Though Mamphela Ramphele’s move is unlikely to change the outcome of the elections, the DA’s new business plan may turn out to be a good investment after all, writes Mcebisi Ndletyana.
Johannesburg - Nothing is impossible in politics! Mamphela Ramphele joining the DA has reaffirmed this truism. The denials over the weekend were so fierce as to suggest the Agang spokesman took offence at the mere suggestion. It turns out the indignation was fake or was it? Either way, Ramphele’s co-option is telling.
It’s tempting to cast aspersions on her integrity. After all, she had repeatedly maintained she’s not a “joiner”. Now she has done exactly that, and even sealed it with a kiss, mcwaa, on national TV nogal.
Some of her supporters won’t spare her their scorn, but this twist is as revealing of our national politics as it is of Ramphele.
Agang’s demise is a useful starting point. The party never gained traction. Its growth had hinged on building a leadership collective and organisational network. Neither materialised.
Prominent people who’d professed a keenness to be part of Agang never pitched. Ramphele was dumped, for instance, to face the media alone at the press conference announcing the launch of the party.
Even that event, which was meant to herald a “game-changer” was a hurriedly organised affair. Her purported co-founders based in Joburg never made sufficient preparations, but deserted her instead.
So, why was Ramphele eventually left alone? It could be the supposed co-founders changed their minds – they decided that a new opposition party was not such a good idea, after all.
Financial interests may have had more to do with the change of mind than a dispassionate intellectual reflection.
Folk fear reprisal especially if their livelihood depends on public employment, doing business with the state or they need the ruling party’s help to strike deals elsewhere. Ramphele is among the few self-sufficient public figures. Opposing the ANC didn’t threaten her livelihood. But it is a threat to others.
What was intended to be a mass-based party, led by a collective of leaders, eventually became a patron-based party. Ramphele was Agang.
The way it’s now dying is not surprising. It is consistent with the life of the party. Agang had no elected leaders, but volunteers and members led by the founder.
As the founder, Ramphele doesn’t seem to have thought it necessary to consult. I suppose the absence of elected leaders rendered consultation a nuisance.
If this is true, then Ramphele and her new party face serious challenges.
Lack of consultation suggests Ramphele might have personalised Agang’s support – that the support was for her, not attracted by the ideas or what the party represented. Patrons are wont to believe that loyalists follow them wherever they go.
Ramphele does not hold the same appeal now as leader of the DA as she did as founder of Agang.
The two parties had contrasting meanings.
And, Ramphele knew that. That’s why she refused to join the DA.
The party suffers from a credibility crisis among black folk. Agang support is not necessarily transferable to the DA.
If not Agang membership, what then does Ramphele bring to the DA?
She brings the promise of credibility and possibly new supporters, and the likelihood of more funds for the party.
Ramphele’s membership adds more than colour to the party. Granted, Mmusi Maimane does make the DA look somewhat cool, but Ramphele, because of her political pedigree, could legitimise the party’s claim to non-racialism.
Whether she does eventually legitimise the party, however, depends on how well the party lives up to its new image.
Some DA members don’t like black people – the conservatives Tony Leon wooed with the promise to “Fight-B(l)ack”. Who knows what they might say.
In fact, the party has just fired a councillor at the Nelson Mandela Metro for circulating a racist e-mail. It’s difficult to project a progressive face when party leaders spew racist comments now and then.
Racial equity does not seem to enjoy unanimous support in the party. It may be party policy, but it’s still heavily contested.
Some DA members are simply bent on denying the saliency of race in our society.
Race is a sensitive matter to the highly sought-after black middle class.
They are beneficiaries of racial equity and are at the coalface of racism in the workplace.
The private sector doesn’t inspire confidence on this score. There seems to be a concerted resistance to racial equity.
To be credible, therefore, Ramphele’s presidential candidature must be accompanied by supporting rhetoric and policy advocacy.
The onus is on the DA to prove itself. It has to entice the black middle class away from the ANC.
This is no easy task. Sure these “clever blacks” are not happy with the ANC president using 40 percent of their monthly salaries to build a luxurious kraal and that he’s in the habit of offending on a regular basis.
This infuriates them, but they still trust the ANC to fight for their interests. ANC officials may not use the most polished language that pleases middle-class sensibilities, but they put their point across and uncompromisingly.
Can the DA be trusted to fight for the black middle class just as the ANC has been doing?
This is the question whose answer determines the future of the DA. It may be tricky especially for Ramphele. She doesn’t do the black solidarity thing well.
She casts herself as a racially transcendent figure. We do need to transcend race, but we need not do it in a manner that suggests race doesn’t matter now.
This smacks of the sort of denialism that makes “clever blacks” go mad.
This means developing a language that both reassures the party’s traditional white base and inspires its intended black recruits. Not the prevarication we just saw recently. This will be a delicate balance to strike.
The DA also has its fair share of hotheads who’re likely to veer off the script. I don’t envy Helen Zille.
It has a good problem though. Ramphele brings great promise.
Apathetic white-voters may get off their sofas to vote for it. With Ramphele at the helm, voting DA no longer feels like a wasted vote.
The party has the potential to grow, which is sufficient to get apathetic voters to the polls.
And, pockets of reluctant donors will likely loosen up because Agang and DA policies are not too dissimilar.
Funders were possibly reluctant to fund them separately because they were unlikely to register optimal impact. Now the DA makes for a good investment in the future of multi-party politics.
Zille may just turn out be an astute leader. Ramphele’s co-option got off to a promising start.
Zille is comfortable with Ramphele’s face on the ballot-paper. The toughest challenge will come after the elections when the party decides on positions.
Unbridled ambition is a dangerous thing for a party and the DA is full of it.
This may not be the “game-changer” the DA promises, but we’re certainly in for exciting times.
* Ndletyana is head of Political Economy Faculty at MISTRA
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers