The state of the opposition

RW Johnson says Mamphela Ramphele's entry into politics is an accident waiting to happen

The news that Mamphela Ramphele is to launch her own party in order "to save her country" has been bruited for some time, the launch having apparently been delayed by her wish to obtain the public backing of Desmond Tutu and sundry other worthies in civil society. No doubt the news comes as something of a disappointment to the DA leader, Helen Zille, who has reportedly tried hard to recruit Dr Ramphele to the DA, even to the point of offering her the party leadership.

Ramphele is believed to have raised $20 million in the USA from backers worried that South Africa could become a failed state. At the same time, Ms Zille has launched the project of the possible unification of opposition parties into a broader anti-ANC front.

Meanwhile, COPE, once the great hope of those longing for an alternative to the ANC, is in an advanced state of implosion. It is unclear what, if anything, will be left of it after the 2014 elections. Meanwhile, it seems now to be accepted that Ms Zille will step down as party leader by the time of the next DA congress.

All these developments pose questions about the nature and prospects of opposition in South Africa.

Ramphele: An accident waiting to happen

First, Ramphele. She is a striking figure and has shown both courage and perception in her often biting criticisms of the ANC government, particularly its failings in education. She has also quite rightly taken aim at South Africa's bizarre electoral system which removes all accountability to voters from MPs and hands all power to the party bosses. Yet a cursory glance at her career suggests that her political initiative is an accident waiting to happen.

Though born in Polokwane (in 1947 - she is 66 this year) Ramphele has no regional base there and is better known in the salons of Sandton and Clifton than in Mokopane (Potgietersrus) or Makhado (Louis Trichardt). Politically, this has been the base of Julius Malema and Cassel Mathale. This is not a good start: a regional base is vital to anyone challenging those in power.

Chris Hani and Bantu Holomisa had the Eastern Cape, Buthelezi and Zuma had KwaZulu-Natal, Helen Zille has the Western Cape. South African politics is a rough game and opposition players badly need a base where they are loved and appreciated and where their political predominance gives them at least some patronage to dispense. Thabo Mbeki's greatest weakness was that he never managed to build a regional base: when he was challenged he had nothing on which to fall back.

Secondly, look at Ramphele's career. She was appointed Vice-Chancellor of UCT in 1996. Prior to this she had been catapulted into a variety of research and administrative posts at the university in the 1980s as the imperatives of having a black woman in such positions sank in, but she had never held a routine teaching position in what was, after all, the principal business of the university.

She thus illustrated very clearly the problems deriving from talented Africans being rapidly and affirmatively promoted to positions in which her symbolic presence was what counted. Such a quasi-career is a very poor preparation for the real thing and, not surprisingly, her career as VC was not a success. It was only four years long, the shortest time any VC has stayed at UCT.

It is easy now to find senior UCT academics who say that it took UCT seven years to recover from Ramphele. To a man (or woman) they had welcomed Ramphele's appointment but were horrified at what they describe as her failure to listen to advice. The decision most often pointed to was the amalgamation of all the arts and social sciences into one giant faculty, bigger than a whole university like Rhodes.

Ramphele was warned that this posed enormous administrative problems, would take years, and that only one man had the skills necessary to such a job. He, however, was ruled out on simply racial grounds (he was white). The whole job had to be done post-haste and, in typical New South African style, it was given to someone who ticked the right ethnic boxes but who was an inexperienced administrator.

The result was, of course, a complete disaster. Many saw in such failures the result of an autocratic, even arrogant management style. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that Ramphele's academic career had insulated her from the university's central educational concerns and she was simply very poorly equipped for her task.

Meanwhile - educated black women were at a premium - Ramphele had been approached to be chairperson of the Independent Development Trust. The IDT was a unique and invaluable organization. Set up by the Nationalists with an independent board and constitution, the IDT had not millions but billions in the bank and was dedicated to carrying our development projects among poor South Africans.

There was no other body remotely comparable with it and its success in delivering electrification, irrigation and community projects to poor South Africans meant that increasingly it had also attracted funding from the EU and other major donors.

