AgangSA founder Mamphela Ramphele and DA leader Helen Zille File picture: Cindy Waxa

For most, it’s better the “devil” they know than a white party, even when it has rented a few black faces, says Makhudu Sefara.

Johannesburg - On July 15 last year, The Star published a news story about Sam Mpe, a resident of Disteneng, outside Polokwane, a place described in the piece as “squalid” and whose houses are made of cardboard and zinc.

His story was published following a visit to Disteneng by ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa. Mpe stood out because, unlike many, he was not star-struck.

The story, by colleague Moloko Moloto, states that Mpe walked away from those who mobbed Ramaphosa, saying: “All of you (politicians) have in-house toilets for s***, and we must resort to the bush.”

Moloto then asked Mpe if he would vote this year, to which Mpe said he would stick to the “better devil” and vote for the ANC again.

Then for the killer quote: “I can’t vote for the white woman (Helen Zille), she will finish us off. Our people were killed in the past.”

A few crucial things are important to note. Mpe is a poor black, staying in an informal settlement. He is unhappy with the ANC. He considers it “the devil” he knows. And yet, his poverty, the ignominy of relieving himself in the bush and the ANC’s general failure to restore his dignity are not enough for him to consider Zille’s DA as an option in the upcoming elections. Why?

The fact of Zille’s sex, which gets a mention in Mpe’s quote, seems to be a problem. That she is white removed her completely as an option for him.

So, in the end, race, as Steve Biko once said, is still an important determinant in South African politics.

This week, Mamphela Ramphele, the soon to be former leader of AgangSA, and Zille, the DA’s leader, attempted to downplay identity politics as they announced that Ramphele will become the DA’s presidential candidate. Transcendental politics, they suggested, was what the “game-changing” announcement was about. Race-based politics is a thing of the past, they agreed.

Big mistake.

The reason Ramphele is facing a rear-guard battle within Agang is principally because those she led, although, like Mpe, displeased with the ANC, find the DA a white party they can’t associate with. This goes to the nub.

Agang’s leader in Limpopo, Pule Monama, said: “The DA and I have different reasons for fighting the ANC.” At the press conference to denounce Ramphele’s decision in Joburg, another Agang leader, Donald Tontsi, said: “I am allergic to the DA …”

It does not matter to Mpe – and those like him – how many times Zille says she believes in democracy and that she exposed the Nats’ lies about Steve Biko’s killing. In his eyes, Zille “will finish us off. Our people were killed in the past.”

Some of us have long bought into the idea of a Rainbow Nation, so much so that we seek self-assuring evidence in order to justify our beliefs. When the Blue Bulls play rugby in Soweto, when white people attend Bafana Bafana games, when we all cry buckets over the passing of Nelson Mandela, we look at ourselves and imagine the Rainbow Nation achieved.

Yet, after Mandela’s funeral or when the games have ended, we retreat to our realities that remind us of where we come from and how that racist past still ensures that some thrive when others endure. In truth, though, we remain deeply divided.

However good Mandela was, his white neighbours couldn’t bring themselves to vote for him when he was alive. Why? Is it not convenient to cry buckets when he passes, but fail to do the things for which he was almost killed? Inequality blights our democracy, yet those who cried for Mandela will need to be threatened with punitive legislation to do something about it.

The reason unionist Joseph Mathunjwa is a guy to interview these days is because he has mobilised workers against – well, wait for it – white monopoly capital.

The reason Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters gain traction among the angry, restless poor is because he talks about the endurance of economic injustice by people like Mpe, the black poor.

The reason police commissioner Riah Phiyega is able to address thousands in Tzaneen, after they stormed the satellite police station in protest over police brutality and service delivery, during office hours is because they have no work to go to. All of them are black.

The reason the ANC’s Jacob Zuma will win the upcoming elections is that Ramphele is now trapped in what Mpe – and the many Agang leaders who resist joining the DA – perceives to be a white party.

A UN report published in The Star this week says nearly 3 million girls, in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, are married by the time they reach 15. To reduce this number by 500 000, governments need to ensure all girls complete primary schooling. The number of saved girls improves to 2 million if all girls complete secondary education. Any guesses as to their race?

Why then would identity politics not matter to them? Ramphele and Zille are deceiving themselves.

But will the fact that Ramphele – and not Zille – is the face of the DA change, say, Mpe’s mind about the DA? This trick will fool only a few, especially those who are tired of Zuma’s scandals. The DA needs to fully embrace transformation and not just blackify, if you will, the ballot to see if the trick translates into meaningful gains.

Given where we come from as a country, it will take much more than Ramphele’s somersault, much more than Zuma’s known gaffes, for people like Mpe to muster the courage – for that is what is needed – to vote for a party they know to be white – even if they agree with many of its policies. It’s shameful. Yet that is where we are as a country.

The politics of our identity will not be wished away by Ramphele and Zille’s marriage of convenience. If you are in denial about how deep-rooted the racial divide is, you will remain surprised why South Africans continue to vote for Zuma, even when they know he is taking them for a ride when he splashes out R208m at his home and treats the Guptas like royalty.

For most, it’s better the “devil” they know than a white party, even when it has rented a few black faces.

The Rainbow Nation is an ideal to work towards. Significant milestones have been reached. There is progress in our nation-building. Yet we mustn’t deceive ourselves into thinking we are what we are not – a united nation.

For Zille and her team to think putting a black face without fundamentally transforming the content and structure of the DA is sufficient, is to make an important statement about the minds of black people from whom they expect increased support.

Yet, what are the other options for those tired of Nkandlagate?

It’s a hard choice for the South African voter. You either accept Zille’s insult or Zuma’s mis-leadership. Twenty years into democracy, the choices ought to be better than this, especially for those who live in cardboard and zinc houses.

* Makhudu Sefara is editor of The Star. Follow him on Twitter @Sefara_Mak

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