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)

It was almost certainly Mamphela Ramphele’s kiss of death while Helen Zille’s demise may be slower, says Max du Preez.

What was supposed to have been the launch of the Dream Team has become the beginning of the end of the political fortunes of two formidable public figures.

We’ll miss them, but the caravan will move on.

“That Kiss” was almost certainly Mamphela Ramphele’s kiss of death. Her only hope of playing a significant political role was to be the leader who would rearrange opposition politics after the elections, something many South Africans were willing her to do.

I can’t see that happening now. The nation saw her hug and kiss Helen Zille after the announcement that she would be the first name on the DA’s electoral list – they called it the party’s “presidential candidate”. A child of seven could have told Ramphele it would be impossible to be on the ballot paper of two political parties at the same election. And yet that’s what she is saying now was her understanding.

Zille’s political demise will probably be slower, but there can be little doubt that the Ramphele kiss has shortened her shelf life as DA leader.

Perhaps 2014/2015 is going to be the Year of New Leaders. I’m beginning to see real signs that Luthuli House is quietly preparing for the departure of No 1. The poor man is exhausted, they’re now saying.

The break-up after the DA/AgangSA one-night stand has created great excitement among the chattering classes. The conversations and remarks on social media, radio talk shows and elsewhere tell us a lot about who we are as voters.

But it would help to unpack fact from opinion.

First, it is clear Ramphele would not have approached Zille now for a form of co-operation (after resisting it for so long) if Agang was making real progress on the ground and had enough money to finance its campaign beyond March and April. It was Ramphele’s idea from the start to get elected to Parliament on her own steam with a good number of members and then engineer a new alignment of opposition parties.

Zille says Ramphele put a lot of pressure on her in recent weeks to announce a new deal and even forced the DA to bring forward the press conference.

Ramphele’s explanation that the political atmosphere had changed radically in the past year since she had declined a formal pact with the DA was nonsense.

Second, there can be no doubt any longer that Ramphele saw herself more or less as the beginning and end of Agang. She really thought she could simply wake up one day and become the poster girl of another political party and that her followers would just applaud her decision. She actually said at her press conference after the break-up: “I have learnt that you have to listen to your members.”

Third, it is clear Zille and most of her fellow DA leaders were desperate to showcase a senior, respected black leader with struggle credentials joining the DA in order to undermine the image that it was a white party fighting for white interests.

(A tweet by public personality Kay Sexwale after the breakup highlighted this perception well: the failed DA/Agang marriage “exposed the DA for what they are: a white party doing blackface”.)

I found it interesting that many of the same people who regularly criticise the DA for not having senior black leaders and advise the party to “transform from the top” accused the DA of “window dressing” and “renting a black” when they embraced Ramphele.

Fourth, if Ramphele had become the face of the DA on the ballot paper and brought most of her party along into an alliance or merger with the DA, it would indeed have been something of a game changer, as Zille had called the move.

In other words, if Ramphele hadn’t changed her mind after the fact, the DA could have become a real contender for power in the 2019 election. And most people would have congratulated Zille on a brilliant move.

The Ramphele disaster will probably help the DA to contemplate the issues of race and symbolism more fruitfully.

It was clear from the public responses that ordinary DA members, white and black, were mostly very excited about having someone like Ramphele on the party’s ballot paper, while most ordinary Agang members apparently thought it was a disaster.

It was also interesting to see that the die-hard old liberals in the DA hated the idea. They are still more interested in being an ideologically pure opposition party than a party that was making a really aggressive go at defeating the ANC at the polls.

* Max du Preez is an author and columnist.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Indepent Newspapers.

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