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South African opposition implosion hands ANC momentum

A freshly inked merger deal between South Africa's opposition parties has imploded just months before a general election.

JOHANNESBURG: A freshly inked merger deal between South Africa's opposition parties has imploded just months before a general election, handing the beleaguered ANC ruling party a lifeline Monday.

Days after centrist parties announced that black consciousness stalwart Mamphela Ramphele would be their joint presidential candidate, the agreement was buried in a slew of personal recriminations and political point-scoring.

The deal would have created a unified front against the might of the African National Congress, which has won every fully democratic election in South Africa by a landslide.

The opposition is not expected to win the vote, but their more modest aim of pushing the ANC under 60 percent and wresting control of key provinces now appears to hang in the balance.

Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille -- who had described Ramphele's appointment as a "game-changing moment" in South African politics -- struggled to limit the fallout.

"It was a risk and in politics one has to be prepared to take calculated risks," she said, amid calls for her to resign.

"I am the leader. I have to take responsibility," she added.

In Ramphele, the DA -- which has large white support -- appeared to believe it had found a leader who could neutralise ANC allegations of racism and tap into deep voter unease.

The death of former ANC leader Nelson Mandela and the upcoming 20th anniversary of democracy have only served to underscore the ruling party's failings.

Around one in three workers has no job or has stopped looking, many South Africans live without water or other basic services and inequality has increased since the end of apartheid.

Ramphele, a former partner of slain South African hero Steve Biko, launched her own political platform, Agang SA, a year ago, but has struggled to garner funds and support in a crowded field.

She appeared unrepentant Monday and willing to inflict maximum damage against a party she will now battle at the polls.

"Some people cannot or will not transcend party politics. We see people trapped in old-style race-based politics," she said.

"The last week has demonstrated that, for some, this new way of thinking about our future will be hard to achieve right now."

The spat appears to have been about whether Ramphele's party would have continued to exist or be subsumed by the much larger DA.

Whatever the cause, South African pundits were scathing in their analysis of the outcome.

The "debacle necessitates that some serious questions be asked of DA leader Helen Zille, and of the party more generally," wrote Gareth van Onselen in Business Day.

"It badly mishandled the whole affair and, as a result, its 2014 election campaign is floundering badly, as it lurches from crisis to another."

Ramphele said her party would continue to contest the election.

"There are millions of South Africans who will never vote for the DA, but they want a home, which Agang SA will give them," she said.

The elections are expected to take place in the first half of this year, although no date has yet been set.

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