R Munusamy: An affair to remember
It took about one hour at a meeting in Johannesburg on Sunday evening for Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille and Agang founder Mamphela Ramphele to part ways. The long-running friendship they gushed about just five days earlier crashed spectacularly as the dalliance between their two organisations went horribly wrong. Zille announced Sunday night that Ramphele had reneged on the agreement that she stands as the DA's presidential candidate. It's a hard lesson for the DA and this episode will haunt them. For Agang it's worse; its leader has suffocated any chance of them making a good showing in the election. Which is why she needs to make a hasty exit from politics.
As word spread on Sunday night that the Democratic Alliance's liaison with Dr Mamphela Ramphele had bombed, many of the party's leaders and communications staff went to ground, not wanting to feed the media fiesta playing out. Those who did answer their phones were anxious to put out a message that this was just a bump in the road for the DA and that the collapse of the hasty deal with Ramphele would not have a major impact on South Africa's biggest opposition party.
If only it were that simple.
The DA were the ones who projected the deal with Ramphele as a major development and shift in South African politics. They put the words "game-changing moment" into the national dialogue. All the DA's top leaders turned up for what they called "an announcement of national importance". And it was they who beamed before the cameras alongside their new "presidential candidate" as if she was to be some sort of political wunderkind.
You cannot hope to put the genie back in the bottle after all that and think it will sit there quietly. It is not going to. It will loom over the DA during their election campaign because it is they who have now publicly admitted that their existing leadership is not good enough on their own. They effectively conceded that the DA without a black face at the top wouldn't be credible enough or worthy of being voted for.
Now the consequences will be theirs to bear. It would be convenient for the DA to put all the blame on Ramphele - as Zille rapidly did in her media statement - but who created the Frankenstein's monster in the first place?
It was quite evident on Tuesday, when the announcement was made that Ramphele was to be the DA's "presidential candidate", that in their haste to parade her out as their big conquest, they had not thought through the arrangement. Therefore, instead of the announcement being the major political and PR coup the DA had hoped for, it was drowned in confusion.
Was Ramphele bringing Agang along or was just to be the token at the top of the DA's ticket for the national Parliament? Was it a coalition, merger, pact or acquisition? Most importantly, and probably the very first thing they should have worked out: was Ramphele abandoning her party and joining the DA? The reason Zille and her colleagues could not answer these questions was because they did not know what those answers were.
It turns out there was trouble in paradise before the media conference on Tuesday, with Ramphele digging in her heels about wanting to be both the DA and Agang's presidential candidates. Zille would hear nothing of this, threatening to call off the deal if Ramphele did not agree to her terms. The compromise was that a technical task team would work out the details of the arrangement. So both women swanned out and put on a spectacular performance before the packed media conference and a large television audience.
As Agang's members, supporters and staff began to react with shock and disbelief, Ramphele started to panic. While still floating the DA's "dream team" spin, she began pacifying and reassuring her supporters that she was not abandoning them. The fact that she entered into a deal with her competitors without consulting the people who bought into her political vision did not seem to worry her. It appeared from Ramphele's media statements that her view of the deal was that the DA would sponsor her free ride to Parliament so she need not do any more heavy lifting as the leader of Agang. This was a handy arrangement, considering that Agang's funds had dried up.
By Friday it was clear that the arrangement was a farce. The DA wanted to keep up its big acquisition spin and therefore issued a "joint statement" announcing a "Together for Change" roadshow. "This Monday, 3 February, we mark the 24th anniversary of the announcement of Nelson Mandela's release from prison with a press conference to be held in Johannesburg. At the press conference, the DA will formally welcome Dr Ramphele and members of Agang SA."
The statement went on to say that Zille and Ramphele would "travel across the country to engage with South Africans in all communities, and showcase our shared vision of the future - a place where every person has the freedom and means to achieve their dreams."
But later in the day, Ramphele issued her own statement saying she would not accept DA membership and had not consented to the statement released by Zille. By Saturday, the DA was holding crisis meetings about the way forward, and the two party leaders agreed to meet on Sunday night to thrash things out. Zille told the Sunday Times on Saturday, "I will be asking her whether she will abide by the agreement or not. The ball is in her court."
At the meeting in Johannesburg on Sunday night, Ramphele would not budge. She apparently wanted to contest the election as the leader of Agang and have the DA still campaign for her as their presidential candidate. Zille would hear none of it, as she would essentially be asking for her supporters to vote for Agang instead of the DA. After about an hour, it was clear that the deal was off.
Zille's anger and frustration was evident in her media statement.
"At the meeting, Dr Ramphele reneged on the agreement that she stand as the DA's presidential candidate, and that Agang SA's branches, members and volunteers be incorporated into the DA. This about-turn will come as a disappointment to the many South Africans who were inspired by what could have been a historic partnership."
She said constitutionally, Ramphele could only go to Parliament as the DA's presidential candidate if she were a member of the DA.
"The DA negotiated with Dr Ramphele in good faith. Indeed she is a long-time personal friend of mine and I sought to bring her into politics over many years. We have been through many false starts, but when Dr Ramphele insisted on Monday that we go public on Tuesday to announce her acceptance of our offer of the DA's presidential candidacy, we accepted that she had finally made up her mind," Zille said.
"By going back on the deal, again, just five days after it was announced, Dr Ramphele has demonstrated - once and for all - that she cannot be trusted to see any project through to its conclusion. This is a great pity. 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."
Late on Sunday night, Ramphele took to Twitter to try to counter the wave of negative sentiment against her. "My hope and belief is we could realign South African politics not be consumed by another party. We must put country first," she tweeted.
"We committed to work with others but that's the point - a partnership to take the country forward, we are committed to that," Ramphele said in another tweet.
Instead of the joint press conference the DA had planned, the two parties will now face off in separate press conferences on Monday morning. The DA is desperate to reassure its supporters that they are still going strong and on course. Ramphele will want to explain to her supporters what she was trying to do - presumably without sounding like a self-serving, power-hungry and inexperienced politician - and also reassure them that Agang is still powering full steam ahead to the election.
The DA has suffered serious reputational damage by the way they have handled the entire matter. The ANC is sure to taunt them on the campaign trail and keep reminding them of their stillborn deal to superficially impose a black leader on their party. Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema is sure to come up with novel new insults to needle Zille and her party.
The South African public will probably become even more despondent with the state of politics and lack of strong, credible opposition.
The one thing that should result from the saga is that Ramphele should announce her retirement from politics. She has no business being in it. The disastrous course of events should provide a way out for her and save her supporters any more grief and disappointment.
South Africa does not need a messiah, an agony aunt or an Evita Peron-like figure to rescue us. What this country needs is strong political leadership - something that is sorely lacking in the ruling party and the opposition.
The only good thing about the ludicrous deal between the DA and Ramphele was that it ended within a week, sparing us further kissing, staged affection and showboating. At least Zille and Ramphele can now be honest about their real feelings for each other.
This column appeared on Daily Maverick.