William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

DA old boys determined to learn wrong lesson from Agang debacle

It was perhaps inevitable of a relationship that was sealed in public with a lip-puckering smooch, only to collapse within days in recriminations. Political commentators have trotted out every sweaty-palmed sexual and relationship cliché found in the English language, then flogged them mercilessly.

Among the bromides there’s been “marry at haste, repent at leisure” (not really applicable) and “the shortest one-night stand in history” (by definition, surely a one-night stand is, well, a one-night stand?). But let’s not be pedantic. The unconsummated love affair (sorry; it’s contagious) between Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille and Agang leader Mamphela Ramphele has been such a spectacular disaster that one might as well sit back and sip vintage Schadenfreude, South Africa’s vin du jour, while we point fingers and snigger.

After all, politicians are mostly not particularly likeable, especially when they let slip from their intellectual corsets into scandalised public view their swollen, naked egos. And this is a political implosion driven by hubris, where the damage extends beyond some merely bruised reputations.

The personal damage is severe. It’s worth recalling conservative commentator and London Sunday Times journalist RW Johnson’s prescient remarks upon the launch of Agang. I thought overblown at the time his savage assessment of Ramphele, dismissing her political ambitions as “an accident waiting to happen” and Zille’s courting of her as “quixotic, even suicidal”.

Yet so it has come to pass. Not only has she wrecked Agang’s hopes at the polls, but Ramphele’s prevarication, evasion, and lies have destroyed her prospects of ever being taken seriously as a political leader. At a stroke she has made herself the object of public derision, which is far more damaging to a politician than antipathy.

Zille gets away perhaps more lightly. This coming general election was always likely to be her last hurrah as DA leader, now it is a certainty.

Her colleagues in the DA leadership, previously cowed into docility by her haughtiness and her sidelining of anyone who dared challenge her, will become more assertive and questioning. Consequently, Zille’s ability to populate the key positions in the party with her lieutenants is diminished, which means that she can no longer easily anoint a successor.

But it would be disastrous for opposition politics if the kickback against Zille from this meltdown led the DA to abandon the critical tenet of her vision: the imperative for the DA to grow among black African voters. That Zille got it so wrong in her tapping of Ramphele does not negate the reality that DA growth demands the fast tracking of credible black leaders who, coming from different philosophical traditions, will inevitably challenge many cherished liberal assumptions.

Whatever her flaws, Zille has been an outstanding leader and the potential for regression is significant. Already the DA Old Boys’ Club is muttering about the best post-Zille leader being … You guessed it. Someone drawn from their seemingly inexhaustible ranks of white men of advanced age. What hasn’t dawned on these fossils is that nowadays even many old white men no longer want to be led by old white men.

When Agang was launched I wrote that while there were convincing arguments as to why Ramphele would not draw a large vote, the importance of Agang lay in that it could be “a critical staging post” in the journey of disillusioned black ANC voters – who could not yet countenance the DA – towards “an opposition entity that from the very outset transcends race”.

Over the past week commentators have reiterated ad nauseam that it was ego and naiveté that have scuppered such hopes. While this is true, it’s to miss the critical factor to the debacle: neither Ramphele nor Zille took into account in their plans the ambitions of the rest of the Agang leadership.

Not only did she not consult her Agang colleagues, but Ramphele accepted a deal which gave Agang a single spot on the DA electoral list – hers. No provision was made for the few dozen people in the Agang top echelon who on even a modest 2% Agang share of the vote, would have been elected to Parliament and the various provincial legislatures.

It was suicidal of Ramphele to ride roughshod over their political hopes. It is utterly incomprehensible that Zille went along with it. The tragedy is that as a result, the opposition has faltered at the very moment – the election date, May 7, was announced on Friday – that electioneering kicks off in earnest.

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