Decades since the end of Apartheid and months since Nelson Mandela’s death, South Africa’s politics still break far too closely along the lines of race.
The governing African National Congress (ANC), a party that has its origins as the leading anti-Apartheid movement, has rarely, if ever, attained less than 60% of the vote.
The leading party in South Africa’s fractious opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has its base around Cape Town and Western Cape province, but on a national level it doesn’t even come close to overcoming the ANC’s monopoly.
The divisions and distinctions in South Africa’s politics are many and complex, but it is clear that there exists a strongly-held common perception amongst white South Africans that the ANC looks out only for black citizens, and that black South African’s often view the DA as a discriminatory bastion of a privileged white elite.
The DA last month sought to remedy that perception, announcing that it was to merge with a another opposition party, Agang, which was set up last year by former anti-apartheid campaigner Mamphela Ramphele as a challenge to the ANC.
Despite a fanfare launch in June 2013, Agang had failed to make the impact it had hoped for, and the DA – led by Helen Zille, herself a former anti-apartheid campaigner – seized on the opportunity to draft in Ms Ramphele as their presidential candidate for the general elections due in May.
A doctor, academic and former managing director at the World Bank, Ms Ramphele said the new agreement was an opportunity to end the racial legacy that continues to permeate South African politics.
Within five days, however, the deal collapsed, and with it the masterstroke move which would have seen the DA pitch a charismatic black leader for the presidency.
The failure of the deal appears to have had less to do with policy differences than confusion over what was actually agreed to in the first place. Ms Ramphele called the deal off after anger from Agang members, who had not been consulted on any merger. She also denied reports that she was to receive full membership of the DA.
While the new arrangement was widely reported as a full merger of the two parties, Ms Ramphele told the press that she had understood the deal simply as an agreement to work closely together and establish a working group to examine how the relationship might develop in the future.
A DA spokesman said that his party had expected Agang to disband – simply put, it seems that it was only the addition of Ms Ramphele that they were interested in.
And while Ms Ramphele left the door open for further cooperation after the merger’s collapse, Ms Zille somewhat scorched the earth, claiming that her would-be colleague had reneged on the deal, showing that “she could not be trusted”.
The ‘he-said, she-said’ of the fall-out aside, it seems sad that a major opportunity to reshape South African politics has been missed.
First, as Ms Ramphele indicated, such a move could have altered damaging perceptions about the DA, still largely seen as the “white” party. In a country where politics –and the division between rich and poor – still have too much of a racial dimension, this could have been an important step towards achieving a more cooperative and less divided society.
Second, the prospect of creating a more electorally successful opposition movement could make a large dent in the ANC’s majority, a party that has frequently been accused of corruption and poor policy-making. Whilst this author reserves judgement on the ANC’s policies and integrity, it seems clear that a democracy with more than one party capable of attaining power will be more transparent and accountable to the people than a country which consistently returns one party by overwhelming majority.
With the DA left embarrassed by the failed Agang merger, any real upset in South African politics looks as unlikely as ever. With the general election three months away, the only real question is by how much of a majority the ANC will win.