Lessons from #DAgang

2014-02-06 16:49

Last week’s high drama involving Helen Zille and Mamphela Ramphele, the DA and Agang offers voters several lessons about both leaders and their respective parties.

For Helen Zille and the DA, the decision was a fiasco. The party’s attempts to build credibility among black voters is ruined months before an election where black voters’ support is crucial for it to reach its 30% target. It will have to work doubly hard to make sure that every time a black leader within the DA emerges they are not accused of being puppets and the party is not accused of black facing. These criticisms have already been thrown in the DA’s direction and have been brushed aside easily – the likes of Maimane, Mazibuko, Ntuli and others, genuine leaders within the DA who just happen to be black, make it difficult for such criticisms to stick.

Now however, the party is in as precarious a position when it comes to race relations as it was under the leadership of Tony Leon. Not good for Zille whose single stated objective since assuming the party’s leadership has been its transformation – to her mind, being succeeded by a black leader. Ironically, in her rush to bequeath such a game changing legacy to the DA and South Africa, Zille overlooked the dangers of getting involved with Ramphele (again) and now she and the party will suffer the consequences for it.

But the DA will recover. It has the machinery and the discipline to pick itself up and march on – especially with an election just around the corner. There are a sufficient number of ambitious politicians lurking in the parliamentary lists who want to climb the greasy pole and who appreciate the fact that attacking Zille now won’t do them any good. The party needs to steady itself and present voters with a united front. Rest assured though that as quickly those politicians found their voices after the deal imploded, i.e. when the coast was clear for them to mouth off, are on manoeuvres and sharpening their daggers. The moment the last ballot box is counted, Zille’s leadership is in even more danger than it was before. The election will not be there to protect her.

It is an unfortunate thing: Zille has led the DA remarkably well and managed to shave votes of the ANC in difficult circumstances. No-one would have imagined that the ANC – with its formidable Zunami at the 2009 election – would now be thought of as being capable of being brought below the 60% mark. That is in no small part owing to Zille’s stewardship of the DA and how she has marshalled it into new voters’ hearts and minds and how she has sharpened the party’s attack on the ANC.

It will of course be interesting to see how the party takes itself apart in selecting a new leader. Zille had pegged her retirement between the 2014 General and 2016 Local Government elections. This faux pas merely accelerates the pace with which some will demand that she goes. Should Maimane or Mazibuko emerge as the DA’s next leader, as is suspected one of them may, then the party has a good chance of putting this issue behind it. Admittedly there will be some naysayers that will always accuse any black leader of the DA of being a puppet but voters respect those who have worked their way up and not those parachuted in for the sake of it. Voters can detect those who have been brought in to add value and those who are merely there for the sake of it. Hence the cool response of the public to Ramphele. She was a gimmick. Other black leaders in the DA are not.

Whoever does eventually succeed her has a mammoth task on their hands and it will be interesting to see how they pick up where she ultimately leaves off.

But what about Agang? It was supposed to be the social movement that sparked the change we South Africans were desperately crying out for. With its nebulous policy platform and charismatic leader, it set about attempting to convince us that it would deliver us from evil that is the ANC.

In reality, this week has shown that Ramphele and her party are inept at the basic game of politics.

First, Ramphele’s flip-flopping and Agang’s ignorance of its leader’s activities have destroyed what little credibility they both had with the public. Ramphele traded heavily on her world experience as marking her out as a distinguished leader. Though her record was questioned, her achievements are impressive on paper and she does have her own unique brand. But the ease with which she spoke ill of the DA on one day, praised it the day after and then rejected it on the third has made her seem like just another politician. All her idealism has been her own undoing: by positioning herself as the Messiah beyond reproach, her less-than-angelic speaking with forked tongues has made her seem as though she possesses no integrity at all. She can try and trade on her struggle credentials but it won’t matter. Ask many a former struggle hero in the ANC.

Second, even when things were heading south, Agang showed its inexperience in how to fight the media battle. Agang is small and, if all is to be believed, has little money too. The logical thing for it to do would have been to get out of the starting gates first and shout as loudly as it could so that it could set the narrative of why their leader was acting as though she suffered from political schizophrenia. But in an indictment of Ramphele’s management style and Agang’s battle readiness, Thabo Leshilo, the party’s former communications man, was fired in the midst of this frenzy. Not that he was doing a good job in any event but after he publicly stated there was no merger and his leader then announced the exact opposite, he had to go. In any event, without someone in charge of communications and clearly without a proper communications strategy in place, Agang not only had to play catch-up to the DA they were drowned out by it. The DA showed Agang an elementary lesson in politics: the best defence is offence. I shudder to think how much saving of South Africa Agang could do if it could not even save itself.

Third, even though the DA leadership was criticised for taking this decision without adequate consultation, at least there was someone to consult. From media reports it seems as though Ramphele did not consult at all. Or more accurately, she spoke to members from around the country and declared that this would not happen (in response to rumours that it was imminent) only for her to unilaterally do the exact opposite the next day. Hence that statement which got removed from the Agang website and got Leshilo fired: Ramphele either exposed the weakness of Agang’s central command to be involved in decision-making because Ramphele makes them all or Ramphele was exposed as a liar or both. Either way, it does not make for comfortable reading.

Fourth, the fact that Agang took Ramphele back even after she gladly sacrificed the entire party for her personal benefit is indicative of just how weak it is. It has no policy, no platform and no personality. Other than Ramphele, who is there? Leshilo is gone. So is Zohra Dawood apparently. As is Vanessa Hani, daughter of slain anti-Apartheid hero Chris Hani. The dream team that Agang trumpeted at the beginning of its life is nowhere to be found as it limps towards its end. Whatever the reason for all of their departures, whether it be Ramphele’s obstinacy, Agang’s lack of funds or its lack of direction, the fact that it looks like the sinking ship is being abandoned cannot escape anyone. The reality is that Agang may have a few ambitious members who need Ramphele because she is their meal ticket to fundraising and possibly being elected. How sad it is then that a broken and weak party should rely on a broken and weak leader.

But what to make of all of this? The DA has been rattled and the party must pull itself together in order to make sure that the good progress it has made since 2009 is not lost in a few months before the election. This has been a challenge but it is not insurmountable. For a party like Agang however, hopefully this episode will spell the end. The health of our democracy depends on the Opposition’s ability to flatfoot the ANC and keep it on the trot. With governance crises abound, endemic corruption and a general lack of leadership, this should not be too hard for the Opposition, specifically the DA. The party does not need to involve itself in seemingly attractive quick-fixes to serious problems that only come back to haunt it. Ramphele is one such problem and she should never be invited to the DA again – despite the fact that she released a statement not too long ago bizarrely saying that remains open to the DA. Zille got it right when she said that Ramphele cannot be trusted. Now Zille and the DA must go back to coalface and build trust with the voters. South Africa depends on it.

For as Sun Tzu, the author of the seminal work The Art of War, wrote ‘The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.’ If you take that seriously, the ANC has managed to rubbish two enemies in a week without even lifting a finger. And that should worry everyone.

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