Mamphela Ramphele: What was the DA thinking?

Kameel Premhid says the party has done its no favours with the explanations offered thus far

Mamphela Ramphele and the DA

Tuesday's announcement by the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Agang that they would merge confirmed something which I had suspected for a long time. Despite this suspicion however, I have continually opposed Agang and the DA's overtures to it.

It is an ill-informed decision that does more harm for the DA than good. These are my reasons:

Firstly, the DA has marketed this as being a watershed moment in our politics. As part of the party's oft rolled out ‘realignment' mantra, this will supposedly begin the process of properly realigning politics in South Africa such that in 2019 the ANC should lose power.

That seems largely untrue. The DA itself went on the attack when it was rebuffed by Ramphele the first time. It branded her and Agang as a fringe party that had more in common with the white middle class than it did with ordinary South Africans. In essence, the DA argued that Agang was irrelevant. Now however, the party has done a complete volte foce in welcoming Ramphele as their new Messiah. How it can be that Ramphele was so irrelevant and unimportant yesterday but is suddenly the game-changer that will deliver South Africa from evil today is beyond me.

The DA does itself no favours by the paltry explanations it has given thus far. Why her? Why now? In light of how Rampehele was characterised before, the revisionism that is now being applied doesn't wash with those of us that have a memory span that lasts longer than two days.

Interestingly, the speed with which many in the DA's ranks have gone from berating Ramphele to exalting her leadership is breath-taking. Some in the party that I have engaged with suggest that opinions of people can change. Generally, this is true. But this is not merely a change in opinion - this is political schizophrenia and selective amnesia at levels not ever seen before. It is unacceptable for a party that always says it takes the principled stand.

Secondly, the DA (and Agang) have argued that Ramphele's decision to join the DA makes racial attacks against the DA all the more unconvincing. The irony of this cannot be lost on anyone.

The DA's primary complaint against the ANC since even before Zille's leadership has been that the DA could articulate a vision for South Africa with a non-black leader. So it went, the party could be perfectly capable of representing the interests of all South Africans even if its demographics illustrated a different picture. Ask any of the DA apparatchiks what the ‘Open Opportunity Society for All' means (or is that meant?).

That Helen Zille and Mamphela Ramphele's ostensible justification of this decision is that by having a black leader all the party's issue with race now disappears is incredulous. It means that the DA has bought into the nonsense tossed in their direction by the ANC: you could only have a place at the table and be treated seriously when you have a black leader. This kind of race reductionism and essentialisation is profoundly illiberal and something the DA has always said it opposed.

And worryingly, even if we are to assume that this argument is correct, what does this say about the DA's black leaders? Every insult hurled in the direction of Lindiwe Mazibuko, Mmusi Maimane, Mbali Ntuli and so many others, that they are coconuts, the Madam's people, window-dressing is now given credence: the DA's black leaders are black enough to speak to voters but not black enough to be President? The signal this sends is that all the black leaders of the party who are making their way up the ranks are not good enough and that our own home-grown timber just didn't cut it. It is an unfortunate consequence to befall so many people of talent. That the party's first-ever black presidential candidate is not one of its own is shocking.

The miscalculation the party has made is in thinking that Ramphele's joining would silence the DA's race critics. As the experience of Mazibuko, Maimane, Ntuli and others have shown though, these issues are dealt with over the medium- and long-term. The more the DA has organic growth the more difficult it becomes to accuse the party of pulling a quick one.

That is not to say that ‘parachuting' is sometimes unwarranted - especially when it is a means to overcome powerful vested institutional interests. Look at Mazibuko. Her career trajectory has been astronomical. And in the short term she faced both racial prejudice and legitimate questions over her ability. But as she has grown in the party and her role, the genuine questions people had were put to bed. Why? Because she added value. With Ramphele's track-record of late, it is highly doubtful that she will do the same. Sure Mazibuko continues to face some racial prejudice but that has been exposed as the fringe opinions that they are. The value she adds outweighs the harbingers.

This was even confirmed by the DA's own polling which indicated that Agang's presence among voters generally but black voters specifically was negligible. In a race-sensitive country like South Africa where every bona fide attempt by the DA to make a meaningful contribution to the race debate is derided as being motivated by white guilt or white parternalism, this just makes matters worse. Ramphele was already largely isolated from black voters and this latest move will isolate her further (not to mention of course how many Agang and DA voters themselves will feel isolated).

Rightfully or wrongfully, the DA's decision will make it seem like it is trying to pull one over black voters' eyes. If the DA thought Ramphele would attract black votes by vaulting her to the top I fear the party will discover quite the opposite.

Thirdly, this is intended to be a fully-fledged merger. According to press statements, the two parties have established a joint-technical committee to oversee the structures of Agang integrated into the DA. Whether this will require any name or brand changing is not yet apparent.

While it is clever for the DA to avoid a coalition and subsume Agang in its entirety, the reactions (in public but particularly in private) of the DA's members and representatives indicate that very little consultation took place. The DA's Federal Council never met to deliberate and approve this merger like it did with the Independent Democrats (ID). Further, Agang's Thabo Leshile was widely quoted at the weekend of not knowing of any plans (that was a day ago). So this was suddenly sprung onto the respective parties or someone was lying. Either way, this cloak and dagger start does not bode well.

But most devastatingly, the Agang project is a dangerous indication of the kind of vainglorious leader Ramphele is. This same situation was offered to her months ago. Had she taken it, maybe I would have been supportive. But, she decided to go it alone and make life hell for the DA in the process. Zille was subjected to a continued assault within and outside of the party when the full details became clear - thanks to Ramphele parading them on every platform she could find.

That she had the media's favour, funding and experts all around her and she was outclassed by the EFF shows what kind of political leader she is. Even when the odds were in her favour, Ramphele could not lead Agang. What is the DA, a party that has grown from 1.7% of the vote in 1994 to well over 20% in 2011, thinking letting her anywhere near the leadership?

Agang's demise demonstrated John Arbuthnot's famous diagnosis of political parties: ‘‘All political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies.'' One wonders whether the same fate is going to befall the DA.

This article first appeared on's Voices

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