Let’s be clear about the limits of what Helen Zille and Mamphela Ramphele have achieved, writes Vukani Mde.
When the Democratic Alliance and AgangSA announced on Tuesday morning that they would be making “an announcement of national importance”, I admit that my reaction was a bit sneering.
Why would a one-year-old, bankrupt “political party” that has had zero traction since its launch and an official opposition that has never managed to win more than 14 percent of the vote in any general election assume that anything they do is of national importance?
That was my first, almost instinctive reaction, but it was wrong. Because the announcement that they made did in fact mark something important for our national politics, though perhaps not quite what the two parties had in mind.
DA leader Helen Zille gushed that their announcement – which was that AgangSA leader Mamphela Ramphele had “accepted our invitation” to stand as the DA’s presidential candidate in the upcoming elections – was one step in the “realignment” of South African politics. Realignment is a goal that the DA has been pursuing virtually since its formation in 2000.
For her part, Ramphele hailed her move as a step towards South Africa reclaiming the “country of our dreams” of 1994, her favourite motif. Both were wrong. The leader of an empty shell of a party lending her black face to another which finds itself boxed in by its race limitations is not the sort of event that will redefine opposition politics, let alone redraw our entire political landscape.
If Tuesday’s announcement tells us anything of significance, it is this: the cul-de-sac towards which the opposition parties have been heading has now been reached. And this is in fact the significance of Agang’s short-lived existence. It has been clear for a while now that it’s standing-room-only in the opposition space to the right of the ANC, as the likes of the DA, Cope, Agang, UDM, IFP and countless others all jostle to oppose the ruling party and its alliance from a “constitutionalist” platform.
There is a dreary sameness to the message of all these parties, and South African voters can be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing to distinguish any of them except the personality quirks of their respective leaders. That is one of the reasons why Ramphele has failed to build any momentum for Agang, while Julius Malema, on the other hand, despite his obvious comparative inferiority as a leadership candidate, is riding the crest of a wave.
Interestingly, another press conference was to take place on Wednesday morning at the offices of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) in Newtown.
Nine Cosatu affiliates led by Numsa will deliver an ultimatum to the federation, currently rent down the middle over its relationship with the ANC, to convene a special national congress urgently. Failing this, Numsa has threatened a series of steps, starting with a march on Cosatu House next month, legal action to force the federation’s hand, and ultimately withholding its affiliation fees and seceding from the federation and forming a more radical-left labour alternative with like-minded unions.
Numsa has already resolved to explore the possibility of an independent workers’ party. If the process unfolding inside Cosatu is followed to its ultimate conclusion, as looks increasingly likely, that will be the significant realignment of South African electoral politics that everyone has been waiting for.
The 2014-2019 period will probably see far-reaching and much longer-lasting changes in our political landscape, driven by the fracturing of the ANC left, than the ever-shifting alliances that have played out on the right of our political spectrum.
That of course is not to suggest that what’s happening on the right is of no consequence, merely that it won’t redraw our political map. And both Agang and the DA are right to pursue any strategies they think might help them do better at the polls than they otherwise would.
The thinking behind Zille and Ramphele’s move seems to be this: the DA’s problem is that they need to do something big to attract significant black voter support, starting with the black middle class that we are told is “disillusioned” with the ANC under President Jacob Zuma. Agang’s problem is that it hardly exists as a party beyond Ramphele.
Marry the two and you have a potent brew to attract black voters.
Even if you accept the premise that a middle-class black voter faced with the choice between Ramphele and Zuma on the ballot paper would naturally choose the former – I don’t personally – you still have to reckon with the fact that such a voter is essentially being asked to vote for the DA, not Ramphele. That is still a hard sell for the majority of black people, regardless of whose face is on the ballot paper.
There are two reasons why this is the case. First, electoral politics in this country is still very much a game of identity, and voters’ choices are inextricably tied up with their sense of who they are; historically, culturally, linguistically, racially and by class.
Secondly, the DA’s policy platform in large part remains at odds with the interests of the black middle class. Few will have forgotten that the party tied itself in knots and nearly tore itself apart over its stance on BEE, with significant and powerful sections wanting a blanket rejection of all policies aimed at racial redress.
So let’s be clear about the limits of what Zille and Ramphele have achieved. And if you’re looking for signs of realignment in our politics, turn your eyes towards Newtown.
* Vukani Mde is Independent Newspapers’ oped and analysis editor.