Cape Town — For months now, the focus of political attention in South Africa has been on the left and on the politics of populism.
The debate which reflects the biggest challenge to the ruling African National Congress is over whether uncompromising socialists committed to the nationalisation of large swathes of the economy will break away from the main union congress - and thus its alliance with the ANC - and enter politics directly by forming their own, genuine leftwing party.
In the populist arena, the media have been pursuing an obsession with celebrity politics, trading on the raw emotions of white fear and black anger by peddling the utterances of the ANC breakaway youth leader, Julius Malema, whose public record is one of talking left but acting as a rapacious, tax-dodging capitalist whose movement displays some of the hallmarks of fascism.
That changed this week with the announcement by the biggest parliamentary opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), that it will back Mamphela Ramphele, leader of the much smaller, newer party, Agang South Africa, as its candidate for the presidency in the forthcoming election.
This news moves the spotlight, at least temporarily, to the centre in South African politics and raises the question of whether the DA - and Agang, assuming it continues a separate existence - can make real headway against the ANC, which continues - 20 years after liberation - to dominate Parliament with well over 60 percent of the seats.
The answer would appear to depend on at least two critical issues.
One is whether the death of Nelson Mandela will help loosen the ties between the ANC, for which he sacrificed much of his life, and those South Africans - not party activists but ordinary voters across the country - who are disillusioned with the nepotism, corruption and self-enrichment they see in sections of the party, from their local communities all the way up to the highest offices in the land.
The other is whether the combination of the DA and Agang proves able to tap into the ranks of both disaffected voters and the millions of young people who are either new voters or have never bothered to register to vote.
DA leader Helen Zille has so far faced an insurmountable obstacle: her party's image as a defender of white privilege.
Its current support comprises three broad constituencies: the white liberals who opposed apartheid from within its parliament; voters from communities classified under apartheid as Coloured or Indian, who were treated as second-class citizens (as opposed to most black South Africans, who weren't recognised as citizens at all); and white racists who since the demise of apartheid have come to appreciate the value of the skills the party honed as an opponent of governments for 50 years.
Implicitly recognising this, Zille has led a drive to recruit to the DA's leadership educated and articulate young black South Africans unencumbered by the passions and struggles of the past. In doing so, she has often had to contend with resistance from members of an old guard who see themselves as guardians of liberal values, unhappy with the party's new policies on affirmative action and black economic empowerment. But the larger long-term challenge is the perception in the black community that hers is a party representing people who benefitted from apartheid and are threatened by black advancement and economic power.
Until now she has struggled to find prominent black leaders with both experience and a history of suffering as a result of taking a stand against apartheid. The strongest previous candidate was Joe Seremane, a former activist of the Pan Africanist Congress (the party which broke away from the ANC in the late 1950s partly in protest at what it saw as white communist influence) who became an angry and personally bitter foe of the ANC after its security wing tortured and executed his brother in exile.
In Ramphele, Zille has found a leader known to most politically literate South Africans as one of the founders of the black consciousness movement, a partner of Steve Biko who bore two of his children, a pioneer of the movement's community programmes and a founder of a health clinic, pre-schools and other projects in a community to which the apartheid government banished her.
As a result of Ramphele's subsequent rise through academia to the post of vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, a managing director of the World Bank and chairperson of the gold mining company first established by the 19th century British imperialist, Cecil John Rhodes, newspaper columnists too young to have known her as a community activist have pilloried her as a member of an elite remote from the concerns of most South Africans.
That is belied by the reception she receives, particularly from women, in urban townships and rural communities - especially in the remote settlements in which she worked 35 years ago, where she is welcomed as a medical doctor who saved women's lives and delivered their babies. Nevertheless she has had to get out in front of questions about her wealth by declaring her assets as U.S. $5 million and challenging ANC leaders to disclose theirs'.
People who have worked with Agang, the party Ramphele formed last year, tell anecdotal tales of black South Africans who welcomed her decision to enter politics, saying in effect: I'm sick of the ANC, once the old man (Mandela) has gone, I won't vote for them again. This week, Ramphele herself alluded to this, telling the news conference at which her DA candidacy was announced that after Mandela's death last month, "the ground has shifted underneath South African politics..."
