Ramphele debacle leaves South African opposition reeling

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Less than a week after anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele became the presidential candidate of the Democratic Alliance (DA), the second-largest political party in South Africa, Ramphele on Sunday backed out of her decision to lead the South African opposition into expected spring parliamentary elections.south africa flag

Though the deal would have merged the DA with Ramphele’s smaller party, AgangSA, founded just over a year ago, the merger collapsed over whether AgangSA would remain a separate entity or would be collapsed entirely within the Democratic Alliance.

It’s a short-sighted decision that leaves neither Ramphele nor Helen Zille (pictured above), the leader of the Democratic Alliance and premier of Western Cape province, looking very skilful.  The collapse of the Ramphele-led alliance must surely rank among the worst self-inflicted disasters of recent world politics.

Zille, in particular, released a harshly worded statement late Sunday savaging Ramphele:

“This about-turn will come as a disappointment to the many South Africans who were inspired by what could have been a historic partnership,” Zille said.  “By going back on the deal, again… Dr Ramphele has demonstrated – once and for all – she cannot be trusted to see any project through to its conclusion. This is a great pity.”

Insisting that the DA had negotiated with Ramphele in good faith, Zille added: “Since Tuesday’s announcement, Dr Ramphele has been playing a game of cat and mouse – telling the media one thing, Agang supporters another thing, and the DA another.  “It is not clear what her objective is, but whatever it is, it is not in the interests of the South African people.”

Without Ramphele, the Democratic Alliance seemed set for its most successful election since its foundation in 2000.  Zille won 16.7% of the vote in the previous April 2009 elections, 23.9% of the national vote in May 2011 municipal elections, and the party seemed headed to win one-quarter or even one-third of the vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections.  Though Zille has a hold on Western Cape province, party leaders hope to make breakthroughs in Eastern Cape and Northern Cape provinces, as well as in Gauteng province, where former Johannesburg mayoral candidate and city council member Mmusi Maimane has helped transform the party’s local (and national) image. 

That won’t necessarily change because of the tumultuous courtship with Ramphele and AgangSA, but it doesn’t make Zille look like an incredibly strong leader to hand her party’s presidential nomination to someone who flaked out within hours of receiving it.  South Africa’s election must be held before July 2014, and if it takes place closer to July than, say, to April or May, the Ramphele breakup stands a good chance of receding into the background.  But it also means that, barring a major turn of events, Zille will have to recalibrate expectations from ‘historic breakthrough’ back down to incremental gains. 

Moreover, Ramphele’s decision to lead DA in the 2014 elections didn’t necessarily transform it into the frontrunner overnight.  Despite the growing unpopularity of president Jacob Zuma and the African National Congress (ANC), even a Ramphele-led opposition wasn’t favored to defeat Zuma and win election in its own right.  But it would have marked a significant marker on the path to giving South Africa an opposition capable of achieving government one day.  In the immediate aftermath of last week’s decision, there was some hope that the new alliance would also command the support with South Africa’s third-largest parliamentary party, the Congress of the People (COPE), an anti-Zuma ANC breakaway faction founded in 2008.  One of its leaders, Mosiuoa Lekota, praised Ramphele’s initial decision to join forces with the Democratic Alliance.  Those events might have forced all South Africans to take a fresh look at the DA.  

What made the Ramphele nomination so remarkable was that it threatened to reshuffle the racialization of South African politics.  So long as the ANC remains, image-wise, the party of black South Africans, the party of Nelson Mandela and the guarantors of the struggle against apartheid, and the DA remains, image-wise the party of white (and coloured) South African elites in Cape Town, the country’s political tectonic plates cannot — and will not — shift.

Ramphele’s party is small and nearly bankrupt, though, and the past week may have ended her chances of any real success in South African politics.  Before last week’s stunning announcement that she would head the DA presidential ticket, polls showed AgangSA winning 1% or 2% of the vote.  The former partner of Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist who was killed in police custody in 1977,  Ramphele faced harsh critics who called her a rented black face for a chiefly white political party.  The worst criticism came from the ranks of the ruling ANC — and the ANC is having a field day today mocking both AgangSA and the DA:

“A white party remains white, in the words of Ramphele. Then all of a sudden there was a black face, and that is renting,” [ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu] said. “Then she suddenly realised how truthful her own statements had been, and she started to reverse, dealing with her own integrity in the process.”

But even some of Ramphele’s allies in AgangSA were arguing the same, and by Sunday, it became clear that the merger was unpopular among segments of both AgangSA and the DA.

No matter what you think of the ANC or the opposition, South Africa suffers from the lack of a truly competitive political marketplace.  It seems inevitable that a second major party will eventually emerge — perhaps even from within the ANC (and perhaps from among the more radical, socialist wing that’s now personified by Julius Malema, who was actually kicked out of the ANC and now leads a new leftist party).  But the collapse of the unity ticket within less than a week means that 2014 is still unlikely to be the year that the DA or anyone can capably compete against the ANC juggernaut.

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