There were two flies in the ointment. First, being chair of the IDT was a full-time job, as was being VC of UCT. Nonetheless, Ramphele accepted both offers - which meant, of course, that she could do full justice to neither.

Second, the ANC was horrified by the notion of a body quite independent of itself handing out development projects - and thus patronage - to the poorest of the poor. Such a body had to be under government and ANC control. Accordingly, Thabo Mbeki and Essop Pahad exerted strong pressure on Ramphele to hand the IDT over to the government.

Within IDT all the professionals hoped against hope that Ramphele would resist such pressures, for they had no illusions as to what would happen if Mbeki got his way. They had every reason to hope, for the IDT had money in the bank, plenty of donors, an independent constitution and independent trustees. All Ramphele had to do was say No. But Ramphele gave way.

The IDT was handed over to government and ANC cadres were soon deployed to run it with the inevitable consequences. Soon, nobody was doing the same development projects for the poor. Developmentally, it was a disaster. Within the world of development professionals Ramphele is remembered as the woman who destroyed the IDT.

But by 2000 Ramphele had moved on to become a Vice-President and managing director (one of many) of the World Bank, for the Bank felt the same politically correct imperatives about appointing black African women. Bank insiders said that "within weeks" it was clear that the Bank's President, James Wolfensohn, had made a mistake - and that he knew it. The problem was that Ramphele was too senior in the Bank "for anyone to cover for her". Within a short while it became clear that when her contract came to an end, it would not be renewed. She left the Bank in 2004; again, just four years in post.

Thereafter, Ramphele did the obvious thing, returning to South Africa to cash in on her BEE credentials, getting appointed to many boards and becoming a very rich woman.

It is worth noting that at UCT, the IDT and the World Bank Ramphele's career was something less than successful and that her impact on all three institutions was widely viewed as negative or nugatory. In light of this history Helen Zille's attempts to invite her into the DA's leadership appear quixotic, even suicidal.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that Ramphele is a political naïf and, like so many beneficiaries of affirmative action, she may have come to believe that her acquisition of so many leading posts and positions has nothing to do with the symbolic importance of her being a black woman and everything to do with her own prodigious talents. In fact, as one reviews her career, one feels that the kindest conclusion may be that she has simply been way out of her depth almost all the time.

It goes without saying that a political party launched by such a person has a very short life expectancy. The most she can hope for is, like Patricia de Lille, to be a one election wonder, drawing support from the bien pensants in comfortable suburbs who are always wishfully hoping for some sort of Rainbow miracle. But probably even that is beyond her, for De Lille did at least have some sort of regional [IF1] base among her fellow Coloureds and it is difficult to espy any equivalent for a Ramphele party.

At her first election Ramphele will be 67. Four years seems to be about her limit in any job, but let us imagine she lasts until a second election, when she will be 72. Is she really going to spend her 70s banging on in the wilderness as head of a small Opposition party? Or is her launch of her own party really just a vanity project because she's bursting to say a few things and wants to be captain of any ship she sails in?

An opposition alliance?

The other great canard haunting the scene is the notion of a great Opposition alliance or coalition of Opposition parties. To the extent that this is about Opposition parties allying together to present a united front in an electoral contest with the ANC, it is simply nonsense. There are, happily, more and more voices raised against our appalling electoral system but while we have it, the entire dynamic of proportionalism is against such coalitions or alliances.

Under our current system a party needs to win only 0.25% of the vote in order to gain entry into Parliament. In practice, because bits and pieces of the vote are wasted on no-hopers, you probably need only 0.2%. With the bar so low there will always be a temptation for someone like Ramphele to launch her own party.

For the same reason the way for the Opposition to maximize its vote is for it to present the electorate with the widest possible menu of choice so that every taste is catered for. Having thus gained the maximum amount of support, the Opposition is free to make alliances after the election - which is just the way in which the DA has come to power in Cape Town and countless other municipalities. This is what makes it so surprising that Helen Zille has been pushing the idea of a great Opposition alliance: she knows better. For an example of what you get, look at KwaZulu-Natal in 2004, where the DA ran in alliance with the IFP.

