Mamphela Ramphele: The DA decides to blow itself up

RW Johnson on Helen Zille's monumental foolishness in trying to anoint the Agang SA leader as her successor

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote that Mamphela Ramphele's entrance onto the political scene was "an accident waiting to happen". She was, I suggested, "a political naif" and added that "It goes without saying that a political party launched by such a person has a very short life expectancy". Surveying the wreckage of Ramphele's several failed careers I observed that "Helen Zille's attempts to invite (Ramphele) into the DA leadership appear quixotic, even suicidal". This has now all come to pass. This was a very good day's work for the ANC for in effect the DA, the main Opposition, has decided to blow itself up.

During the disastrous four years that Ramphele served as UCT's Vice-Chancellor, Wilmot James was appointed to merge the Arts and Social Science faculties and Ms. Zille served as Ramphele's press secretary and PR lady. Ramphele was described by her subordinates as arrogant, egocentric and autocratic, while Dr James's efforts ended with a shambles so complete that it terminated his career at UCT. This period is generally reckoned to have set UCT back for many years. Now, in effect, Helen Zille has decided to revive this team-from-hell at the top of the DA. No one can say that she didn't know what she was doing or that we have not been warned.

Dr Ramphele had had many backers for the UCT job. They felt severely let down when she left so soon and amidst such a mess. Simultaneously, as chairperson of the Independent Development Trust, she handed the whole organization over to the ANC government. Again, this meant that Dr Ramphele let down all those at the IDT who had trusted her. The IDT still had billions of rands at the bank but these were all expropriated by government and the IDT's Trustees and many of the staff lost their jobs.

Dr Ramphele then moved on to the World Bank - as always, she had many backers suggesting she was just what the Bank needed. This too was not a success and her backers were disappointed when her contract was not renewed after one term.

There then followed a comic opera when Dr Ramphele gave an interview to the Cape Times saying she had applied for the Vice Chancellorship of Oxford University but had, as yet, heard nothing back. The paper rang the Oxford authorities who said, yes, the election of a vice-chancellor was under way and some candidates had already been interviewed. The Cape Times ran the story under the headline "Mamphela to head Oxford university?", though really it should have been "Mamphela fails to make short-list", for that was obviously what had happened.

The interesting thing about this was that Dr Ramphele, having no shortage of self-belief, had decided it was time for her to move into the academic big league without, apparently, realising that her brief stints at UCT and the World Bank had not been a success and that Oxford was bound to discover that with a few phone calls.

She returned to South Africa where her usual backers - they are strange, politically correct folk who never learn to be disillusioned - convinced the powers that be that she was just what was needed for the board of Anglo-American and to be chair of Gold Fields. This ended up with the most disgraceful BEE transaction the country has seen - so bad that it is being investigated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission. Dr Ramphele insists the deal was nothing to do with her - weirdly, for it was finalised on her watch.

The sad trek towards Agang

The kindest verdict I could come up with a year ago was that Dr Ramphele had just been comprehensively out of her depth throughout this bizarre rake's progress. It rather puts one in mind of Hillaire Belloc's little Lord Lundy who, because of his aristocratic antecedents, is immediately put into the Cabinet at 26. Sadly, he is just not up to it -

"They let him sink from Post to Post
From fifteen hundred at the most
To eight, and barely six - and then
To be curator of Big Ben."

This ignominy enrages his grand-father, the Duke, who reprimands him indignantly -

"Sir ! You have disappointed us !
We had intended you to be
The next prime minister but three:
The stocks were sold; the Press was squared:
The Middle Class was quite prepared.
But as it is! ....My language fails!
Go out and govern New South Wales!"

In Ramphele's case the last act of all was not New South Wales but the sad squib, Agang. It was never more than a vehicle for her ego and her party workers were treated like serfs. The party established few branches, failed to hold an elective conference or a list conference or even draw up a manifesto. Ramphele, who is herself something of a policy-free zone, simply ignored such matters because the main thing about her party was, well, herself. She raised R50 million, mainly from foreign backers, quickly got through it, decided she needed at least another R200 million, failed to get it, did not pay party workers and it became clear that Agang was bankrupt and was not even going to make the starting post for the coming election.

In a fashion which should surprise no one who has followed her career, Ramphele then let her party workers down, negotiated with the DA with no mandate from them, and simply sold them down the river. She also let down the people who had so recently opened their wallets for her. The message that this now sends to DA donors is ominous and, indeed, it is difficult to see how the party can allow Ramphele to have anything to do with fund-raising. How could she explain to donors that she has just wasted R50m. of their money on a whim, thrown in the towel without consultation, but would now like a whole lot more?

