On Tuesday morning, reporters flocked to the Townhouse Hotel in Cape Town expecting to hear that South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), was on the brink of making a pivotal announcement.
Shortly after 10am local time, Helen Zille, the DA's leader, announced that Mamphela Ramphele, founder and leader of political party Agang SA, would stand as the DA's presidential candidate for the upcoming general election scheduled for April this year. This means the four most senior figures within the DA are women − the other two being Lindiwe Mazibuko, parliamentary leader, and Patricia de Lille, Mayor of Cape Town. This in itself is a milestone for political and gender progress in a country that suffers from extremely high levels of gender-based violence.
Zille and Ramphele have been friends ever since Zille, then a young journalist, exposed the death of Ramphele’s former partner, Steve Biko, by police torture. Ramphele had been a member of the Black Consciousness Movement founded by Biko, and since then has gone on to be a medical doctor, Managing Director at the World Bank, a prominent businesswoman in the mining industry, and Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town. Last year, she stepped clearly into the field of politics, and her and Zille have appeared to be of one mind on a number of issues.
Speculation had long been rife that Agang SA, which launched in February last year, were in co-operation talks with the DA which, according to Business Day, had reserved for one of its six places on the national election lists for Ramphele. The Agang SA leader herself recently enthused about the prospect of working with the DA, declaring that she would “absolutely consider a coalition.”
Confusing the picture, however, Zille and other senior DA members consistently abstained from officially confirming Ramphele’s inclusion on the lists; while Agang SA spokesman Thabo Leshilo rubbished claims of the party’s leader joining forces with the DA as “ridiculous and mischief-making.” Agang even went as far as sending round a press release on 26 January which implored its supporters to “ignore the speculation.”
Now, one day after the announcement, much remains unclear. Ramphele will be the DA's presidential candidate, but it is ambiguous if or how Agang SA and the DA will merge. Today, Agang SA stated on its Facebook page that the party will continue to exist, function and campaign as Agang SA. However, the statement admits that the agreement between the two parties hasn't been "worked out yet", leaving the door open for Agang SA to be subsumed by the DA. In media appearances thus far, Ramphele has chosen to avoid or dodge these questions rather than tackle them head on. This lack of clarity and non-consultative mode of operating has alienated and angered a number of Agang SA members, who have been airing their views across South African media and social media.
The merger of Agang SA and the DA, or at the very least unity among the top leaderships, makes political sense. Both parties are critical of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) from a broadly liberal market constitutionalist perspective and sit mainly to the right of the ANC in policy terms. But the idea of Ramphele and the DA joining forces made as much if not more sense a year ago, before Ramphele formed Agang SA. Indeed, she has been courted by the DA over the years and had been offered prominent party roles before.
Instead, she decided to go it alone, and less than a year later it is clear her independent project has failed. “Ramphele has overestimated her appeal to the South African public,” Martin Plaut, former BBC Africa Editor and co-author of Who Rules South Africa?, told Think Africa Press. “You can be a managing director of the World Bank but it doesn’t mean you can be a political leader. It's a completely different task."
Ramphele has tried to make a virtue out of "not being a politician", as she claims, but her political failings have damaged her credibility and therefore ability to achieve the lofty goals she has set for herself and South African society. In three core areas of political leadership − organisational development, team building and communication − she has fallen short.
Agang SA failed to raise enough funds to run a robust April election campaign. Just last week she was in London trying to court financial support, and it could be speculated that the failure of this last ditch attempt for cash led to the speed of the agreement announced yesterday by Zille and Ramphele. Indeed, Agang SA admitted that the announcement was a "shock" and represented an agreement reached just 24 hours before the announcement.
A political party − especially one that claims to focus on broad-based development and rural, grassroots engagement − also needs to develop a team of leaders, something Ramphele was unable to do. Before Agang SA was launched, it was speculated that she had attracted support from prominent figures such as Moeletsi Mbeki, businessman, commentator and brother of former President Thabo Mbeki; Jay Naidoo, former minister under Nelson Mandela and trade union leader; and Zackie Achmat, a prominent HIV activist. However, this proved to be just speculation, and in the end the Agang SA project looked too much like the Ramphele project. Events of the last two days have done little to dispel this view, with Ramphele taking a fairly undemocratic view towards her membership. In a radio interview yesterday, she said that "leaders have to make decisions" and Agang SA said in today's statement that whatever the technical committee for the DA and Agang SA merger decide will "be communicated to members." It looks like despite calls for a more democratic society, Ramphele does not run an especially democratic party.
Finally, Agang SA's communications have been troubled from the start. Originally, Ramphele did not launch the party, but the confusing concept of a "political platform." It was unclear exactly what this meant. Over the past year, it has been difficult to work out what the party concretely stood for; Ramphele gave speeches with powerful and detailed criticisms of the contemporary political-economic order under the ANC but was significantly more vague about what she would do about it. Agang claims that it has received insufficient media attention, but while it has not been in the news much in the last few months, the party received what is likely to be looked back on as disproportionately major coverage in the early months of 2013.
Ultimately, this incredibly impressive public figure is a less credible political figure one year after entering politics than one year before.
For the DA, signing up Ramphele is a coup they have long wished for. The party is trying to change its image from a party for White people and the Coloured communities of the Western Cape and Northern Cape to one that can represent all South Africans. Ramphele joining is another milestone in changing their image, and they hope that having a leader with anti-Apartheid 'struggle credentials' will counter the widespread perception among black voters that the DA would 'bring back Apartheid'. The DA hope may well be realised, but the short-term effect is likely to be small. The DA's future lies with its new young black leaders, such as Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mmusi Maimane, who came of age in the post-Apartheid era.
Without Ramphele, the opposition is nowhere near being in a position to challenge ANC electoral hegemony. But even with her, the DA should only add a percentage point or two. This falls a long way short of the "game-changing moment for South Africa" that the DA is claiming. Political change in South Africa is still more likely to come from within the ANC and its allies than from the slowly enlarging opposition, or from popular protest. Ramphele joining the DA is certainly big news for the party. But for South Africa, it probably isn't.
Update 3/2/14: This morning it was announced that Mamphela Ramphele would no longer stand as the DA’s presidential candidate. According to Helen Zille, Ramphele reportedly ‘reneged’ on the agreement at a meeting on Sunday evening where the two parties had convened to finalise the terms of the merger. Both parties have been bruised, but the long-term consequences are perhaps more serious for the smaller Agang SA. Zille is likely to endure some short-term damage but her party will remain South Africa’s strongest opposition to the ANC.
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For further reading around the subject see:
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