WHEN the leader of South Africa’s opposition announced that Agang founder, Mamphela Ramphele would be the alliance’s presidential candidate, she had other opposition parties like the Congress of the People (COPE) lining up to form a super-opposition with the potential to seize power come the general election. Instead what followed was a massive loss in political narrative as Zille failed to embrace the game-changing opportunity offered to her by this announcement.
The DA had previously managed to swallow minority opposition parties such as Patricia de Lille’s Independent Democratics (ID). The precedent set by this successful merger with the ID was thus bound to impact on the decision by the federal executive to gun for an all-out merger between the DA and Agang. Unfortunately, what was required was an entirely different strategy. One which could conceivably have produced the kind of balancing act which had created a stable ruling coalition lead by the ANC for the past 20 years.
Three problems rapidly became apparent. Firstly there was the issue of Mamphela Ramphele’s own political movement, Agang. Instead of acquiescing to a merger, it had demanded that MAR return to the party to explain her actions. The problem of abandonment expressed in news headlines in the Star was writ large. Mamphele must Return or Resign, as Agang Gauteng threatened to ignore their leader and go it alone in the election.
Thus any hope of a no-contest agreement between Agang SA and the DA were immediately scuppered. Not that it made much difference to the outcome, since South Africa has a proportional representation system in which smaller parties and political newcomers have a great advantage. Furthermore, it remained to be seen to what extant Agang represented competition for votes with the DA. MAR has run a campaign in South Africa’s rural heartland and the black townships. Promising hope and renewal of Mandela’s Dream.
Secondly, there was the issue of MAR’s immanent membership of the DA. It would appear from the outset that the party sort to cherry-pick Ramphele and prevent the entrance of Agang into the election, thus angering her movement and the emerging coalition partner which would have had to be included in the Federal Executive. Unlike the merger with the ID in which Patricia de Lille had announced that all ID structures were onboard, and with seats already occupied in Parliament, Agang represented an unknown quotient and thus was uncharted territory. A simple proposal to accept duel membership in the interim and an electoral college “working programme” in the long run in which the two parties agreed to nominate each other’s presidential candidate of choice, could thus have easily saved the relationship, as well as fostering coalition building amongst South Africa’s opposition parties. Does it really matter all that much if your party colours are green instead of blue? Is assimilation into the party the only power game?
Thirdly, there was the problem of fielding a presidential candidate who was not also a leader of the party. This resulted in immense pressure within the party, producing public dissent within the ranks, the internal bickering over who would be next in line to the throne, for example, why was Lindiwe Mazibuko being overlooked and so it went, resulting in the clash between Zille and Mbali. Although a technical committee was hastily convened to look into the details of the merger with Agang, it sought to accomplish in hours, what should have taken days, if not weeks, thus no consideration or allowance was made to including Agang policy and media.
With labour union SADTU attacking MAR and criticism from party funders, an ultimatum was thus issued by the executives within the DA, who in the heat of politics, thought it best to preserve Zille’s leadership role, she thus ended up behaving a lot like Maggie Thatcher, insisting on an immediate solution to the problem with Argentina, with the resulting gunboat diplomacy. This lack of finesse in dealing with South Africa’s Evita Perron, was further exacerbated by the ruckus caused by a largely unsupportive daily press, which had recently been acquired by a Chinese consortium partly owned by the Public Investment Corporation.
With the DA suddenly attacked by both the left and the right, it failed to step-forward into a centrist coalition that could conceivably have rose to the occasion and governed the country. Instead of seizing the day, Zille balked and the result is a rather messy divorce.