South Africa

The Day After: Agang’s many questions, few answers

By Greg Nicolson 30 January 2014

Agang SA is in damage control mode after its leader Mamphela Ramphele surprised the country, and the party, on Monday, announcing she would head the Democratic Alliance’s list for the 2014 elections, serving as its candidate for president of the state. The sudden move shocked Agang members, who gave a press conference on Wednesday. Despite all her bluster, it seems Ramphele has more in common with the problems of South African politics than she admits. By GREG NICOLSON.

“People are working. We’re really cool,” said Agang’s towering director of communications, Thabo Leshilo, on Wednesday. Last June, he introduced Ramphele at the party’s launch in Pretoria. She vowed never to take the trust of citizens for granted. Over the weekend, Leshilo said reports Ramphele would be on the DA’s election list were ridiculous. He wasn’t as vocal on Wednesday. Leshilo referred all questions about Ramphele to Mark Peach, the FTI Consulting executive who was handling her communications when Agang was launched.

Agang’s provincial political leaders (nominated to contest positions at an upcoming elective conference, which doesn’t have a date, and now looks uncertain) gathered on Wednesday to address the media. The venue was a room next to the party’s headquarters. It was a shell, an unfinished room with no carpet.

TheDayAfter

Photo: Agang SA provincial leaders address Wednesday’s press conference. (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)

The party’s entire membership was taken aback by Ramphele’s decision to run with the DA. “It must be stated clearly: There is no mandate of members and structures of Agang,” said Donald Tontsi, a Gauteng member. “No one leader in any structure of the organisation has the right to make unilateral decisions. We are in the process of seeking clarity from our great leader,” he added.

“If you have people who make decisions without robust debate, that is a dictatorship,” said Andries Tlouama, Agang’s Gauteng chairman.

Agang’s provincial leaders want Ramphele to consult the party and its members. They hope to have a meeting with her this week. “Mamphela Ramphele is a democrat,” said Tontsi, still holding the faith. The members were committed to keeping Ramphele as their leader and denied any rumours that she had been fired or that the party was splitting.

“We don’t feel betrayed. We just feel our leaders should take us through [this],” said Tlouama. “Mamphela Ramphele remains the leader of this organisation. She remains the leader of this organisation until the time comes when she tenders her resignation,” added Tontsi. Ramphele’s sudden move may have thrown the fledgling party into disarray, but at least we’ve now heard of other members.

For some, Ramphele’s announcement seems hard to believe. “As far as we’re concerned, there is no merger with the DA. Right now, we will consult our leader,” said Tumi Komane. Tontsi went as far as blaming the media for the “confusion”. No one should assume that there will be a merger or that Ramphele will work with the DA. “That would be your own assumption,” he said. According to some reporters at the Agang offices on who spoke to staff at Agang’s offices on Monday, the reaction was one of complete shock.

The provincial leaders remained resolute. “News that we are broke is just nonsense. We are here at the party headquarters. As you can see, we have also paid our rent. We will campaign as Agang in the upcoming elections. We are also going to introduce our national leadership soon after our national congress, which will be held very soon,” said Tlouama.

Peach, speaking for Ramphele, told Daily Maverick, “Dr Ramphele has been consistent in saying that she and Agang SA were prepared to talk to other parties to achieve a realignment of the political landscape, present South Africans with a government-in-waiting, and focus on building a democratic centre. None of this is a secret. Recent events have presented a historic opportunity for this realignment and both the leaders of Agang SA and the DA acted. The point is, these discussions were known throughout Agang SA, as was Dr Ramphele’s open view that whatever resulted from discussions needed to put the country before self-interest and ego.”

He’s right. The merger is not a surprise. “We want to leverage what exists,” Ramphele told editors in a meeting almost a year ago, saying she remained open to discussions with other parties. “We want to be a value adder. We don’t want to go over ground that others have already covered.”

Peach continued with more controversial claims: “Before the announcement was made, Dr Ramphele did communicate her intention with staff and leaders and she is looking forward to ongoing discussions with branches and supporters, the majority of whom have responded very positively to the news. There have, however, been a handful who have used the opportunity to make false allegations and claims – notably, one of them was expelled from Agang SA last year.” He was referring to Sakhiwo Yako, who claims to be a Gauteng member, and said Ramphele would be expelled. She said Yako had himself been expelled and was an Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) agent.

Responding to Monday’s announcement, Cosatu had a field day. It referred to its 2013 statement questioning Ramphele’s commitment to the working class, citing her links to big business. Its affiliates joined in. The National Union of Mineworkers said, “This loudmouth has now joined the DA, projecting herself as a messiah above the rest. She is no messiah. She is a political tourist, political opportunist and a rented black. All we know is that Ramphele is joining a party that is desperately in need of black faces whilst it has no agenda to transform the social and economic needs of the majority black citizens in our country.” The SA Democratic Teachers Union criticised her over her comment about poor teachers. The National Education Health and Allied Workers Union said she was joining the DA to defend white minority capital.

The unions and the ANC are using the same rhetoric as when Agang was launched. For Agang members, however, things are different. Ramphele trades in the values of respect, duty and honour, and it looks like she threw her followers under a bus.

And yet, the merger shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Ramphele made those possible intentions known. Her party never managed to get more attention than at its initial launches. It floundered with a hapless electioneering strategy (especially when the EFF started getting headlines). The goal of mobilising support amongst the youth never looked close to being realistic. Reportedly, it also had financial problems.

The surprise is how it was done. When the Independent Democrats decided to sink into the DA in 2010, it happened only after months of discussion, a mandate from its national executive, and a special national conference.

Ramphele claims to believe in accountability and honouring trust. But those who signed up as members of Agang were ignored in making the most important decision since the party’s birth (while Ramphele claims otherwise, indicators suggest she did not consult her membership, or even top leaders).

If ever there were a bunch of political sods, it was in that press briefing on Wednesday. Their leader betrayed them, ignoring one of the key prescripts of SA politics – consult your members; whatever you do, consult your members, even just to add a veneer of democratic processes. The provincial leaders of Agang had no idea what was coming. They were betrayed, but they remain loyal.

It’s not unusual in politics. But it’s not what Ramphele said she stood for and not what members signed up for. They don’t even know what they’re in for. Ramphele accepted nomination as the DA’s candidate for president without explaining the finer details of the merger.

A task team will be set up to deal with the finer points. Sounds a little like another party Ramphele is fond of criticising. DM

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Main photo: Finishing with a song, Agang members at the press conference hid the party’s unstable future. (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)

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