Helen Zille and Mamphela Ramphele. Photo: Henk Kruger

Zille and Ramphele couldn’t have made more of a tragicomedy of DAgang if Shakespeare had written the script, writes Susan Booysen.


The six-day, three-round DAgang embrace-turned-wrestling-match is a contender for South Africa’s tragicomedy of the year. The spectacle of political mud-wrestling is the comedy. It thumped party and leader credibility. The tragedy, revealed in graphic detail, follows in the superficial political judgements of these supposed bearers of South Africa’s flame of multi-party democracy.

The public spectacle was surreal. Could someone turn back the clock and wash the mud from the faces of two of South Africa’s foremost party politicians? And then rinse away the evidence of the defective readings of voters and the electoral landscape.

The DA and AgangSA were hardly likely to rock South African politics come April, but the eminent leaders of two opposition parties (of different stature, to be sure) had been accepted as shrewd politicians, within their liberal sphere. Their parties helped keep the governing ANC on its toes.

Even if South African voters were not going to flood them with praise at the polls they added sincerity of critiques and concern for the fate of ordinary citizens to the political fight.

This has all but disappeared. They embarrassed themselves, their parties and their ideology – the unspoken liberalism that unites them across race and even gender. South Africans see the naiveté and miscalculations. The ANC could not have done a better job against DAgang itself.

For the sake of concise historic record, here is a stock-taking of highlights in the week of nightmares, Tuesday, January 28 to Sunday, February 2, before the analysis dissects the orgy of intersecting internal and external miscalculations.

It started when the two leaders opportunistically tried to convert their panic about electoral prospects and funding into a fusion that they tried to sell as the dawn of reinvigorated South African democracy.

First round: Poll panic about poor electoral prospects (both parties are affected by a series of opinion polls with dire implications for their electoral ambitions); “Mamp-Helen” resourcefully sensed an opening for a “historic announcement” to try to appropriate Nelson Mandela’s ethos. A mutually agreed DA-Agang statement followed, sealed with that curious kiss. Zapiro’s satirical cartoons were enacted in real-life photographs. In the post-mortem stage Zille also revealed that funders had pushed Agang.

Also, the marriage suited Zille – always in pursuit of the “voter demand” for “a strong and united opposition” (under DA auspices, it goes without saying) – like a glove.

Second round: A bizarre wake-up call in the “War of the Statements”. It dawned on the DA that it might end up with the leader of another party as its presidential candidate; Agang “leadership structures” rebelled. The imperious Ramphele alternated between proclaiming herself Agang leader and about to accept DA membership (and be DA “presidential candidate”). She later denied the validity of this statement.

Third round: The DA threw its toys out of the political cot and “Mampheeela” out of the phoney presidential candidacy. The blame game flourished. Zille played the card of having taken “calculated risks”.

Reports about internal fallouts and blow-ups in DA ranks bubbled up. Ramphele obstinately continued to reincarnate herself as the bearer of the legacy of the visionary Mandela. Every interview came with reference to something about Mamphela being like Mandela.

In relation to internal party politics, the dalliance revealed the parties’ own weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

The most incomprehensible of all is that the DA could, after its previous Mamphela encounters, believe that this time there could be a merger. How could the DA argue that it was not rushed into this “nationally important” announcement if the Agang party had not been consulted? How could Ramphele exercise the fiat of “visionary leadership” and not consult her party structures, minimal as they were?

Barefacedly, Ramphele equated her actions with those of Mandela’s initiatives to explore talks with his captors.

Were illusions of grandeur blinding her to historical events and the long process of consultations – even across high security prison walls – to proclaim that Mandela, like her, acted without consultation? Could a person with such historical myopia be relied on to carry history further? The DA basked in the glory of her statements.

On the broader political landscape, the fateful slimy soap opera reconfirmed that these parties to the right of the ANC (there is no black consciousness in Agang’s present-day makeup) are not the future of South African politics. The DA shared with us its superficial understanding of racial politics and the continued significance of race in South Africa. It head-hunted a “significant” black leader as its presidential candidate.

This would persuade, so argued Zille this week in a radio interview, South African voters that the DA would not bring apartheid back in should it step into power.

There are fragments of truth to this belief about the DA. My recent research into voter attitudes for Freedom House confirmed it.

The DA, however, was missing dense layers of subtext.

South Africans at election times still need a box into which they can put the memories (by now often related via parents’ and grandparents’ experiences) of South Africa’s brutal apartheid past. Whether it is Helen Zille’s DA or Tony Leon’s DP, this party is a useful depository.

Equally, many ANC supporters agree with the DA about its criticisms of ANC government. They believe that the DA does well as an opposition party.

The DA, however, lacks the pull to take voters away en masse from the ANC.

The ANC’s liberation symbolism – its instrumentality in ending apartheid – weighs heavily. Delivery shortfalls are massive, and corruption and party elitism alienate ANC voters.

But the level of transformation since 1994 under the ANC’s watch is substantial. The ANC will be rewarded come election time, even if it is just through abstention rather than voting DA or Agang.

Opinion polls are predicting bad news for the DA and dismal tidings for Agang SA.

The polls indicate that the DA’s ambition of 30 percent in Election 2014 is a pipe dream. Ditto for winning Gauteng. It needed a new buzz to bring its campaign to life.

Campaigns peak in the weeks from proclamation of the election to polling day, but the DA remains without a spark that might sway wavering ANC supporters.

Agang was dropping fast in public opinion polls, from an already low base.

Its 2013, 2 percent in the polls was the glorious peak; not the starting point for better fortunes.

Miscalculation of the political landscape was at its most pronounced at the point of the bogus DAgang projection of the historical coming together of the two opposition parties.

Allusions to a “game-changing moment” and “reclaiming Mandela’s democracy” abounded, before personal acrimony took over. Could parties that see Mandela-like reality in a minor, ill-considered and pretentious opposition event persuade voters to switch?

The (now-aborted) merger of two desperate parties – one fending off death; the other “renting a black” (in the words of the ANC) despite the fact that it has black members and leaders suited to the level of positions that are available in the DA – ended up as indictment instead of elevation.

When opposition-inclined voters air their desire for a strong and united alternative, it does not mean at all cost, without credibility and demonstration of sound leadership, and recognition that mopping up minor parties really does not count.


* Booysen is a professor at Wits University’s Graduate School of Public and Development Management and author of The African National Congress and the Regeneration of Political Power.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent