Because we don’t have any competent political journalists or commentators any more, virtually all the discussion of the DA’s Agang catastrophe has focussed on personalities; is it Zille’s fault, is it Ramphele’s fault, is it a bit of both? Who should we blame? The real issue is the nature of the DA within South African politics, and that cannot be discussed, partly because to discuss it would be to make the DA look very bad indeed, and partly because nobody in a position of power supports intelligent political debate, as this might lead to intelligent political action.
The big issue was the status of Mamphela Ramphele, a political nonentity with no public support who had been massively promoted in the media and publishing industry by someone with a lot of money and very poor political sense. Ramphele supposedly has “struggle credentials”. Actually she was sufficiently involved in the black consciousness movement to spend several years under a banning order in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But after she was unbanned, Ramphele worked with white liberal academics “investigating poverty” (but doing nothing about it). On the basis of this she was placed as the black fairy atop the University of Cape Town’s white Christmas tree, crushing trade unions, hobbling academics, and generally ensuring that UCT would not undergo any transformation towards social concerns or racial equity. Thereafter she went off to become a black face at the American-run World Bank, that tool of global plutocracy. If she ever did anything positive while she was Steve Biko’s girlfriend (and nobody seems able to remember that she did), she has made up for it by pursuing evil consistently for twenty subsequent years.
The problem with all this is that Ramphele had never pursued any consistent political agenda or shown any political leadership — so she was thoroughly unfit for a leadership role in any political party. Why, then, was Ramphele proposed for the leadership of the DA? It was not as if there were no alternatives.
The reason lies in a combination of race, class and political dishonesty.
The DA’s racial history is as a white party which sought to fool coloureds and indians into voting for white leaders — much like the National Party which the DA absorbed. A large part of its political tradition consists of systematically denigrating and demonising africans. However, this identifies the DA as a party of apartheid, and this is an enormous problem. Obviously, in the long run, the DA wants african votes, which cannot be obtained if the party is perceived to be anti-african. Furthermore, identification with apartheid is considered to be a bad thing among most of the white South African community, and therefore the party does not wish to depict itself as anti-african, nor do its members wish to base their own identity on hostility to africans. They are hostile to africans, but they don’t want to admit it.
Therefore they are eager to take africans on board of the party so long as those africans do not have any power to challenge white control of the party — and so long as the africans follow scripts drawn up by whites and do not raise any issues embarrassing to whites, neither in the eyes of the electorate nor in the quiet of the conference room. This makes it very frustrating and even downright humiliating to be a black DA member.
Then why would any african want to belong to the DA? Here we come to the DA’s economic history. The party was born out of the lobby-group for the mining industry — mildly reformist in nature by 1950s South African standards, in other words essentially corporatist. It did embrace some social-democratic principles in the 1970s, but by the mid-1980s it was completely under the thumb of big business and has subsequently been loyal and true to ultra-right-wing neoliberalism, monetarism and — to a great extent — global imperialism. This is enormously attractive to reactionaries and plutocrats, and therefore is attractive to the new irresponsible black colonial bourgeoisie who have grown up on the right of the ANC. It is these people who constitute the africans who join the DA out of ideological principle — or, to put it more politely, out of selfish greed and sheeplike adherence to the propaganda of the white elite whom those africans so slavishly mimic.
This is an advantage for the DA, but it is also a disadvantage, because the africans who support reactionary economic politics are wholly out of touch with the majority of africans. Despite all propaganda, the african middle class is very small by comparison with the african working class and lumpenproletariat and ur-peasantry. It is true that the ANC was based in the african middle class — but the traditions of that african middle class were shaped around hostility to white plutocracy and distrust for white capitalists on a scale not very different from that felt by the Afrikaner nationalists of the 1930s.
Indeed, the DA’s economic policy is fundamentally opposed to the interests of the majority of the people of South Africa: neoliberalism, financialisation, and deep-seated hostility to any rights for workers and to any redistribution of wealth. The more impoverished white and coloured voters are prepared to overlook this only because they believe that the DA’s policies will keep the africans down and they can hope that perhaps they may benefit from racial solidarity in other respects. Most africans, however, are sympathetic to worker organisations and definitely support wealth redistribution, and are well aware of how these forces have benefited them in the past. The hostility to working-class interests which the DA expresses has a definite racial tinge which greatly annoys africans; the DA’s hostility even to middle-class initiatives like affirmative action, a hostility which it shares with such reactionary forces as the Freedom Front and AfriForum, makes it very difficult for it to appeal to africans when economic topics arise.