One of the country's best political analysts, Steven Friedman, is sceptical of Agang's chances and scorns this thinking. "I'm intrigued to know who these voters are, who are changing their votes because a 95-year-old man who hasn't been active in politics for 16 years, passed away," he told a local radio station.
But very little polling has been done so far, at least outside that commissioned confidentially by the parties, so the issue must remain one of conjecture.
Whatever effect Mandela's death has or does not have, much will also depend on whether what Ramphele this week called the "fracturing" of the ANC will deliver votes to the opposition, and whether South Africans are ready to break with "identity politics" - the tendency to cast votes on the basis of family and community history and tradition.
Agang has thousands of supporters among young, highly-educated and motivated professionals - people of all races but probably mainly black - in urban areas, especially in Gauteng province, the country's economic powerhouse. Many of them have not voted before, either because they are too young or because the nature of post-liberation politics has disillusioned them.
Most of their parents and grandparents will have voted ANC in the past, but as young urbanised modernists they are repelled by the image projected by President Jacob Zuma, a traditionalist who has a number of wives but still finds it necessary to seek out other women young enough to be his daughters. That is not to speak of the millions in taxpayers' money spent on security upgrades to his private rural home, as well as his and his family's seeming dependence on a controversial family of rich businessmen who are relatively recent immigrants to South Africa.
Not a lot necessarily separates the thinking of these young potential voters from the DA's formal policies - especially after recent tweaks designed to help boost black participation in the upper echelons of the economy. But coming from families who have long supported the aspirations most popularly embodied by the ANC, breaking away from identity politics is difficult. As a rational individual, you might find DA policies broadly acceptable but as a member of a family and a community, how do you justify voting DA to your elders?
The risk that Ramphele runs by agreeing to become the DA's candidate for the presidency is that she will lose this crucial constituency.
Right now Agang is embroiled in a furore over the DA's surprise announcement. There is some recognition that she was under enormous pressure to work more closely with the DA: Agang did not have enough money in December to pay both for election materials and senior staff salaries, and some of her most important financial backers have been pressing her hard to forge a united opposition. Nevertheless, this week's announcement triggered confusion and charges of betrayal from many ordinary members, and also upset party activists who have spent much of the past year reassuring potential members that they would not be joining up to the DA.
Although most political reporting has simply assumed there will a DA-Agang merger, neither Zille nor Ramphele said any such thing when they appeared together this week. They said only that a technical committee comprising representatives of both parties will meet to work out the way forward.
Certainly one of the ANC's best minds, former Mandela cabinet minister Pallo Jordan, is not assuming a merger: writing in Business Day, Johannesburg, this week, he referred to it as an alliance: "... a coalition of a new type, with the whiff of an elite pact which suggests that both parties desperately need each other."
Most reporting - perhaps fed by behind-the-scenes DA briefings - also takes it for granted that a merger would be on the DA's terms. But Jordan does not assume this either. His suggestion is that "it is tempting to assume that [Ramphele] refused to play second fiddle to any of the established DA grandees, black or white, and drove a hard bargain that has enabled her to preserve the integrity of her own organisation..."
Ramphele's agreement with Zille could enable Agang to punch way above its weight in talks between the parties: if Agang cannot win acceptable terms as the basis for co-operation or a merger, and Ramphele pulls out of the deal, where does that leave Zille? From the perspective of many of the DA's old-time white liberals, Zille has thrown the dice in an enormous gamble.
Ahead of an election expected in the first or second week of May, the larger issue in South African politics is whether the ANC's majority in Parliament can be cut to under 60 percent. Should that happen, opposition forces hope that discontent with Zuma's leadership will lead to more breakaways from the ANC, raising the prospect of a change of power in 2019.
Much will depend on whether Zille, Ramphele and their parties can work out a deal which enables them both to preserve their core constituencies and to take advantage of what Ramphele brings to politics: a hard-charging style, capable of giving as good as she gets at the hustings, and her reputation as a veteran of the struggle against apartheid who has won international renown for her achievements against great odds.
The writer is an AllAfrica editor. On a leave of absence from AllAfrica last year, he acted as a strategic adviser to Agang and Mamphela Ramphele.