Shaping up from left and right for election in South Africa

The drafting of Mamphela Ramphele as its candidate for South Africa's presidency by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) is more a rebranding exercise by the party than a serious attempt to win the presidency. The truth is that the African National Congress (ANC), 20 years in power and which won nearly two thirds of the vote in the last general election in 2009, is at the moment largely unassailable and set to sweep back comfortably in the parliamentary elections expected this spring. Its controversial presidential incumbent Jacob Zuma is unlikely to be troubled in his re-election bid despite his administration's reputation for corruption, patronage and ineptitude.

The DA, which won 17 per cent of the vote in the elections five years ago and controls Western Cape province, hopes to expand its base and has set a target of 30 per cent of the vote and the capture of two more of the country’s nine provinces, Gauteng and Northern Cape. To do so it must first shake off its image as a party based largely on the interests of white and coloured voters.

The distinguished and widely respected Ramphele, a former partner of anti-apartheid hero Steve Biko, a medical doctor and successful businesswoman who was a World Bank managing director, is just what the party rebranding needs. A year ago, despairing at what she saw as the ANC's corruption and incompetence, she launched her own party, Agang SA, which has had little impact but which has now agreed to merge with the DA led by her old friend Helen Zille.

Ramphele's appeal to the black middle class should help the DA at least consolidate its vote, but the more substantial erosion of the ANC's base may actually come from the left, the Economic Freedom Fighters, the new radical party of firebrand Julius Malema. Its campaign for nationalisation of the mines and banks and Zimbabwe-like expropriation of white-held land has made it the country's third most popular party, according to recent polls, with some four per cent of the vote.