicle for white interests.

But the merger fell apart at a meeting on Sunday, over whether it was simply a partnership or a complete assimilation of the much-smaller Agang.

"Dr Ramphele reneged on the agreement that she stand as the DA's presidential candidate, and that Agang SA's branches, members and volunteers be incorporated into the DA," said DA leader Helen Zille, in a statement.

She angrily accused Ms Ramphele of saying one thing to the media, another to her Agang supporters and yet another to the DA.

"Dr Ramphele has demonstrated - once and for all - that she cannot be trusted to see any project through to its conclusion," she said.

But Ms Ramphele, responding via Twitter, insisted: "There was no confusion. I remain committed and still am the leader of Agang SA. The focus was to work together in the election."

On Friday, the DA published a joint statement announcing that Ms Ramphele would join its ranks. DA rules say only its members can serve as candidates under its banner.

Ms Ramphele said the statement had been published without her agreement and that she would remain the leader of Agang SA.

Sixty-six-year-old Mamphela Ramphele launched Agang, her own political platform, a year ago, but it has not made an impact. It is now bankrupt and a month ago was unable to pay its staff.

"We are going to take away the excuse of race and challenge the ANC to be judged on its performance," she had said when the deal was announced.

"We are taking away that race card and putting it in the dustbin."

However, the ANC alleged that the DA was using her because of the colour of her skin.

"It's a rent-a-leader and rent-a-black face," Gwede Mantashe, the ANC's secretary general said.

A general election date has not been announced, but could come as soon as April - 20 years after the first democratic elections, which ended decades of rule by the white minority.

The president is chosen by MPs, so a party must win a parliamentary majority for its candidate to be sure of leading the country.

As a community doctor who worked in the Eastern Cape alongside Steve Biko, Ms Ramphele led grassroots resistance against white minority rule in the 1970s.

She went on to become a director of the World Bank, a vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Town, and until recently sat on the board of a major mining company.

Agang is named after the Sesotho word for "Let us build".


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