By the Blouin News Politics staff

Mamphela Ramphele makes controversial coalition move

by in Africa.

Spectators watch a big screen as a statue of former South African president Nelson Mandela is unveiled at the Union Buildings on December 16, 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Spectators watch as a statue of President Nelson Mandela is unveiled in Pretoria, South Africa. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

If there were any lingering doubt that businesswoman and anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele is serious in coveting the South African presidency, she dispelled it by merging her fledgling Agang party with the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) on Tuesday, setting up a showdown with incumbent President Jacob Zuma in the first election since the close of the Mandela era.

The announcement that she is teaming up with the DA, mostly known for being stuck in the political wilderness and subsisting on the votes of the minority white population, arrived like a bombshell, stunning many of Ramphele’s own followers and threatening to dilute any grassroots momentum she had accumulated in the previous months. But the ability to tap into the pre-existing electoral machinery of the Alliance, and perhaps pick up the votes of whites anxious to leave behind the corruption and patronage of Zuma’s presidency, is certainly worthwhile even if it means shedding a few idealists along the way.

And that does seem to be the chief calculation here: the DA offers a path to victory, and Ramphele wants to win. That she is going to be the ally of a party seen as representing the interests of South Africa’s white minority has opened her up to a new line of attack from the ANC, whose spokespeople have already begun to label her ‘rent a black’ and ‘rent a leader’, and it raises the real risk (a fact which is sad, for many reasons, to observe) of her damaging her anti-apartheid bona fides. Her business credentials as a former World Bank director and former chairwoman of Gold Fields should certainly make her the favorite of both South African elites and Westerners looking on with trepidation.

As for Ramphele’s viability in the election, expected in April or May, that’s where things get tricky. Zuma’s image has suffered under the weight of countless tales of graft and a weak economy; poverty among the black population remains high and city services poor. There is plenty of space for a challenge, but former ANC youth leader Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) seem best suited to make those kinds of populist appeals. Ramphele’s best shot would seem to rest on cleaning up among white voters and splitting the black vote, siphoning off enough of it to deny Zuma a majority. That means she and Malema will train their fire on one another soon enough, each hoping to emerge as the “anti-ANC” choice. Malema’s task is made easier by the complicated racial politics surrounding Ramphele’s move; the DA’s new candidate has a lot of convincing (and reassuring) to do between now and election day.