JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Last week South Africa’s main opposition party announced it would field a black presidential candidate for the first time. That’s when the ruling African National Congress hauled out the phrase “rent-a-black.”
The candidate in question, Mamphela Ramphele — businesswoman, academic, former anti-apartheid activist, and medical doctor — is the founder of the fledgling Agang South Africa party. On Tuesday, when the Democratic Alliance (DA) announced her as its candidate, it was also announced that the two parties would be merging.
Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s secretary-general, was the first to lash out: “Please don’t ask me about rent-a-leader, rent-a-black,” he said later that day at the start of a press briefing. But he wasn’t the only one using such provocative rhetoric. “She is a political tourist, political opportunist and a rented black,” echoed a spokesman for the ANC-allied National Union of Mineworkers.
The freshly-inked DA-Agang party merger fell apart on Monday, no doubt to the satisfaction of the ANC.
But last week's language isn't likely to leave any time soon. Such racially charged insults reflect the fault lines that persist in South African politics two decades after democracy, and which are being ginned up ahead of general elections expected in late April or May.
"Some people cannot or will not transcend party politics. We see people trapped in old-style race-based politics," Ramphele said on Monday.
"The last week has demonstrated that, for some, this new way of thinking about our future will be hard to achieve right now."
Ramphele’s appointment as a presidential candidate last week, as well as the proposed DA-Agang party merger, were the latest high-profile efforts to make the Democratic Alliance more diverse — and more appealing to black voters.
The majority of black voters support the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, which has governed since the first post-apartheid elections in 1994. The DA, the biggest opposition party, is backed mainly by white and “colored" — meaning of mixed racial descent — voters, with a strong base in the Cape Town area.
The DA is widely perceived as a white party, an image not helped by the significant number of white men on its benches in parliament. And the ANC has played up this impression on the campaign trail. “If you don’t vote, the Boers will come back to control us,” Cyril Ramaphosa, a top official, warned a Limpopo resident in November.
The DA’s leader, Helen Zille, is a white woman and former rabble-rousing journalist for the anti-apartheid Rand Daily Mail. Nevertheless, her political opponents have called her a “white madam” and a “fake, racist girl.”
When she appointed Lindiwe Mazibuko, a then 31-year-old black woman, as the DA’s parliamentary leader in late 2011, Mazibuko, too, was accused of being a black figurehead for a white party. Julius Malema, then the leader of the ANC Youth League, derided her as Zille’s “tea girl.”
The troubling implications of this rhetoric have not gone unnoticed. Angelo Fick, a news analyst for South African TV network eNCA, said that while the recent lexicon of South African politics has at times “given cause for amusement,” some of the terms “ought to give cause for concern.”
“[R]eferring to political rivals by racially incendiary terms while trumpeting your organization’s admirable history of anti-racist struggle is seriously off-piste,” he wrote in an opinion piece.
Zille described her party’s high-profile new candidate last week as a “game-changing” factor that will help counter the use of race by other political parties against the DA.
“Voting in South Africa should be about values and issues and principles, not about race,” she told reporters at a press conference in Cape Town.
“We are taking away that race card and putting it in the dustbin,” Ramphele herself added.
On Monday, amid calls for her resignation, Zille backed away from last week's zeal. "It was a risk and in politics one has to be prepared to take calculated risks," she said.
While the collapse of the opposition merger will be a boon for the ANC, the party's rhetoric may reflect the pressure the ANC is now under to remain popular — though it is still expected to win by a mile. Pundits have predicted a drop in support for the party, from 65.9 percent of voters in 2009 to around 60 percent or perhaps even lower this year. Poor South Africans are increasingly frustrated with the lack of change in their lives under the ANC and its scandal-tainted leader, President Jacob Zuma.
The DA, in comparison, took a slim 16.7 percent of the vote during the last general elections in 2009. This may increase by a few points in the coming election.
Several large newspapers in South Africa have weighed in with perspectives closer to Zille’s than to Mantashe’s, of the ANC. The South African Times newspaper argued that Ramphele’s party joining the DA was in fact the start of a move away from race-based politics — though realistically, “having Ramphele at the top of the DA is not going to bring the ANC to its knees.”
The bigger question has less to do with which party dominates: How much longer will it remain acceptable for politicians — even if they themselves are black — to call opponents “rented blacks” or “tea girls”?
“Racism has not yet become a respectable public stance in South African politics, as it has in Zimbabwe,” the weekly Mail & Guardian newspaper’s main editorial saidlast week. But the “crude racial rhetoric” shown by some ANC members is “a retreat from the ruling party’s broad South Africanism and nonracial traditions.”
Twenty years after the end of racist white minority rule, and not yet two months since Mandela’s death, South Africa’s young democracy is still wrestling with its heritage and its future.
Agence-France Presse contributed to this report.