JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Ahead of elections this year, South Africa's main opposition party merged with a smaller group on Tuesday to jointly challenge the ruling party whose popularity, long burnished by its close links to Nelson Mandela, has eroded amid corruption scandals and other problems.
The presidential candidate of the new coalition is Mamphela Ramphele, a former anti-apartheid activist who was close to Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness leader who was tortured and died in police custody in 1977. Ramphele, who was also a doctor, academic and World Bank executive, formed her own party last year but struggled to gain political momentum and said the merger with the larger Democratic Alliance was in the country's best interests.
At a Cape Town announcement, Ramphele invoked the name of Mandela, the former prisoner under apartheid who became president in South Africa's first all-race elections in 1994 and died Dec. 5 at the age of 95. Some South Africans had questioned how his death would impact the country as political forces, dominated by the ruling African National Congress, seek to harness a national identity forged in the struggle against white rule while addressing increasing worries about the future.
"The death of Nelson Mandela has changed many things for South Africa," Ramphele said. "It has caused us to reflect on our journey over the last 20 years, on the progress we have made, and on the opportunities utilized and lost."
President Jacob Zuma and the ANC, the liberation movement once led by Mandela, are the electoral front-runners but they have lost some support because of corruption, poverty, unemployment, police brutality and a lack of adequate government services. One analyst, however, warned that while some people are wavering in their support for the ANC, the party remains a potent force and any claim that the new opposition alliance is a political game-changer is overstated.
"South Africans will forgive the ANC many things," said Susan Booysen, a political analyst at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. She said voters are "not switching en masse" and that the ruling party could benefit from celebrations this year commemorating 20 years since the end of apartheid.
Some observers expect the ANC to win the election, but with a smaller majority. The opposition aims to make inroads in Gauteng, a populous province and business center that is home to the capital, Pretoria, and the country's biggest city, Johannesburg.
Ramphele spoke alongside Helen Zille, the head of the Democratic Alliance and premier of the Western Cape, the only one of nine South African provinces not run by the ANC. Zille was a journalist on the now-defunct Rand Daily Mail at the time of Biko's death, and played a lead role in uncovering the circumstances of his death despite denials of wrongdoing from officials in the white racist government.
Zille said "old political formations" in South African were becoming obsolete, and that her party includes apartheid-era liberals who opposed the repressive system at the time, former members of the current ruling party and people, including Ramphele, with a background in Biko's Black Consciousness movement.
She described the upcoming general elections as the most contested since the end of apartheid. A date for the vote to be held this year has not been set.
While the Democratic Alliance has grown, its political opponents have sought to capitalize on its roots as a mostly white liberal movement that opposed apartheid, suggesting that the party is racist and not to be trusted.
"There is no way a party with Mamphela Ramphele as presidential candidate will bring back apartheid," Zille said.
The ANC, meanwhile, said it had completed a list of candidates for the general elections, with Zuma at the top. Zuma was booed during a stadium memorial for Mandela in December, raising questions about whether dissatisfaction with the president was damaging his party. Many South Africans were angered to learn that the government paid $21 million to upgrade Zuma's rural homestead.
Gwede Mantashe, the ANC's secretary general, said the party's candidate list stemmed from "a massive exercise in participatory democracy involving ANC members in thousands of branches throughout the country over a number of months."