Among Africans this played right into the hands of the ANC which insisted that the IFP was now sold out to white interests, so the IFP vote fell. But simultaneously DA voters were horrified that alliance with the IFP meant acceptance of Zulu chiefly rule and the provincial capital in Ulundi, not Pietermaritzburg. So the DA vote fell too: the worst of both possible worlds. Had the IFP and DA run separately they might have held or increased their vote and could then have made a post-election pact.

Transpose that onto Parliament. The DA puts down its motion of No Confidence in Zuma. It would, surely, be supported by the IFP, UDM, ACDP, PAC and COPE. Let us imagine the Ramphele party also gets into Parliament: we have had the Xhosa and Zulu Nostra, so let us call them the Ramphele mafia, or Raffia for short. No doubt they would support it too. That is, in effect the Opposition coalition already exists. All that Helen Zille can do by trying to federate it on a pre-election basis is to harm it. So, nonsense enough.

The death of hope?

Where then does this leave the Opposition? Perhaps a little unwisely Helen Zille has greatly talked up the notion that the ANC will lose power in the 2019 election. One cannot but note that she almost certainly does not expect to be the DA leader at that point and is thus making a prediction for which she will not be accountable. One also suspects that the real point of such scenarios is to hold out some sort of hopeful future for DA voters who are beginning to suspect that they will soon be living in a failed state.

One understands the motive: hope has become a difficult quantity for many South Africans. Under apartheid there was always hope, for it seemed clear that such a crazy and inhuman system couldn't possibly last - so one could look forward to a future in which colour and race no longer counted. However, with the death of apartheid, after a brief and misleading euphoria, came the slow death of hope. Not only were considerations of race and colour endlessly re-introduced but, above all, what loomed ahead was an apparently indefinite future - "until Jesus comes" - of corrupt and authoritarian ANC rule.

I have a sort of private index in such matters. When Kwame Nkrumah's CPP won power in Ghana it was strongly supported by the left and many British Communists went out to work in the new black state, eager to support this evidently progressive regime. However, the regime was clearly autocratic, detained people without trial and was no friend of press or academic freedom.

This worried some of us but our Communist comrades were quick to assure us that these were merely "bourgeois" freedoms and that complaining on this score was just whingeing by the old coastal bourgeoisie - men such as JB Danquah and Kofi Busia. But the progressive regime was also spectacularly corrupt and one minister, Krobo Edusei, went so far as to exhibit his ill-gotten gains by having a bed made for himself of solid gold.

The British tabloids made great play of this golden bed and our Communist comrades had a difficult time insisting that this was merely a red herring and that one golden bed, more or less, made little difference to the Ghanaian revolution. Then the army threw Nkrumah out. Our Communist comrades were furious and insisted that we organize demonstrations in favour of Nkrumah.

With difficulty, it had to be pointed out that not even Ghanaians were staging such demonstrations, that people had cheered in the streets at the news of Nkrumah's downfall, and that nobody at all wanted back a regime which talked left but in practice went in for golden beds.

Such memories came flooding back as I watched the extraordinary spectacle of Blade Nzimande's SACP defending - even demonstrating in favour of - the grotesque spending on Zuma's compound at Nkandla. There is, after all, no doubt that Zuma is in effect building an alternative Zulu monarchy where a septuagenarian chief disports himself amongst his many wives and dependants.

As the FNB's abortive adverts made clear, this ghastly excess has made a strong impact even on young black teenagers. This, I realized, was our golden bed. And just as the Communists were effectively in favour of Comrade Krobo Edusei's unorthodox sleeping arrangements, so now Blade, Cronin and all our progressive comrades are in favour of the Nkandla royal kraal. Golden bed viva! Long live our national democratic Nkandla royal kraal! Down with monogamy! Let the comrade maidens perform a reed dance for Zuma!

