A case of near self-immolation: Zille and Ramphele

Mike Berger says the DA avoided disaster, but it needs to examine how it came so close to it

How come a remarkably intelligent, grounded and well-informed political leader like Helen Zille can make such a disastrous choice, compound it by panicky, ill-considered implementation and drag her party along with her? Part of the explanation must lie in her own personality and temperament and dynamics within the party. But much rests on a set of erroneous (or partially erroneous) assumptions about the situation in South Africa and misperceptions around the DA's image in the eyes of the electorate.

Undoubtedly, any analysis of the DA's performance must deal with the observable facts of its decisions, their outcomes and the multi-dimensional environment (physical, economic, socio-cultural, political and historical) in which it operates.  But equally, that environment is partly a product of a multitude of minds, especially the minds of its leadership, motivated by a multitude of emotional and social forces of varying degrees of opacity. This analysis will attempt to partial justice to both.

It is possible to imagine some enormously powerful computer, equipped with the most realistic current algorithms into which enormous quantities of politically relevant data (so-called "big data") can be fed and which spits out various scenarios. These can then be compared to outcomes (by the self-same computers and their human minders) to initiate a cycle of improved performance. In theory at least, such simulations would allow for better understanding of complex socio-political-cultural-economic systems and, again in theory mainly, aid timely and effective interventions.

This is only partly fantasy. Prototypes of such machines are already operative and there is an expanding body of theory and observation linked to computer-based algorithms bearing on the failure (or success) of states and democracies. None of this yet constitutes a mature science capable of accurate prediction, but South Africa, by even conservative reckonings (including "gut" instinct), would land squarely in the list of endangered species. Let us count some of the ways:

A long and violent history of ethnic conflict

Massive persisting inequalities of all kinds still partly aligned along ethnic lines

A culture of corruption, violence, low trust and poor social responsibility

Variable but still poor levels of education and high levels of crime, including especially violent and organised crime 

A ruling party kept in place by identity politics but increasingly prone to fiddle with the still vulnerable democratic institutions put in place through a remarkable but recent transition to full democracy

Our location in Africa with its own dismal history of failed democracies and states

And, to end, an unrealistic public discourse generated by a media which prefers moral activism to serious analysis.

Any political leader with the intelligence and temperament of Zille, engulfed by the vicious political manuvering of daily politics and privy to information not generally accessible or of interest to most of the public, would be prey to fears of an irreversible slide into the generic African failed state with all its attendant violence and misery. These are concerns harboured by many thoughtful observers, and in the case of Zille especially, they are likely to be translated into the language of action, even risky or desperate action. The role of "funders" at the time of this writing is unclear.

It is very likely that the factors enumerated above played an important role in the decision to offer the role of Presidential candidate to Mamphela Ramphele. Zille clearly persuaded herself, in her own words, that South Africa was on the brink of a disastrous retreat from democracy masterminded by the ANC, and that the painful process of reputation-building and conventional electioneering would no longer suffice arrest this process. To capture black votes in a dramatic acceleration of longer-term trends would require a black candidate with a high and favourable public profile.

Zille was not alone. Many others were at least susceptible to such perceptions. But very shortly after Ramphele's candidacy was announced I began to have serious second thoughts. These were partly based on the apparently ad hoc and expedient nature of the move, making the DA a soft target for ANC propaganda. Another nagging issue was the remarkable preponderance of women in the top leadership positions of the party. They were far from tokens but the balance seemed wrong and the on-going neglect of Athol Trollip was inexplicable. Ramphele herself appeared more image than tangible accomplishment and the entire arrangement had the flavour of a Rube Goldberg apparatus of incompatible parts and dubious stability at a vital time.

These doubts were immediately amplified by Ramphele's abysmal performance in her interview with a polite but persistent SABC announcer. When it appeared that all the i's and t's had not been properly taken care of and the deal could collapse I was immensely relieved. Thank goodness Ramphele herself baled despite the insane lifeline offered by Zille. The DA (and South Africa) were rescued by the hand of fate to fight for a sustainable democracy another day.

Now the DA must address the fundamental question as to how it came so close to self-immolation. Besides questions of process, intra-party dynamics and the alleged role of funders, what if the basic set of assumption were wrong: South Africa is indeed endangered but not on the precipice? What if efforts to fast track black candidates into key, high-profile positions can do more harm than good? What if the DA's evident lack of faith in its own principles (which I take to be competence, commitment, delivery, integrity and non-racialism) undermines its appeal more than any expedient political manoeuvre can redress?

These are topics for another post. Suffice it to say here that the appeal of the DA lies in its promise to an established and still emergent middle class of all colours and ethnic affiliations to remain steadfast in its fundamental commitments. This is particularly true in dangerous, unpredictable situations like the one we are living through at present. The people of South Africa need a party that embodies their desire for stability, integrity and sustainability. Obsolete as it may sound, the old-fashioned virtues of steadfastness and the courage of one's convictions are those required at times of crisis.

That is the DA's role. Snake-oil salesmen, especially those dressed up in the latest political fashions, must be shown the door.

Mike Berger

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