But the DA cannot admit this. It can’t say that its goal is to enrich a tiny minority of rich people and plunder the remainder. In this, of course, it faces the same problem that is faced by most other political parties in South African and elsewhere. It has the special problem, however, that it has never (not since its incarnation as the DP in 1989) had any other real agenda than this. The ANC has at least taken some steps in the past which benefited the poor more than the rich; the DA has never had any interest in such things. Therefore it is difficult for the DA to pretend that it is anything other than a plutocratic party; it must therefore pretend that plutocracy is desirable, and preferable to anything else.
And so, back we go to Mamphela Ramphele. On one hand she is filthy rich and a pliantly reactionary tool of big business at home and abroad, and on the other hand she is black and a willing (if not necessarily loyal) subordinate. She is therefore an ideal figure to serve the self-image of the white party and its white supporters. The words they want to hear will come from the mouth of a person whom, they can persuade themselves, is respected by, and presumably representative of, other dark-skinned people. Blacks, feel the DA’s supporters, are racist, and will not listen to white people’s lies; when black people tell the same lies, blacks will be fooled. However, it is necessary to put Ramphele in a position of apparent (though not real) authority, so that africans will be deceived into thinking that whites actually respect them; Ramphele’s voice somehow carries no authority, otherwise, unless it receives the stamp of approval from white people. It would be difficult to find a greater sequence of delusional patronising attitudes anywhere.
But none of this says anything about Ramphele’s actual qualities to serve as a leader. The leadership of the DA is a difficult job; the Presidency of South Africa is a still more difficult one. It is obvious that Ramphele is not qualified for either task. The consequence of her taking such power would be disaster — as virtually everybody knows. Presumably, the DA only intended her to hold such posts on the understanding that people elsewhere would have the actual power. (Since Ramphele seems to be egotistical and incapable of self-awareness, this is not something which pleases her, even though she has been a front-person for her entire career, she continually yaps that she is nobody’s poodle.) This being obvious, Ramphele could not have been a vote-winner for the party.
All this is obvious, and yet the DA still went ahead and compounded the problems which had already been manifested with people like Mazibuko and which appear to be arising out of Maimane. It isn’t clear what was responsible for this — some say Zille, some say wider factions within the DA, others say (which is most plausible of all) that it was actually the funders. Whoever was responsible for this, it represents the triumph of everything which is stupid, racist, patronising and corrupt about white liberal politics in South Africa.
Of course, this is not going to lose the DA a lot of votes. They will continue to enjoy the uncritical support of the bulk of the white community (who are always ready to mock africans for voting for the ANC; you might wonder why whites are incapable of perceiving themselves, but this is because most of them are vampires and don’t reflect in mirrors). They will also continue to enjoy the financial support of the bulk of the corporate community. All the same, they have demonstrated their extraordinary incompetence even at being subservient to rich and powerful business interests, and that isn’t going to impress business in the long run.
The biggest problem, though, isn’t votes alone. The problem is that the DA doesn’t have much in the way of plans to increase the number of votes. The Ramphele bungle was a wrong-headed attempt to dash into the african electorate and bamboozle them, and unfortunately it exposed the DA for what it is (and also exposed Agang for what it is, though Ramphele doesn’t seem to have realised this). Hence, however much big business might have backed Ramphele initially, the grim fact is that the DA is running out of time. Its political manifesto is fundamentally indistinguishable from the ANC’s policies — and almost everybody who votes ANC will notice this, which is not going to make anyone who doesn’t like the ANC’s policies rush off and vote DA. The party is also hell-bent on backing Maimane in Gauteng and is writing off the Northern Cape, which is a province which the DA might be able to win by sheer financial clout if it put all its energy into that. As a result the DA is in danger of not doing well at all in this election — and in that case, big business may decide to put more of its eggs in the ANC basket.
That will please Zuma and Ramaphosa. As for the rest of us — since when did the corporate elite care about us?