Until November, businessperson and former activist Mamphela Ramphele was on her way to join, even lead, the Democratic Alliance (DA). But her demand that DA leader Helen Zille "dissolve" the party and form a new one with her collapsed the plan.
The Mail & Guardian can reveal that Ramphele's decision to form her own party was taken only after the DA's national congress in November, when the second-biggest political party in the country refused to give in to Ramphele's demands.
Three sources who had intimate knowledge of the talks and plans to "deracialise" the DA spoke to the M&G on condition of anonymity because they didn't want to be seen as destroying Ramphele's efforts to play a role in the country's politics.
The initial plan was that Ramphele would join the DA and become its national leader, and Zille would sacrifice her top seat to be the second-in-command. The aim was to neutralise the view that the DA is a white party that simply needs black votes, said the sources.
In an interview with the M&G, United Democratic Movement president Bantu Holomisa said when Ramphele was still considering her options to play an active role in politics, she mentioned the plan. "She briefed me about the DA's overtures to herself," he said. "She told me she rejected them; she would not join because she doesn't want to be parachuted into the DA to lead. She needs all parties to work together."
During her announcement about forming a party, Agang, on February 18, Ramphele told journalists that she was "not a joiner" when asked about her initial plans to join the DA.
However, another source who was briefed by Agang strategists said possible political problems with the DA's proposed arrangement were behind Ramphele's decision to establish Agang.
"She realised that if she was parachuted into the DA she would not have a constituency there," said the source. "I'm told Helen seriously considered Mamphela's proposal but eventually decided against it."
The condition for Ramphele joining and leading the DA was that her Agang team would author and submit a document about the vision of the renewed DA. The DA leadership had apparently endorsed it.
"The document was a strategic perspective for South Africa, stating the world view and the local view," said a source with inside information. "It also spoke about the disempowerment of the black race. Our view was that the DA does not want to confront this story. [The document] would also spell out what the party would do to address this."
M&G sources said the process was "moving fairly smoothly. It was an 'unhostile' takeover." Things fell apart when Ramphele introduced a new demand after apparently consulting "outside the caucus [that was planning it]. We were about to strike a deal and she comes back and makes a U-turn."
The U-turn was that the DA dissolve its party and joined Ramphele in forming a new political party.
It was an unfair demand, said the source. "The fact was that they could stomach our document, which was not a light document. It was a quantum leap, what they did."
After the DA congress in November at which the party's leaders were apparently going to "assess the mood", the DA finally turned down the demand to dissolve, telling Ramphele "what you're asking for is not possible".
It was then that the Ramphele group began preparing to launch a new party.
DA deputy federal chairperson Mmusi Maimane, who is also the party's national spokesperson, said he could not deny that some talks took place that could have explored the possibility of Ramphele joining or leading the party, but there was nothing formal that was brought to party structures.
"Mamphela is like any other person we spoke to like Cope [Congress of the People] and other opposition parties. The uniqueness with her is that she wasn't a political leader at the time. Dissolving a party requires a two-thirds majority vote and for such a resolution we would have to table it at the federal council."
About Ramphele leading the DA, a party insider said: "That issue is her friendship with Helen. It was not a formal position of the DA."
Political analyst Prince Mashele was one of the key strategists from Ramphele's side and helped to draft the document that would get the two parties agreeing on the ideology and direction of the renewed DA.
He has since withdrawn from Agang.
Mashele had a fallout with political analyst and businessperson Moeletsi Mbeki following a spat about research work that was done by Mbeki's Forum for Public Dialogue. Mashele was the forum's chief executive.
The link between Agang and the forum was also brought to the fore when details were published that the company that registered Agang's website, Great Potential for South Africa, had Mbeki, Mashele and another forum employee, Brutus Malada, as directors.
Great Potential for South Africa was registered in December as "a fundraising vehicle" for the party that Ramphele would form.
When the M&G published a story linking Mbeki to Ramphele's party he refused to comment, but a few days later denied any links to the party in a Sunday Independent article in which he pledged his loyalty to the ruling ANC.
"I have not been invited nor do I intend to join her political party," Mbeki said. "If she is speaking to Black Consciousness comrades, and that is the orientation of the party, I have never been BC. I am a member of the ANC. I am an ANC activist, I have never left the ANC. I am concerned about some developments in the ANC but I am not leaving."
This week, speaking as a political analyst, he praised Ramphele's entry into politics, calling her speech on February 18 the real State of the Nation address.
Mbeki did not respond to emailed questions from the M&G.
Mashele denied any involvement with Agang. "My association with Great Potential was because of its relationship with the forum. We were in the process of formalising a relationship between the forum and the Citizens Movement [for Social Change, Ramphele's non-governmental organisation] and that had nothing to do with politics."
Opposition parties have been trying for several years now to build a "super opposition" to challenge the ANC successfully, an effort that has been revived for a possible coalition to contest next year's general elections.
At a meeting of opposition leaders last month, Holomisa suggested registering an umbrella body of opposition parties.
Holomisa said the 2009 election results "showed that the South African electorate wants a system where two large parties of similar strength and size compete for the mandate to govern. However, the success of such an alliance depends on our ability to create a win-win outcome for all stakeholders."
Holomisa said that an umbrella body that guarantees no party loses its identity "avoids this thing of someone wanting to swallow others".
Agang spokesperson Zhora Dawood said: "Ramphele has never denied talking to a range of people who share her conviction that a fundamental realignment in politics is necessary … She remains open to discussion with anyone who shares the fundamental value of putting the country first, including the DA."