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South African opposition groups join forces to challenge ruling party ahead of elections

South African anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele, left, greets Helen Zille, right, the head of the South African Democratic Alliance political party during a press conference in Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. The former anti-apartheid activist who was close to Steve Biko and was a World Bank executive merged her party Tuesday with South Africa's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, and will be its presidential candidate, challenging the ruling African National Congress whose popularity has eroded amid corruption scandals and other problems. (AP Photo/ Nardus Engelbrecht)

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South African anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele, left, greets Helen Zille, right, the head of the South African Democratic Alliance political party during a press conference in Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. The former anti-apartheid activist who was close to Steve Biko and was a World Bank executive merged her party Tuesday with South Africa's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, and will be its presidential candidate, challenging the ruling African National Congress whose popularity has eroded amid corruption scandals and other problems. (AP Photo/ Nardus Engelbrecht)

JOHANNESBURG - Ahead of elections this year, South Africa's main opposition party merged with a smaller group on Tuesday to jointly challenge a ruling party whose immense popularity, buoyed by its anti-apartheid credentials and close ties to Nelson Mandela, has frayed amid corruption scandals and other problems.

In a racially charged barb, the ruling African National Congress said the new coalition's choice of presidential candidate was a "'rent a black'" ploy to present a diverse front to voters.

The candidate is Mamphela Ramphele, who was the partner of Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness leader who was tortured and died in police custody in 1977. Ramphele, who has been an activist, doctor, academic and World Bank executive, last year formed her own party, named "Agang" or "Build" in the Sesotho language, but struggled to gain political momentum and now has linked her group with the larger Democratic Alliance party.

Whatever the outcome, South Africa is entering a more fluid era in which the ANC, in power for 20 years and likely to win again this year — although possibly with a smaller majority — is increasingly prone to political attack. On the other end of the opposition spectrum is Julius Malema, the expelled head of the ANC's youth league and now leader of an upstart party that wants to redistribute wealth to the poor.

The upcoming election, whose date has not been set, is the first in democratic South Africa since the death 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 have questioned whether the death of this unifying figure will lead to increased factionalism as political forces jostle for influence in a country that is still shaping its post-apartheid identity.

"The death of Nelson Mandela has changed many things for South Africa," Ramphele said at the Cape Town announcement. "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, once led by Mandela, 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.

Ramphele was introduced by 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 killing despite denials of wrongdoing from officials in the white racist government.

Zille said "old political formations" in South Africa 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.

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.

Gwede Mantashe, the ANC's secretary general, was scathing.

"This is not a merger, it is what we call 'rent a black' and 'rent a leader,'" he said. "Please, the ANC is the home for all South Africans. Come back to the ANC."

The response to the new coalition among followers of Ramphele's Agang party was mixed. Some wondered how the manoeuvr would shape opposition policy.

"Is Agang no more, or are we leasing Dr. Mamphela for elections?" the South African Press Association quoted Tlaleng Maseko, a Johannesburg resident, as saying.

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.

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