Johannesburg - Did you know that the Democratic Alliance had a bit of a racial confidence crisis recently? No, really, despite the macho, muscular tone of most senior DA politicians, behind the scenes some drama has been playing out. If you’re not a political voyeur, feel free to skip this column right now.
So it turns out that the DA and Mamphela Ramphele were closer to a deal than Bafana Bafana are to winning a tournament. The DA were so keen on the doctor that they were willing to start a new political party with her as party leader. In what one might call something of a post-post-apartheid script, Zille was going to be the silent white partner. Sounds like a scene from the DA’s future, right? What went wrong?
Ramphele became greedy. The DA was willing to give her its machinery, its resources, its credibility, its army of pollsters, its established brand and its top leadership spot. It was even willing to revisit some policies, but without necessarily shifting the core party’s philosophical principles.
But Ramphele, it would seem, got advised – wrongly, in my view – that the DA would be oh-so-lucky to have her. And so she started asking good friends in America to sponsor her some moola to start a new political party. That was not the end of the world just yet. After all, she would have to start a new party anyway, before she would then have faked negotiations, publicly, with the DA, which in turn was meant to end in their mutual dissolution and the new mega-party’s birth. Posters and T-shirts could yet be found by a good investigative journalist bearing testimony to a deal that was signed and sealed but, like textbooks in Limpopo, not delivered.
The problem is that Ramphele’s begging for resources for her new party rightly made Zille and others in her party suspicious, and so most of the trust between the respective negotiating teams was reduced to near zero. Ramphele, we now know, claims she “is not a joiner”. Truth be told, she was happy to be a joiner, through this complicated route, but for a last-minute conviction that the DA can come and join her.
One is tempted to see here the involvement of a brother of a former president of South Africa who was part of the negotiations. But he is now in the business of threatening lawsuits, so I had better rely on you, dear reader, to use your gift of interpretation at this point.
But here is the crux of today’s analysis. Why in the world was the DA willing to give up so much for someone with no constituency, no team, no resources, and no clear core political principles and signature ideas for a political context different to her student days some 40 years back?
Here is my hypothesis: the DA secretly wishes they could find a black Zille. Shame, man. For a party hell-bent on punting a meritocracy and chiding many of us for not being colour-blind, it is interesting that they would be willing to make such massive concessions with little guarantee of electoral returns on investing in Ramphele. They really are desperate for a credible, older black leader. It is Zille’s favourite dream. She is very comfortable with the possibility of playing second fiddle to a black leader. She just couldn’t find the right gogo or tatomkhulu until her good friend Ramphele became serious about active politics. And now, of course, things have soured, although conversation between them continues behind the scenes.
But why is the DA scared to admit publicly that they are pragmatic, if not principled, about identity politics? Affirmative action is not immoral, so they should quit the dithering. In fact, because they do not have the guts to embrace race-based affirmative action policies openly, honestly and with pride, they will continue to make this kind of almost mistake that happened here.
Ramphele is not an obvious vote catcher. Just listening to brilliant speeches last week in parliament by Lindiwe Mazibuko (truly deserving of the highest praise but for Oscar Pistorius dominating news), Mosiuoa Lekota (who rises to parliamentary occasion despite being a political apparition), Mangosuthu Buthelezi (who still pens a political phrase like no other local politician as if his mind refuses to accept he is an octogenarian) and Buti Manamela (who did a rhetorically awesome sweep job that sets him up for a cabinet reward soon), it is hard to see how Ramphele will translate intellect into popular speech during elections.
Fortunately for the DA, Ramphele’s greed turns out to be a blessing. Next time, the DA should handle their longing for a black leader in the top position more thoughtfully. Don’t rush it. Get it right.
* Eusebius McKaiser is best-selling author of A Bantu in My Bathroom. He is currently writing a book about the DA’s political prospects. He also hosts Talk At Nine on Talk Radio 702. Follow him on Twitter @eusebius