Mamphela Ramphele’s exit a blow for competitive electoral democracy

2014-02-05 10:05

The ultimate test for democratic societies is whether they have peaceful alternation of government by different political parties.

The corollary of this is that they need strong opposition parties. This is the reason I was delighted at the prospect of Mamphela Ramphele heading up the DA’s electoral ticket.

This is not because I love the DA. I actually find the party’s brand of liberalism antiquated, anachronistic and dangerously short-sighted. Any liberalism that does not have social justice at its core is bound to peter out. As Theodore Parker put it, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice”.

The DA’s individualistic liberalism exists only as a theoretical model or what the sociologist Max Weber would have called an “ideal-type”, without any precedent in history.

The Oxford don Isaiah Berlin described this kind of liberalism as follows: “It seems unlikely that this extreme demand for liberty has ever been made by any but a small minority of highly civilised and self-conscious human beings. The bulk of humanity has certainly at most times been prepared to sacrifice this to other goals ... justice, equality, fraternity, and many other values which appear wholly, or in part, incompatible with the attainment of the greatest degree of individual liberty.”

Disagreeable as I may find the DA’s brand of liberalism, I would defend to the death people’s right to join and even lead the party, without suffering the indignity of being labelled sellouts.

Seriously, the ANC calling the DA sellouts is like the pot calling the kettle black, or as a friend put it in an SMS: “why is it egregious to join the DA and kosher to ululate an ANC that has declared war on decency itself. Who has sold out here? Who is the sellout, Zuma or Ramphele? The last time I checked it’s neither Zille nor Ramphele who sold out our country to some pirates from Jaipur, India – the Guptas. Nor did Zille and Ramphele reward themselves with a R208 million dig on a hillock of poverty and squalor. Unfortunately, Ramphele is undermining all that with her prima donnish antics.”

And that brings me to Ramphele’s withdrawal. What went wrong? I am not privy to the details so I can only do what theorists do, which is to provide plausible explanations. The first explanation could be that Ramphele has not been in movement politics since the 1970s.

It is one thing to manage the University of Cape Town and the World Bank where the bureaucracy neatly defines lines of authority, and quite another to have a shack dweller who has never been inside a classroom tell you he’s your boss: “Hey, you are there because of me, wena”. That’s the beauty of democracy.

The second explanation is somewhat related to the first – lack of party political experience. In countries with longer histories of democracy, people with political ambitions think about how to act in public at primary school already.

US President Barack Obama knew in 1983 – when he moved from New York to Chicago – that he wanted to be president one day. Once that decision had been made in his head, life was nothing but choreography for the big moment. Maybe our universities need to teach political management for future leaders.

The third explanation could be that Ramphele just freaked out. Leaving Agang may have felt like abandoning her own child. But the drawbridge had already been removed and the die had been cast. In the beautiful phrasing of film director Quentin Tarantino, she should have swallowed the big, “jagged pill” the DA was offering her, even without the customary glass of water.

The die had already been cast, and all she needed to do was to bide her time until popular opinion had come around. While Ramphele likes to draw parallels with former president Nelson Mandela, the more unfortunate historical parallel will be with former South African prime minister PW Botha’s prevarication over the Rubicon. What Ramphele forgets in her analogy is that Mandela never looked over his shoulder the moment he made the decision to negotiate.

We said he was selling out back then because that was the language of the times. But to him that was all water off his back. He had his eyes on the prize.

I still believe that faced with Zuma and Ramphele on the ballot box many black voters would have chosen her, irrespective of their own political party loyalties. Now, with the opposition in disarray, Gedleyihlekisa is the only man standing.

The fourth reason could be that the black consciousness sensitivity to being patronised by white people still lingered in Ramphele’s head. But she had put herself in that situation. She needed to find ways to manage it. That was going to be her challenge leading and transforming the DA anyway.

And what about Helen Zille and the DA’s role in this mess? Zille cannot be faulted for looking for a black presidential candidate for the DA. Her heart has always been in the right place. Even ANC people will tell you she used to harbour their underground activists in her house. Her overture to Ramphele was a brilliant move by any standard, and it got ANC people trembling in their pants. One ANC leader privately admitted that, “We are relieved. This thing was worrying us because of the vulnerability of Number 1.”

But Zille’s effusive personality got the better of her. She gets too excited for a party political leader. She must learn to go deadpan like former president Thabo Mbeki did – although he went too far the other way.

Delaying the announcement and presenting it as an element of surprise could have done the trick just fine. Calling her untrustworthy and incapable of finishing a project was over the top. A carefully worded statement by a spokesperson would have sufficed in the shock of the moment.

Whatever the reasons are for the fallout, one thing is for sure – it was not inevitable. It was a brilliant political idea poorly executed by visionary women who have a great deal in common – including being political novices.

Because of their political ineptitude, Ramphele and Zille may have done greater damage to opposition prospects than anything the ANC could have done. Even those who were thinking of opposing the ANC will say but if a woman of her stature could not even make it past the starting blocks, why should lesser mortals think they can?

I can see Gedleyihlekisa pushing back his spectacles, chuckling one or two times, and then issuing another bombshell: “You see, opposition parties don’t work in Africa.” And then presidential spokesperson Mac Maharaj is wheeled in to clean up after Number 1’s statement. Emboldened by the opposition implosion, Mac might just say, deadpan: “Who cares?”

That’s what happens in one-party dominant systems.

» Mangcu is associate professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town and non-resident fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University

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