Mamphela Ramphele (left) and DA leader Helen Zille address a press conference in Cape Town on Tuesday. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Mamphela Ramphele (left) and DA leader Helen Zille address a press conference in Cape Town last month. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

SOUTH Africa’s political ground shifted on Tuesday, with one of the most accomplished black public intellectuals, Mamphela Ramphele, bravely eating her words and joining the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), as its presidential candidate in this year’s general election, abandoning her own expensive effort to launch, fund, grow and campaign under a new party, Agang SA.

The move, hailed and scorned in equal measure in the immediate aftermath of its announcement by DA leader Helen Zille on Tuesday morning, is unlikely to threaten the dominance of the governing African National Congress (ANC) but it seems certain to add spice to the coming campaign.

It will be the first time since the first democratic election 20 years ago that an ANC leader will face an African candidate at the top of a large and well-organised opposition. While a direct presidential election race between Dr Ramphele and ANC leader President Jacob Zuma might yield a surprising result, the president is chosen by the majority parliamentary party after the election.

Dr Ramphele had previously expressed quite damning opinions of the DA: that the majority could not be expected to associate with it as it was a white party and that her son, for instance, as the son of Steve Biko, would never find it in himself to support it.

But in joining up she also did the only thing she could do.

Agang was heading for humiliation at the polls, having failed to either build structures or capture the popular imagination in the year or so of its existence.

She also could not regain her status as a nonaligned independent voice as the myth of her impartiality was lost forever when she formed Agang.

The DA’s growing acceptance of policies that recognise the need to redress the effects of apartheid — such as support for black economic empowerment and employment equity — will also have helped bridge the gap between it and Dr Ramphele.

Dr Ramphele said circumstances had changed, resulting in her changing her mind.

Most important, she said, was the passing of former president Nelson Mandela, which she said "had caused us to reflect on our journey over the past 20 years, on the progress made and the opportunities utilised and lost".

Now that Madiba had passed on, many people, both young and old, had told her that they felt free to make a political choice, without feeling that moving away from the ANC would be a betrayal.

Also, she said, the ANC was disintegrating, borne out by its fracturing, and the vocal loss of support for its leader, expressed at Mr Mandela’s memorial service.

So whether it was the ending of the Mandela era, which changed both her and the general mood, or the more practical discovery of what is involved in building a party and winning over voters which provided the greater spur, moving Agang wholesale into the DA was nonetheless a decision that required strong leadership.

At pains to point this out in response to the barrage of questions concerning her sudden change of heart, she told journalists: "If you lead, you have to lead by example. This is about putting the country first.

"There is no way you can make progress holding onto the ideas of yesterday when the ground underneath us has shifted."

So now that the leap has been made, how much will it change the game for politics in South Africa?

Dr Ramphele and Ms Zille have described it as a "historic" moment which will lead to a "tipping point" election, after which they anticipate support for the ANC will begin to unravel quite quickly.

This is not an improbable scenario. While an election upset right now is not a likely consequence of Dr Ramphele’s move, its greater significance will lie in the medium term, as her presence at the helm of the DA helps to shift the blocks of racial support that have always dominated South African politics.

The DA has always known that it needs credible black leaders to win a wider audience, and while it has some bright, young ones, it now has one of South Africa’s most accomplished intellectuals, with an impeccable record of opposition to injustice.

With this the DA can "remove the excuse for race", as Dr Ramphele put it on Tuesday, and strip away the pretence that apartheid can be blamed for the ANC’s poor performance.

"It is very important to recognise that this is a historic moment where we will take away the excuse of race and allow people to be judged on their performance. It is time for South Africa to demand the government they deserve, not one that hides behind the race card. We are throwing the race card in the dustbin," she said.

It was this statement more than any other that underlined the benefit Dr Ramphele will be to the DA.

"Imagine if I had said that," Ms Zille said afterwards. "I could never say we are taking away the excuse of race. The sky would fall in."