AgangSA leader Mamphela Ramphele hugs Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille. Its back to the drawing board for the DA after Ramphele pulled out of the alliance. File picture: Mike Hutchings

It’s back to the drawing board for the DA in its push to change its image to a party of diversity, writes Marianne Merten.

And AgangSA is left with the task of trying to piece togther the shards of its credibility.

The repercussions of South Africa’s short-lived party political engagement – clearly, the union sealed with a very public kiss was never fully consummated as the would-be partnership almost instantly soured – will play out for longer than the five days it existed.

There is an election in about three months’ time, and voters will ultimately decide on this debacle of a dalliance. The DA yesterday was determined to shrug off the failure of what it had initially described as a political “game changer” and a “historic” moment in the realignment of South Africa’s political landscape.

“We are now putting it behind us. Our job is to contest the elections... It’s time to begin the campaign,” said DA federal chairman Wilmot James, the party’s policy guru, who had a key role in brokering the ill-fated match with his AgangSA counterpart, Mills Soko.

Already the DA is touting its blue machinery, or organisational and logistical capacity, and “depth of leadership” as standing it in good stead to reach its 30 percent voter support target nationally.

The drive to show well at the polls in Gauteng under its premier candidate Mmusi Maimane is already under way, while in the Western Cape the DA is so confident it will remain in charge that DA leader Helen Zille has chosen to stand here as premier candidate.

For AgangSA the fallout of the failed political union, which its leader Dr Mamphela Ramphele described as a move from the “politics of identity”, poses pitfalls.

Negotiating these will require a delicate hand at the tiller if the party wants to overcome the U-turns by its leader, who had publicly agreed to head the DA election ticket as its presidential candidate, without consulting members and, apparently, in contravention of her party’s constitution, before throwing her lot fully back into AgangSA’s fold.

Here the spin would be that the grassroots AgangSA structures, particularly in Gauteng and the Western Cape, and its youth wing, brought Ramphele back in line by reminding her that deals could not be struck without the support of members, who joined AgangSA precisely because it was not the DA.

On Monday Zille and Ramphele respectively put on their poker faces. Zille said it had been a mistake which, once recognised, needed to be put in the past as the party moved on in its quest to provide a united opposition which, as its polls indicated, the voters wanted.

Ramphele said there had not been enough time to work out the details, before picking up the refrain she had sung since launching AgangSA after rejecting the DA for the first time in 2012: AgangSA would be the political home for the “millions of South Africans who will never vote for the DA”. Becoming a DA member to see her dream of a move away from race-based party politics was just a step too far for Ramphele, who, unlike Zille, yesterday left the door open for a future arrangement.

Questions remain for all involved, regardless of the spin and public admissions that the match was in trouble even before its public announcement last Tuesday.

How could Ramphele forget the basic lessons of Politics 101: know your party’s constitution, get your members’ support and think through the consequences even if you are under pressure financially and organisationally?

Will an apology for her error of judgement allow the activist, academic, businesswoman and one-time World Bank managing director to hit the AgangSA election campaign trail with her head held high?

How will the DA now handle its self-created campaigning mess over having a presidential candidate?

A cloud will hang over any candidate its federal executive may yet agree on with a two-thirds majority: Why wasn’t he or she good enough in the first place so the DA did not have to go out to another political party?

This question will be magnified if the next DA presidential candidate is black.

By generating such a fictional presidential race with Ramphele, a high-profile credible black woman leader with Struggle credentials on its ticket, the opposition DA had clearly hoped to pull in black voters disenchanted with the governing ANC and its president, Jacob Zuma, who remains under the shadow of the public outcry over the R208 million taxpayer-funded security spending at his Nkandla rural homestead.

“Being black in South African politics today is a powerful message, but Ramphele has been a leader in many, many institutions, she has a worldwide reputation as an academic, a doctor and a manager. She is also black and that is a very powerful combination,” said Zille, adding that it was a combination of those factors which carried the day for her party.

However, a self-styled presidential contest is little more than an electioneering stunt as under South Africa’s constitutional democracy, the president is elected by a majority in the National Assembly.

Given that few doubt the ANC will again return to power nationally – Ramphele never stood a chance after the hustings closed.

Did Zille and Ramphele rush the agreement amid a misunderstanding that the modalities of the deal required the death of AgangSA? Given the DA’s successful track record of gobbling up other opposition parties, there should never have been any doubt of the ultimate outcome.

Opposition parties in Parliament have talked for some three years of forming a united front even outside the national legislature, but these talks were stillborn after the DA’s demand for dual membership was roundly rejected by the others who were only too aware that dual membership was the end of the road.

It was used to merge the New National Party (NNP) with the Democratic Party to form the DA in the early 2000s – although NNP leader Marthinus van Schalkwyk some years later negotiated a divorce and subsequently merged with the ANC, the DA retained much, if not most, of the old Nat election support – and, more recently, with the Independent Democrats.

ID leader Patricia de Lille became Cape Town mayor in the 2011 local government elections on the DA ticket, after bringing her support which for the first time clinched an outright win, as her own ID ceased to exist at municipal level. It will vanish in the forthcoming provincial and national elections.

With the unravelling of last Tuesday’s ill-fated deal, AgangSA is left to fight for survival and, maybe, to disprove pollsters’ lukewarm predictions of a one to four percent showing come this year’s election date. For the DA, despite the emergence of young, energetic black African leaders in the top executive ranks in various structures of the party, the question of how to deal with race in its politics remains.

* Marianne Merten is the Cape Argus’s senior political correspondent.

Cape Argus