The spectre of 2019

It is not too difficult to extrapolate. Helen Zille would have us believe in a DA-led opposition victory in 2019 but it is at least as easy to believe that by 2024 we shall be celebrating the second election victory of President Zweli Mkhize with a special parliamentary debate over whether the national capital should not be removed from Pretoria to Durban, with Parliament to be re-located from Cape Town to Empangeni. Deputy President Nzimande, who has decided to eschew the usual Mercedes 600 in favour of a Lamborghini as his official car, will preside at a special ceremony in Cape Town cathedral - the last before it is closed - in which Cde Cronin will give a special reading of his poem "On Reed Maidens, the redistribution of wealth and recent downgrades in our credit rating".

After the reading Cde Cronin will lead selected guests to Cape Town Castle where, in return for a major contribution to ANC funds, they will be able to enjoy a special séance with the Reed Maiden of their choice, with Cde John Block acting as MC. President Mkhize took advantage of the occasion to denounce the widespread rioting in North West, Gauteng, Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces and to announce the advent of military rule in all four of these provinces.

And so on. What is truly surreal is that the left continues to celebrate the "great advances of ANC rule" and is simply in denial of this more obvious script.

One alternative to this is to be found in the Dinokeng Scenarios, in which Ramphele played a leading part. According to their "low road" scenario (which we are now on) this is about the time for a great citizen uprising which will turn things around. One can't but note that Ramphele's political initiative is apparently designed around that very theme, as if she is really taking that scenario as a prediction of the future. This is to forget that scenario planning is all about trying to illustrate to elites what the consequences of their actions will be - and scenario planners are as fond as anyone else of happy endings.

The ANC-at-under-50% scenario

If neither Ramphele's initiative nor an Opposition Alliance have much hope in the real world, what this leaves one with is the DA. The party has been steadily advancing ever since 1994 but there is, among its enthusiasts, a tendency to overplay this, a tendency encouraged by Helen Zille's frequent suggestion that 2019 will see the ANC go under the 50% line. She is of course right to focus on that figure for the moment that the ANC needs a coalition partner in order to stay in power, everything will change.

The ANC has never really had to share power before: in the National Unity government of 1994-96 it rode roughshod over its NP and IFP partners. But if it needs to rely on a coalition partner, that party will have real bargaining power.

If one looks at the polling data it is evident that large numbers of ANC voters - who are perfectly conscious that their party is failing - would warmly welcome a DA-ANC alliance and tend to assume that this would also mean that "white business" would also be involved in government too.

The ANC will wish to avoid coalition with the DA not only so as to maintain black solidarity against the "white" DA, misnomer though that is, but because for many ANC militants the sight of the ruling party having to fall back into dependence on what would be seen symbolically as "white capital" would mean that the National Democratic Revolution had been fatally compromised. Moreover, the ANC's reliance on the DA would threaten, perhaps fatally, its alliance with the SACP and Cosatu.

The death of the Tripartite Alliance has been often and eagerly predicted by commentators who foolishly apply simple right-left notions to it and suggest that the Cosatu-SACP bloc should go off and found its own Left party.

It is more sensible to ask what each of the three partners gets out of the alliance. The SACP and Cosatu gain far greater influence than they would be likely to gain from any other strategy, and they also gain access to promotion and patronage for their own leaders.

The ANC, for its part, insures itself against any threat from its Left and thus the dread possibility - often fatal in ANC circles - of being accused of "selling out". In addition, the ANC leans heavily on Cosatu activists at election time. Thus the alliance endures because no other arrangement can offer more to any of the three parties.

However, that arrangement would be severely threatened if the ANC had to go into coalition with the DA. Doubtless, the DA, as the price for its support, would posit certain conditions (e.g. greater labour flexibility) which would be anathema to Cosatu but the mere fact that the ANC would now have to keep its coalition partner happy would represent a severe loss of leverage within the alliance for both Cosatu and the SACP.

Moreover, if the ANC begins to lose significant support the SACP and Cosatu have to worry that they might go down with the ship: the ossifying effects of the alliance on major Cosatu unions is, indeed, already evident. The temptation would be to bail out of the alliance, claiming that the ANC had sold out to white capital.

