Simon Williamson

Did the DA need Ramphele?

2014-01-29 09:50

Simon Williamson

There has been an outpouring of criticism directed at Mamphela Ramphele since Tuesday's big announcement, and I think there's an awful lot to justify that criticism. Ramphele evidently sucks at personnel management - her staffers were denying Democratic Alliance-amalgamation rumours as recently as Tuesday.

She has been rather underwhelming as a party leader and what's more, she has previously crapped all over the party (more than once) she wants to represent... represent as the head of state, nogal. The scattered ashes of Agang SA aside however, I cannot fathom why the DA would nominate her as the party's presidential candidate.

I can understand signing her up as a member. I can even understand the merits of a ceremony in which she offers her blessings of the party. Even recruiting her as a possible MP makes sense. But why though nominate her as the party's presidential candidate?

Times have changed

It's not like this kind of stunt hasn't been tried before. The DA attempted this sort of gimmicky play in 2008 when it announced Joe Seremane as its presidential candidate. And while Seremane himself was certainly no gimmick, his nomination was the fruit of some rather adventurous political strategy. I would even venture to say few of the party's faithful voters had the faintest idea who Seremane was. And of course it all failed spectacularly.

Times, however, have changed. The appeal of the DA is definitely more diverse nowadays. And the party's recently announced election lists certainly attest to a membership better reflecting South African demographics (in a relative sense). The party has recruited some and trained many of its new black members, who are now in senior positions, without resorting to the kind of wankery that saw Joe Seremane paraded as a presidential candidate.

In the last five years the DA has gone out into corners of South Africa that most of its historical voters only ever drive past very quickly, with closed windows. They have ventured to advertise themselves in a way it never has before. It has changed its whole tone and messaging from "Fight B[l]ack" to "look Mandela hugged Helen Suzman and said she was awesome", "we love Mandela" and "we also fought apartheid". The DA swallowed up the Independent Democrats like serious parties do to little parties. The DA's youth brigade has courted votes heavily - remember this? - and it was just this week that Mbali Ntuli, young black leader of the DA Youth, had the gall to publicly disagree with her party leadership over their planned march to Luthuli House.

Build-up of black support

Senior party members back employment equity legislation (although others don't). DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko has run her - and others', really - caucuses in parliament with a stiff arm, and knows how to haul out topics in front of a camera; while I had the greatest respect for Sandra Botha, the message is more convincing and louder nowadays. Helen Zille hasn't complained about wombats or entitlement horses for ages and has kept the party message pretty focused. And on its highest note: the DA Young Leaders programme has come to fruition.

While the process hasn't been free of nonsense - King Dalindyebo comes to mind - the process has been sluggish (one doesn't change the political direction of a country quickly unless your politics are completely wrecked *cough* Greece *cough*). There is however a legitimate build-up of black support aiming the DA's way, and a legitimately larger build-up of black politicians within the party. It is small, I admit, but undoubtedly growing.

I just cannot understand why the DA has tried this Ramphele-for-president gimmick. If anything, Ramphele's nomination undermines the DA's carefully planned and hard-worked strategies to win more than the pale vote.

Helen Zille has been correctly credited with spearheading the party's march toward inclusivity, in spite of serious criticism from verkrampte party liberals. But instead of continuing what has been a real escalation in membership into electoral growth, the party hauls in an outsider who, we have come to realise over the last year or so, is pretty average at politics. For example, she seemingly didn't actually tell anyone in her party she was going to be the presidential candidate for someone else.

DA and race

There was also a bizarre piece of Tuesday's press conference where Helen Zille said, in response to a question about DA credibility with black voters, "It's difficult for me to say race should not be the issue, because people immediately say: 'oh yes, you are white and of course you would say that'...but when Dr Ramphele gets up there and says race is not the issue, fixing education is the issue; fixing healthcare is the issue; getting land reform right is the issue … then people don't focus on her race as they do with me."

Does the DA really think that now race is going to leave the South African political discourse because they have a black presidential candidate? Why would it be true for Ramphele, but not for Wilmot James or Mmusi Maimane? Why can't the black folks who have been DA members since before Agang was a twinkle in its mother's eye be given the responsibility to tell us that they believe in land reform and employment equity? (I'll let you in on a secret, though: they do).

I cannot establish why that would now be regarded as any truer or untruer coming from the mouth of Dr Ramphele. Looking for struggle credentials? What the hell is Patricia de Lille? Someone who has worked at massive corporations? What is Wilmot James (who also happens to be an academic!)?

DA improvement

Despite the media-endorsed "spicing up" of the election, this publicity stunt is unlikely to make a vast difference to what would already happen at the polls, especially considering it is still likely to be Helen Zille's face on the ballot, and the power of Ramphele could only pique around 1% of voters' interests anyway. Oh, and the ANC will win the election, (essentially meaning she will rise as high as one of many DA MPs).

DA improvement this election has been long predicted (it is the only party that has improved every election, in any case), and the party has done some sterling work for that to be the case - this last weekend's election lists are a case in point. An improvement in the DA's share of the vote is not necessarily because it is going to enter Ramphele as a losing presidential candidate.

Hopefully the DA doesn't disregard its own legitimately developed and recruited political talent again in 2019. I'd hate to see it nominate Irvin Jim if the land question remains up in the air.

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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Read more on:    agang sa  |  da  |  helen zille  |  mamphela ramphele

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