JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- James Mange has the same credentials sported by many in South African politics these days.
He joined the the African National Congress (ANC) as a teen-ager, then signed up for its liberation army Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). He was arrested on treason charges and spent more than a decade on Robben Island, the country's political Alcatraz.
But he also has something else -- dreadlocks. Mr. Mange, 40, a Rastafarian and successful reggae singer, is leading his own political party, the Soccer Party, into next week's elections.
He formed the Soccer Party with Neil Hellman, 33, a neighbor in his mainly white suburban Johannesburg community.
It is one of the many small parties that will provide South Africans with 19 choices on their national ballot. There are 26 parties in all, counting those running only regionally.
All have their name, their logo and a picture of their leader in full color on the ballot in the same size as those of Nelson Mandela and the ANC, and Frederick W. De Klerk and the National Party.
Some of these parties seem to be ego trips for their leaders, the political equivalent of a vanity press.
People such as Frances Kendall of the Federal Party and Claire Emary of the anti-tax Keep it Straight and Simple (KISS with red lips as its logo) get to show up on TV talk shows and in newspaper profiles.
Other parties are basically fund-raising devices for special-interest groups, as a $1,500 filing fee and 10,000 signatures can get you $70,000 in campaign funds. Parties representing the Portuguese community, Muslims, women's rights and such fit this category.
There are leftovers from the apartheid days, such as the Minority Front, run by Amichand Rajbansi. He was active in the PTC separate-and-unequal parliaments set up for mixed-race colored and Indians.
There are the die-hard ideologue parties, like the left-wing Workers' List Party.
But even the most cynical observers seem to have a soft spot for the Soccer Party and its don't-worry-be-happy approach to a political campaign known mainly for an intensity that too often turns into violence.
On the one hand, the party is a product of rather brilliant marketing with a name designed for a country that loves acronyms. "Soccer" stands for Sports Organization for Collective Contributions and Equal Rights.
Officials registered the party on the final night for signing up for the election, when TV cameras were there waiting for the big names. Thus its leaders, dressed in sports togs carrying soccer balls, were all over the news shows.
The black-and-white-paneled soccer ball became the party's logo and turned into a symbol of the new South Africa.
It suggested the need for black and white to work together, as the entire structure collapses if one part is removed.
Mr. Hellman acknowledges that the party resorted to gimmicks to get decent name recognition, but he contends that platform is now being used to spread a serious message.
"The difference between us and the other small parties is that they are all going after an exclusive group," Mr. Hellman said. "We wanted to emphasize the unifying aspects of society which we found in sport, music, the arts and culture -- things that cross all cultural barriers."
The idea was to help people cross the same barriers that Mr. Hellman and Mr. Mange did when they got to know one another at neighborhood gatherings.
They discovered that in spite of their disparate backgrounds, they had much in common: similar beliefs and aspirations and hopes for the new version of their nation.
"Like all white South African males, Neil was conscripted into the South African Defense Force," Mr. Mange said. "I was in MK. We were on opposite sides. We could have easily killed each other. But as destiny would have it, that didn't happen."
Mr. Mange said that he found barriers between people even on Robben Island.
"Rastafarians had been declared as counter-revolutionary by the ANC," he said, something that caused him to challenge the pre-conceptions of fellow inmates.
"Everything had been put into neat little stacks," he said. "I didn't fit into any of them. We need to accept the differences among ourselves, to break down the stereotypes and start looking at each other as fellow South Africans."
Not that Mr. Mange has anything against the ANC.
For one, it's against Soccer Party policy to criticize another party.
But Mr. Mange goes further, saying he's planning to vote for the ANC on his regional ballot since the Soccer Party is running only nationally.
His presence at the top of the ticket gives the Soccer Party not only the advantage of his recognizable hairstyle and reggae fame, but also genuine political credibility.
Those who follow South African protest politics know that he paid his dues.
His trial is still remembered for the way he stood up and talked back to his judge.
Originally sentenced to death in 1979, Mr. Mange became an international cause celebre, with the United Nations getting involved before his sentence was commuted. He was moved to Robben Island in 1980 and was finally freed in 1991.
Much has been made of the Soccer Party's call for the legalization of marijuana, something that can happen when a Rastafarian leads a political party. But, beyond that, the party's message of unity strikes a chord with a surprising number of people in such a deeply divided society.
Though it will depend on the turnout, each political party will probably get a seat in the new national assembly for every 40,000 votes.
That means there's a good chance that both Mr. Mange and Mr. Hellman could be in South Africa's new Parliament.
"Every party has to start somewhere. This is our start," Mr. Hellman said. "Besides, this is democracy now. Everyone should get their say."