Opinionista Marianne Thamm 3 February 2014

The DA and Agang: Everybody knows the dice were loaded

For some South Africans disillusioned with the ANC and who cannot not bring themselves to vote for the DA, Mamphela Ramphele and Agang, until a few days ago, offered a sort of blank screen onto which various political hopes, dreams and aspirations could be projected. But hopes and dreams are childish things in the harsh, bruising reality that is everyday politics in South Africa. And while Mamphela Ramphele might hope to salvage her political reputation in the coming weeks, for many who gave up careers and time to support her and Agang, the party is over.

Let me begin with an insider sort of conspiratorial tone those of us who work in the media get when we talk to each other away from you, the readers. It is a hushed voice accompanied by a quick look over the shoulder to ensure no one is eavesdropping. The information might be a juicy morsel or a nugget, usually from an impeccable and reliable source, who requests that you be discreet and keep what you are about to be told confidential.

Trust me, I am a journalist,” I usually go on to reassure them.

Journalists get told these things because it is very difficult for people who have found themselves in the orbit of a powerful person, and who may have been disappointed or disillusioned by them, not to hope secretly or perhaps even unconsciously that we, the journalist, might punish the subject by breaking the confidence. They might hope to exact revenge by proxy using the journalist as a blunt instrument. Of course, if the nugget is of national importance we will go all out to investigate and verify and then bring you big, bold, screaming/shaming headlines.

Usually the information is low-key stuff, like so-and-so drinks too much, so-and-so has a gambling problem, so-and-so is dishonest/manipulative/conniving (add your own adjective here). Often there is no paper trail, no proof, no concrete evidence and one decides, depending on the reliability of the source, to wait, to sit it out and to watch the subject unravel unaided.

There is a verse in the comically pessimistic Leonard Cohen dirge “Everybody Knows” that sort of sums it all up. It goes:

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking

Everybody knows that the captain lied

Everybody got this broken feeling

Like their father or their dog just died.

There are going to be witnesses at the Oscar Pistorius trial who will testify to the same. “We saw this coming like a Tsunami on the horizon but crossed our fingers and hoped it would not crash onto our shore.”

Of course when predicable, shitty stuff happens to ordinary people, the collateral damage and fallout is usually contained and limited to one’s immediate environment. A slammed door, a dab with one-ply at moist eyes, a sincere “sorry” and it’s all over.

But when a public figure’s insides spill outside, the circle of damage is wider, deeper and long-lasting.

Over the years several people who have worked closely with Mamphela Ramphele have felt the sting of her sharp tongue, have withered into a pool of nothingness in her blowtorch stare of disapproval, have been shattered by the casual and cool chaos she can bring to situations. These are insider stories that have been shared, not publicly, out of respect, I would say, for Mamphela Ramphele and what she represented to some.

But those who were drawn into her orbit in the wake of the establishment of Agang have seen a side of Ramphele many have known and spoken about for years. Some of those who gave up their studies, careers and regular jobs to join Ramphele when she first conjured up the idea of Agang have left or been fired. They are all deeply disillusioned individuals now, not only at the death of a political dream and an ideal but also by the behavior of a leader who caused the collapse of a party that had so much potential (in their minds, at least) through her inability to chart a course and stick to it. They saw close up a chaotic leader unable to manage her staff, her party and her resources (never mind run the country). They feel as betrayed, I would imagine, as those voters and supporters who were thinking Agang offered them an alternative space to put their x on the ballot.

But like a willow bending with the wind, Ramphele told people what they wanted to hear while going ahead and doing what she wanted to do anyway.

So, a moment of silence please for Helen Zille, who must be feeling particularly bruised right now, not only because of a political cock-up, but because she has lost a close and long-time friend. Zille has known Ramphele for many, many years. Their children attended the same school, they have shared many meals, and they have worked together in the past. But still, Helen Zille knew exactly who Mamphela Ramphele was. She was aware of all her faults; she was prepared to take the risk with her friend and colleague she clearly respected.

You know those relationships where a couple is going to get married and friends find out something terrible about either one of them? The dilemma, of course, is whether to approach the one half of the couple and tell them. It always backfires, and only the brave expose risking a friendship to tell the truth.

Perhaps there were people who did warn Zille; perhaps she chose to believe otherwise.

In the mopping up of the little public Agang/DA sick-up, the DA doesn’t come out smelling too bad. The party indicated it was prepared to parachute in a black leader (no matter how problematic some of us might find that, especially when the party has enough of a good crop to choose from). It also showed that the leader was prepared to stand down for a black leader.

In the end, Mamphela Ramphele has only herself to blame for the political cul de sac in which she now finds herself. She might claim that the party is about to embark on a “90 Day Campaign” and that a manifesto will soon be launched but right now, South Africans have moved on. The train has pulled out of the station and Ramphele is stuck on the platform with all her baggage.

The party for her is truly over. Everybody knows. DM


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