South African anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele, left, greets Helen Zille, right, the head of the South African Democratic Alliance political party during a press conference in Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. The former anti-apartheid activist who was close to Steve Biko and was a World Bank executive merged her party Tuesday with South Africa's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, and will be its presidential candidate, challenging the ruling African National Congress whose popularity has eroded amid corruption scandals and other problems. (AP Photo/ Nardus Engelbrecht)

The plot leading up to the DA, Agang merger reads like an edge-of-the-seat thriller, but whether it will work is anybody’s guess, writes Craig Dodds.

For months, low-key talks between representatives of the DA and AgangSA ahad yielded nothing after a first attempted deal fell through a year ago.

Then, even as the DA put the finishing touches to its lists of candidates for the coming elections, a flurry of confidential meetings between AgangSA founder Mamphela Ramphele and key DA players culminated in a final offer: the top spot on the list for the struggle stalwart-turned businesswoman-turned politician as the main opposition party’s “presidential candidate”.

But Ramphele continued to waver and the DA went into the meeting of its federal executive last Friday, where its lists were finalised, unsure of whether she would agree.

DA leader Helen Zille had no choice but to make the case for the Ramphele deal without being able to tell the party top-brass it was in the bag.

Nevertheless, the majority of the roughly 40-member “fedex” backed her and the slot was reserved for Ramphele, according to DA chairman of the federal executive James Selfe.

Another senior DA leader said talks with Ramphele had intensified and continued over the next few days, right up to the last minute before the announcement was made.

Ramphele was a guest speaker at the launch of a biography of DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko last Thursday and observers noted the two, and Zille, who also attended, were especially “chummy” on the night.

But the senior DA leader said the “heightened energy” culminating in the deal had come only after that night.

The talks had long been stuck on two main questions: firstly, Ramphele had insisted all along that under any deal, both the DA and AgangSA should appear on the ballot paper as separate entities.

But the DA position was that in South Africa’s proportional representation system it was impossible to carve up the vote under some sort of co-operation agreement.

In the DA’s view, each party had an interest in every vote.

“So what we had to do was get to an agreement that only one entity can compete in the election. And that was the one difficult issue we had to get over,” the DA source said.

The second major sticking point was the candidate lists.

With the DA process already nearing completion after having passed through its provincial structures and following rigorous vetting and interviews, it was impossible to insert more names from AgangSA without undermining the credibility of the system.

These issues were resolved only at the last minute. After the announcement, the DA said this week no more AgangSA candidates would be added.

For almost a year before the dramatic developments of last weekend, DA federal chairman Wilmot James and AgangSA policy guru Mills Soko had been meeting roughly every fortnight, according to two DA sources, for “low-key” meetings where they “tested ideas” and communicated these to their principals.

But these talks led nowhere, until, after the death of Nelson Mandela in December last year, Ramphele began to show renewed interest in a deal.

She has said his death demanded new thinking. But two other factors were also nudging her to cut a deal.

While some reports of a cash crunch in AgangSA were exagerrated, according to the senior DA leader, much of the speculation was correct. “She faced the prospect of running an election campaign without having enough money.”

As AgangSA had never held a congress to set up proper party structures, it was essentially a one-person operation, with Ramphele having to do her own fundraising, running a campaign and making decisions without any support mechanisms.

She was also turned down by potential donors, who told her the AgangSA message was the same as that of the DA.

“You can imagine; she goes and sees a donor and the donor says, ‘What do you think you’re doing, you’re two parties and I’m not going to give you money unless you work with the DA.’ Now that story was repeated again and again.”

On top of this it was becoming increasingly clear to both parties that the AgangSA campaign was fizzling out.

Internal DA research had AgangSA getting less than 2 percent and Ramphele was absent from the news cycle.

While she had initially been disbelieving of these figures, she began to realise they were right.

Now Ramphele took the initiative, meeting senior figures in the DA including James, Mazibuko, Patricia de Lille and Zille.

As the new year began, talks had become “quite intense” and it was clear Ramphele was serious about a deal.

“That’s when Helen made her the offer to be presidential candidate,” the DA source said.

Selfe said the DA’s management committee had been kept abreast of developments, so it had not come as a “big surprise” to him when Zille made her plea for Ramphele.

“The case she made was for the inclusion of Dr Ramphele as the presidential candidate, who would then take the number one slot on the national list, if she accepted, and that decision was taken with the requisite majority,” Selfe said.

The plan had been to keep the possible deal a secret until all the details had been ironed out, but it had leaked by the Sunday, according to the DA source.

With the cat now out of the bag, Ramphele had two choices: call the whole thing off and face probable humiliation at the polls, or accept the DA’s terms and hope to persuade her own party of its merits afterwards.

Ramphele could not be reached for comment.

Pretoria News Weekend