JOHANNESBURG - South Africa prides itself on being the continent’s premier democracy, but like many other African nations, it has effectively been a one-party state for decades.

Slowly, though, things are changing, as new opposition groups are emerging and gaining strength - and the ruling African National Congress party clearly does not like it. In recent weeks, the ANC has lashed out at opponents with harsh and colorful rhetoric.

Much of the vitriol coming from the ruling African National Congress is directed at the Democratic Alliance, a vocal opposition party, and a new political movement called Agang, which launched in February.

Both movements hope to take a share of the electorate from the ANC in the nation’s 2014 poll.

The ANC said they welcomed Agang, which is led by anti-apartheid stalwart Mamphela Ramphele.

South Africa's Mamphela Ramphele speaks during a news conference on the launch of her new political party Agang, Johannesburg, February 18, 2013.

But then they added: “We believe that this initiative is grievance driven” and said Ramphele was not bringing any new ideas to politics.

The ANC also accused Ramphele of leaning on foreign political donors, and noted: ”We just hope that the pumping of foreign funds in South Africa will not undermine the further democratization and transformation in our country.”

ANC spokesman Keith Khoza said the harsh rhetoric is just part of politics. He also said he could not see the ANC working with the opposition, whom he accused of not having any real positions. He said, “They don’t have policies. If you don’t have a policy, there are no grounds for any kind of alliance.”

Mmusi Maimane, a spokesman for the Democratic Alliance, said the opposition feels that the ANC prefers direct attacks over policy arguments.

“I think one thing that is always consistent with the ANC is that they don’t often debate issues on the basis of policy, etcetera; it often is about people and personalities," Maimane said. "So if you criticize the ANC on any other matter, invariably that conversation will either be about about gender, about class, about age, about the discrimination that they face to people.”

Take, for example, this recent statement from the ANC youth league about DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko, which began: “DA’s Lindiwe lives in La-La Land.”

In the statement, the youth league picked on Mazibuko’s age, her upbringing and her rhetoric. They also said her party, which is led by a white politician, Helen Zille, is “liberal, racist and irrelevant.”

Khoza, the ANC spokesman, defended the youth league’s attack on Mazibuko - and said the ANC does not fear any threat to their dominance in 2014.

“We’re not afraid," he said  "If Lindiwe Mazibuko doesn’t make sense, what should we say?  When you say somebody’s nonsensical it means she does not make sense.  Why is that bullying when we say that she does not make sense?”

This is not the first personal attack Mazibuko has weathered: last year, an ANC minister took to the floor of parliament and called her a racial slur that implies that she is not black enough.
The DA’s Maimane warned that political rhetoric could lead to something more sinister.

“I fear that we’ve seen this trend in other political parties in Africa," Maimane said. "In fact, I can recall in other places, when, if you go Kenya, where, when an election party, especially a liberation movement, feels that they’ve lost relevance with people, suddenly the resort is actually towards race and towards actually being critical of opposition without any substance to the issue.”

Strong words, indeed-- and elections are more than a year away.