DA-Agang: Dial M for Merger

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Depending on which political analyst you listen to over the next few days, you’ll be told that the news that Agang leader Mamphela Ramphele will be the DA’s presidential candidate in this year’s elections is either a total gamechanger, or no gamechanger at all. The truth is that nobody can possibly know with any degree of certainty what impact the DA-Agang deal will have until the votes are counted. One thing that is clear, though, is that the move will have surprised nobody very much – unless, of course, you’re a grassroots Agang member.

The DA’s announcement that they would be holding a press conference on Tuesday morning to discuss a matter of “national importance” prompted an excited flurry of speculation among journalists, politics nerds, and probably not many other people. From the outset, it seemed clear that the party would be revealing the identity of one of the “confidential candidates” on the DA leadership list. But who? As usual, a wide array of unlikely names swirled around, including ANC stalwart Trevor Manuel and former Bafana Bafana captain Lucas Radebe.

In retrospect, though, it was always going to be Ramphele. The only reasons why other possibilities were briefly entertained were, firstly, the order of the DA lists, which saw the remaining reserved places for confidential candidates fall relatively low down the ladder – certainly unsuitable for someone of Ramphele’s stature. Secondly, DA leader Helen Zille had informed journalists at the time of the list reveal last Saturday that any coalitions with other parties would likely take place only after the elections.

And finally, Agang’s official communication channels had denied in the strongest possible terms that any such Agang-DA deal was afoot. Up until Tuesday morning, the party’s website ran a stern statement titled “Media Speculation”, which began: “Today, the Sunday Times speculated that our leader is on the Democratic Alliance list of candidates for the election. Ignore this speculation.”

“In the run-up to the election you will read all sorts of suggestions in the media, and there will be rumours everywhere,” the statement continued. “Do not read any truth into them.”

Well, as it turned out, you should have read all sorts of truth in them. But there are indications that even though negotiations between Ramphele and the DA have been going on for literally years, this deal was closed at last minute, and that both parties put a premium on secrecy: Zille spoke of the need not to have the details leaked “half-cocked”. This speed and secrecy must have come at the cost of wide consultation: both party leaders admitted that they had not consulted the “grassroots” structures in Agang or the DA before the deal was struck.

We’re not even sure yet exactly what the deal, in its entirety, consists of. Zille said that the two parties were establishing a “joint technical committee to manage the integration of the DA and Agang SA structures and volunteers”. You can virtually wave goodbye to Agang, though: it seems clear that this will be the DA wholesale absorbing Agang – as it did with the Independent Democrats in 2010 – rather than a meeting of equals. And of course, the two parties are not equals: the DA holds all the cards here. It seems clear that Ramphele’s party hasn’t been able to win a lot of traction among that magical group, the “grassroots voters”, and reportsthat Agang is plagued by financial woes have added to the perception of a no-hope party going into the 2014 elections.

But that’s largely irrelevant, because the prize for the DA was always Ramphele herself: a woman with impeccable Struggle credentials and that all-important intimate connection to Black Consciousness hero Steve Biko. The last time reports circulated of Ramphele and the DA being in negotiations, there were rumours that the good doctor would come aboard the DA for nothing less than the party top spot. In terms of the arrangement announced on Tuesday, Zille retains the DA’s leadership, but Ramphele will be put forward as the party’s presidential candidate: number one on the party list. Zille explained that this is possible in terms of DA structures, in very strongly-motivated cases, by means of taking the motion to the party’s federal executive and receiving a two-thirds majority in favour.

Is this a good deal for Ramphele? In practical terms – cachet of being a presidential candidate aside – not hugely. The DA would have to win the elections to land Ramphele in the Union Buildings, and the odds of that are very low. “If we don’t manage to get her into the Union Buildings, then we have no doubt that this election will go down in history as the tipping point election, and we will move rapidly from there,” Zille explained.

If Ramphele fails to become president of South Africa, she will become an ordinary DA MP and enter parliament. “Of course I’ll go to parliament,” Ramphele told journalists on Tuesday. “It would be an honour.” From there, she would be free to challenge for DA leadership positions when the party’s internal elections come around.

