No laughing matter: Mamphela Ramphele and Helen Zille in good times. Photo by: Mike Hutchings

No laughing matter: Mamphela Ramphele and Helen Zille in good times. Photo by: Mike Hutchings

Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s largest opposition party, announced last night that Mamphela Ramphele will not be the party’s presidential candidate in the national election. Only a week ago, Ramphele hailed her offer as the DA’s presidential candidate and acceptance of it as “another astonishing moment in what we offer the people of South Africa, and once again the world”. Not so. The media statement released last night states 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. … 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.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.”

Perhaps the backlash from her own supporters is what caused Ramphele to renege on her agreement. When she created Agang, her party, early last year, she was adamant that the DA was not the solution to South Africa’s socio-economic problems:

As I met with young people I heard a refrain: we want to take up the challenge confronting us, we want to be more active and engaged but we do not have the platform. We will not vote for the ANC because of their corrupt, autocratic ways, nor will we vote for the DA because we know they do not understand the transformational challenges facing the country.With these comments foremost in my mind I went back to the DA. I did not believe that the English-speaking white supporters of the DA understood the inequities visited on the majority in the country and the consequences of their perpetuation for the quality of our democracy.Some, including Hlumelo [Biko, Ramphele’s son], would argue that the political settlement of 1993 allowed white privilege to remain unchallenged. Hlumelo calls it the ‘Great Fraud’ that let white people escape redressing the socio-economic consequences of apartheid. I felt the DA was complacent, trapped in their inability to realise that poverty could be eradicated.Eventually my discussions with the DA reached a point where we agreed on the principles: most importantly, that the economy needed to be restructured. We agreed we needed to work together.

The DA was an established machine but it needed to be repositioned. And repositioning meant more than rebranding the DA. This problem would not be solved by my presence as leader of that party. My presence would not obliterate the misgivings of the majority of black people.

Take Malusi [Magele, Ramphele’s son] as an example. He grew up playing with Helen Zille’s children. He was always welcome in their household. He did not doubt for a moment that Helen Zille was committed to a better South Africa. Yet he told me that he would rather die than vote DA.

How often would this sentiment not be repeated across the country? So what would be achieved by my joining the DA or even joining a rebranded DA? Nothing.

It is difficult to understand why these sentiments would change so suddenly. More will surely become clearer as the election battle heats up. What is clear is that it is Helen Zille that will suffer the most from Ramphele’s about-turn. It is already forgotten that it was Zille’s position to give – that she voluntarily offered her own position to Ramphele in an attempt to improve her party’s chances at the ballot box. Now she has to front up to questions of window-dressing – the ANC called it ‘rent-a-black’ – and the unhappiness within her party at the abuse of power, however benevolent. On paper her decision was plausible: Ramphele has the CV of a presidential candidate; compare, for example, hers with our incumbent president Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, leader of the EFF. Yet what Zille failed to see, perhaps clouded by the bonds of friendship, is that Ramphele lacked the political nous that Zuma and Malema have in abundance.

Zille made the mistake of equating friendship with good politics. Perhaps her ambition to affect change was too strong; her patience at the slow political change in South Africa since 1994 had finally waned. Perhaps she thought that, when ANC opinion (especially of its leader) is at an all-time low, there was a chance, however small, that a large minority for the opposition will force the incumbent party’s hand. Instead, she overplayed her own, and her miscalculation has put the DA back another four years.

But the larger lesson should not go unnoticed. What Zuma and Malema understand is that it is impossible to ‘restructure’ the economy, for good or bad, without political power. We still have little idea what ‘restructuring’ means to Ramphele and her followers: Agang has been extremely vague in proposing economic policies. Yet for all her good intentions, by reneging on her candidacy, Ramphele has failed not only in her own attempts at transforming the economy – a transformation that, given her experience, would likely have boosted South Africa’s tiring economy – but she has dealt a huge blow to the Democratic Alliance’s aspirations to do so too. #DividedForChange has never been a sexy slogan, nor a successful one.