This would, of course, also be a self-fulfilling prophecy for the departure of its alliance partners would guarantee further decline for the ANC which would become increasingly dependent on its coalition partners. The ANC-DA coalition would then face a radical left Opposition which would attempt to appropriate all the ANC's old imagery as it sought to overthrow what it would doubtless call "white rule" for a second time.

The DA: Tough enough liberals?

The DA is still some long distance from that scenario. As the ANC ages it is finding it ever more difficult to pull out its vote. In effect it can make the large effort required only once every five years - and even so the proportion of the electorate willing to turn out and vote for the ANC is steadily shrinking. This is the reason why the DA does so much better in municipal elections (when the ANC finds it hard to pull out its vote) than in the quinquennial national Elections.

In the 2009 national elections the DA won 16.6% but in the 2011 municipal elections it won 24.3%, actually winning 109,000 more votes than it had in 2009 and crossing the three million vote line for the first time. The DA has, indeed, made the municipal elections its "real" elections, for since Helen Zille took over the party has set itself to win power locally as its top objective. Doubtless, this too helps explain the higher DA municipal vote.

This gap between national and municipal results and the electorate's diminishing enthusiasm for the ANC is becoming increasingly significant. In the 2009 national election the ANC won the support of 50.25% of the registered electorate but at the 2011 municipals it managed only 34.99%. Meanwhile, the DA has begun to win a noticeable and growing fringe of African voters.

Nonetheless, too many DA voters now excitedly see themselves as a 25% party, whereas in fact the party would be doing extremely well in 2014 if it won 20% of the vote. Even if one projects these trends into the future in straight-line fashion, it seems clear that it will take the DA far longer than Zille's predicted date of 2019 to displace the ANC. For that to happen the ANC would have to implode quite dramatically in a way that is impossible, at this point, to foresee.

As I have noted elsewhere even if one makes the assumption that the DA can increasingly acquire an African electorate, it may struggle to digest it while still remaining a distinctively liberal party. So the DA will need to be extremely firm in its commitment to liberal principle if it is to prevent these features creeping into its own ranks.

There are several other points which will shape the DA's future. One is the peculiar way in which the South African electorate is entirely refusing the logic of its electoral system. For the logic of such an absolutely proportional system is the proliferation of parties. In fact the opposite is happening: in 1999 the DA and ANC took 75% of the vote between them but by 2011 the figure was 91%.

The fact is that South African political culture is one of an entrenched dualism: for nearly 50 years politics meant the National Party or the Opposition to it. This mind-set seems to have been transferred over quite seamlessly to the ANC or the Opposition to it. In effect the electorate had to choose between three possible opposition parties - the NP, IFP or DP/DA. Once the DA had emerged at the head of the pack opposition voters have increasingly rallied behind it.

That period is now over, however. The DA may still make a few gains from the IFP and Cope as they implode but the scope for further such gains is now extremely limited: future gains will have to come mainly straight from the ANC. In effect Ramphele's party will be fighting the DA for exactly the same voters.

Secondly, because of the pronounced and probably increasing gap between the ANC's performance at national and municipal level the likelihood is that the DA will win major cities long before it is able to mount a full national challenge. Thus, while, as suggested above, the DA would do well in 2014 if it could win 20% of the vote and see off Ramphele's challenge, the real question is whether it can capture Port Elizabeth (Nelson Mandela Metropole), Johannesburg or Pretoria in 2016.

The national significance of such contests will be large, particularly since South Africa is now almost two-thirds urbanized. Should the DA capture all three of those metropoles the ANC would hold only Durban and would inevitably become an increasingly rural and Zulu party.

Finally, as, when and if, the DA is able to push the ANC below 50% the likelihood is that the resultant ANC-DA coalition could face radical, even violent resistance from the SACP-Cosatu rump party then likely to be formed.

There is little doubt that if that coalition pushes through major reforms in the labour market that Cosatu will treat that as a do-or-die matter. Similarly, it is quite apparent that educational reform will require little less than the dismantling of Sadtu. So while the DA could easily crash and burn if it abandons its liberal principles, it will also need to be a party of tough-minded liberals.

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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