Ramphele received a grilling at Tuesday’s press conference for statements she has made in the past expressing her unwillingness to join the DA. In particular, quotes from her biography reveal her previously-held belief that the DA was “complacent”, did not understand the enduring psychic scars of racism, and that her presence in the party would do little to assuage the concerns of black voters about the DA.

But Ramphele was playing a skilful politician’s game, dodging questions with aplomb and substituting straight answers for rousing rhetoric about national unity. While her decision will be read in many quarters as a marker of ego – of sacrificing the trust of her party supporters in favour of a shot at a truly powerful position – she was at pains to present it at selfless: “Today we are putting the country first,” she said.

When asked if her move was a purely pragmatic one, given that Agang appeared to be falling apart, she parried: “What I know is falling apart is the ANC.” Ramphele played the same rhetorical game when asked about the parlous state of Agang’s finances: “The only organization that is bankrupt is the ANC. Morally bankrupt.” She refused to acknowledge any sense of failure or disappointment around Agang’s flagging fortunes, saying she was “very proud of what we have achieved”.

In a message from Agang to its members on Tuesday, the party urged them to get behind the new deal with the DA. “We are presented in this election year with a moment of immense opportunity for change. We must seize it,” the statement read. “Today’s announcement gives both parties the tools to deliver a resounding message to the governing party: it is time for change… Agang SA and the DA bring complimentary [sic] strengths to the challenge of making South Africans believe in themselves again. “

Agang may find, however, that their precise appeal for many would-be voters lay in offering an alternative not just to the ANC, but also to the DA. On the party’s Facebook page, apparent Agang supporters expressed mixed reactions to the news. Some responded with excitement, but there was also a sense of betrayal coming through strongly from some quarters. “The most amazing thing is Mamphela was just doing it for herself, she is a crook, she never even alerted her members what her intentions were,” one wrote. “I was gonna vote for it but if they’re gonna join DA then HELL NO I’ve changed my mind, am sorry but I don’t trust whites,” another commented.

It’s likely, though, that betrayed Agang voters won’t add up to a substantial loss numerically come elections: estimates put Agang at taking 1% of the vote pre-deal. A query to Agang about how many members they had going into Tuesday’s announcement went unanswered.

For the DA, on the other hand, it’s a winning move: a Struggle figurehead at the helm of a party still perceived as being a home for whites. Zille said that the party hoped to put Ramphele’s face on the ballot sheets for the DA. This won’t happen unless the IEC changes the rules, which seems highly unlikely, since the regulations currently decree that the photograph accompanying the party name on the ballot sheets must be of the party leader. But it’s an indication of the DA’s awareness of the symbolic gain to the party through Ramphele.

Indeed, there was a revealing moment at Tuesday’s press conference, when Ramphele announced that the DA and Agang’s combined forces would “take away the excuse of race”. Zille responded: “I could never say that.” Later, she commented that while people still didn’t seem to believe that she wouldn’t bring back Apartheid if elected, “maybe they will listen to Dr Ramphele”. It revealed an acute awareness of the credibility boost the DA hopes Ramphele will bring to their public image, particularly among black South Africans.

The DA already has would-be black leaders, of course, in the shape of parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko and aspirant Gauteng Premier Mmusi Maimane. The question on many people’s lips on Tuesday was whether Mazibuko and Maimane felt slighted by the apparent parachuting in of a black leader above them; did they read it as a vote of no confidence? Chatting to journalists afterwards, Mazibuko was adamant that this wasn’t the case, and hinted that that she was, in any event, playing a long game which would be helped rather than hindered by Ramphele’s arrival: “My presidential ambitions are tied into Dr Ramphele’s entry into the DA,” she said.

It’s a sign of Ramphele’s international status that the story of her running as the DA’s presidential candidate had been picked up by most major global news outlets by Tuesday evening. Whether she will prove to be the magic bullet that the DA hopes come elections, however, is a question that will be settled in the voting booths. 

By Rebecca Davis

Source: Daily Maverick

Photo: Anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele (L) hugs opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party leader Helen Zille at a news conference in Cape Town, January 28, 2014. Ramphele will run as presidential candidate for the DA in this year's South African election, giving the main opposition party a respected black figurehead to challenge the ruling ANC. (REUTERS)