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A guide on how to botch a political union in less than a week

Verashni Pillay

From crippling impatience to invoking Nelson Mandela's name: the failed Agang SA-DA merger was a lesson in how not to do things in SA politics.

Agang SA's Mamphela Ramphele (left) and the DA's Helen Zille showed us how not to do things in SA politics. (Gallo)

"Undemocratic." "Premature." "An act of desperation." 

And my personal favourite, "a joint mistake". 

The aborted Agang SA-Democratic Alliance (DA) partnership has been called many things. But mostly it is a monumental disappointment. The so-called realignment of South African politics failed and we are back to where we started: faced with a ruling party that has increasingly let us down, with no opposition strong enough to challenge them. And it's depressing. 

Where did it go so wrong? Here's my take: 

  1. Don't read the fine print
    Two facts to consider here: The DA's constitution stipulates that a candidate on its list has to be a member of the party. Agang SA's interim constitution states that a party member may not hold dual membership of it and another party. It's a pretty straight-forward contradiction and a hurdle you think Mamphela Ramphele would have considered, given that she formed her party long after she started talking partnership possibilities with the DA. Yet she looked at me with a straight face during an interview on Monday when asked about this and said: "I'm not in the business of technicalities." She also seems to think that she can change the rules through wishful thinking when she added: "For me, there was and could have been a way I could have been the joint presidential leader of DA and Agang." Yet she pushed for the parties to announce their alliance last week Tuesday without these most basic of details ironed out. 
     
  2. Go ahead and rush in where angels fear to tread
    Demanding a big press conference announcement without first working out the details is as foolish as acquiescing to one in the first place. DA leader Helen Zille justified agreeing to the press conference announcing the pair's partnership because things were getting desperate in South Africa, what with the National Prosecuting Authority being weakened by President Jacob Zuma's administration and so on. But things are always a bit desperate in South African in one way or another, and I hate to break it to the DA, but a press conference is hardly going to fix it. A workable partnership with properly processed details may have, but the allure of headlines for the party that is too media hungry for its own good got in the way. Ramphele reasoned she wanted to take control of the media leaks, which again didn't cut it for me. And the persistent rumours that joint funders forced their hand – which Agang more or less confirmed at a press conference on Monday – seems a more likely explanation. 
     
  3. Invoke Mandela's name
    Opposition politicians have latched on to Nelson Mandela's name and vision much in the same way a bad SEO web page would. They recognise the enormous sway he holds in the hearts and minds of South Africans so they just sort of pepper their campaigns and speeches with his name. This is despite the fact that he was such an ANC loyalist that he left the party a part of his fortune in his will. So for opposition figures such as Ramphele to repeatedly compare herself to Mandela is incredibly off-putting. She justifies failing to consult her members before partnering with the DA because Mandela didn't heed his party when he started negotiating to end apartheid. And she has used this argument repeatedly over the past few days. There are so many things wrong with this analogy I don't even know where to begin. But generally I think we need a version of Godwin's law on this one.  Godwin's law essentially warns against playing the Hitler card to simplistically win an argument. Example: "Well Hitler was a vegetarian so meat eaters rule!" Similarly: "Well Mandela didn't consult his party once so I don't have to ever." Not so much.

I could go on but our opposition parties don't need any more ideas to make a hash of things. Will we ever see a meaningful multiparty democracy in this country? Maybe, if politicians can learn to be more humble and less impatient. But it won't happen in this election for sure.


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