By making Ramphele head of the DA list and the party's presidential candidate, Helen Zille is in effect attempting to choose her own successor. Given that Ramphele has never been held democratically accountable, never been a team player, never displayed liberal principles, and has let people down throughout her career it seems all but certain that her accession to the DA leadership would soon demoralise and probably split the party.

On the very day of the announcement that Ramphele was joining the DA she was asked about her plans for the party. Oh no, she said, it wasn't about the party: "My job, as a leader, is to inspire people." There you have it - she will be out front doing whatever she wants to do and the job of the voters and party members is to be inspired, and well, to adore her. No room here for policy, for democratic accountability, for having to do what the party conference decides or anything of that sort.

Anatomy of a mistake

So why on earth should Helen Zille do such a thing? In effect, she seems to have boxed herself in in several ways, beginning with the fact that she is fundamentally a local politician, the summit of whose aspirations is to be premier of the Western Cape, so that the party leadership is something she would like to jettison as soon as possible.

Second, she has from the first tried to accelerate the progress of the DA, setting unrealistically ambitious targets. The DA will be in power in 2019. The DA will get 30% of the vote. It will win Gauteng and perhaps another new province too. Etc. All of this is fanciful and way beyond the party's realistic reach. However, since it is assumed that the key to the party's growth is winning over more black voters, she has publicly promised that the next DA leader will be black.

This, in three different ways, was a grievous mistake. First, in a democratic party it is simply not up to her to choose the next leader. Slabbert did not choose Eglin; Eglin did not choose Leon; Leon did not choose Zille. Second, she thereby accepted the ANC logic that skin colour is the all-important thing. This assumption has no place in a liberal party. Third, she made the (ridiculous) assumption that a black leader would bring a flood of black support. If that were true Buthelezi, Lekota and Holomisa would now be leading very big parties. In fact all the DA's progress since 1994 has been achieved under white leaders and everything suggests that the party would gradually add more black voters under either a white or black leader - provided that that leader can hold the party together and keep it a party of liberal and democratic principle. There may even be a positive side to the leader being white. One notes how African, Coloured and Indian parents are eager that their children should attend formerly white schools - it is seen as a guarantee of quality - and also how, for the same reason, they do not want the whites to abandon the school to them: the ideal is to be racially diverse and keep the whites involved. Parties may be the same.

However, having added 2 +2 and come up with 7, the next step in Zille's logic was to go in for the accelerated promotion of young blacks in the party, most notably Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mmusi Maimane. This deliberately ignored experience in other walks of life that you can't "fast track" human development in that way. If you promote a bright young black academic to be a professor at 28, he has little experience of lecturing, research or administration and he is bound to fail, lose the respect of his peers and so forth.

There simply isn't any substitute, in any job, for the hard slog of experience, for getting the help of one's elders and betters, for extensive reading and so on. It is simply not fair to expect that either Maimane or Mazibuko could cut it as leader any time soon, and it has been a very doubtful favour to them to over-promote them while young, as opposed to letting them win their spurs.

Now, however, Zille faces a situation in which Maimane, with his praise for Mbeki, his bodyguards and his belief that large and expensive celebrations are necessary to African-ness, is beginning to look like a serious liability. Simultaneously, Zille has quarrelled bitterly with Mazibuko. So, she needs a somewhat more mature and black woman (it has to be a woman: Zille, De Lille, Mazibuko, Ramphele - Zille just seems more comfortable with other women). And so, hey presto, she offers the DA leadership to Ramphele not just once but repeatedly, even after Ramphele has made absurd demands like the dissolution of the DA - and all without any democratic process at all.

What now?

The plan, quite obviously, is to cue Ramphele up - list leader, presidential candidate - so that she is a shoo-in for leader, the leadership to be handed over as soon as possible after the election. It is bizarre: the party is to be handed over to an imperious and egocentric woman of 67 with no record of DA membership, no discernible liberal principles and no experience of democratic accountability.

The big question is whether the party will really accept this monumental foolishness. It must, surely, be obvious to many within the DA ranks that disaster this way looms. However, the first rule of politics is that you can't beat someone with no one, so if they wish to avoid Ramphele and to demand a properly democratic leadership election. Mazibuko is undoubtedly able but still too young and inexperienced.

The most skilful DA parliamentarian is David Maynier but he is both white and young. Maimane disqualifies himself. There is no other commanding figure. One is left with the thought that the safest pair of hands belongs to Atholl Trollip. He has already been leader of the parliamentary party and is leader of the Eastern Cape. He speaks fluent Xhosa and Afrikaans as well as English. He is an affable and likable man.

One would not expect fireworks from him but he would keep the party together and hand it over, somewhat enlargened, to his successor in five or six years' time. This may not be as exciting as picking a really dangerous candidate but, to quote another children's rhyme

"And always keep a hold on nurse
For fear of finding something worse."

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