Zille-Ramphele split more dignified than protracted ANC spats

When Helen Zille and Dr Mamphela Ramphele parted ways this week, the South African public seemed collectively to hiss "It serves you right!" before erupting into ­snickers and inane wisecracks about the brevity of the tryst. 

In part, the derision was the fault of a holier-than-thou Democratic Alliance (DA), which has long argued that it holds itself to a higher moral standard than the ANC. But in rushing to get Ramphele as its presidential candidate in the elections, the DA made a mockery of its stated commitment to rules-based political governance.

Worse yet, the Agang leader was allowed to jump the queue because of her personal friendship with Helen Zille – a classic example of the cronyism the DA so often ­condemns in the ruling party.

Zille's judgment was obviously clouded by the fact that Ramphele is a long-time friend and ally. Had the ANC sought to put an old ­chommie of Jacob Zuma's on the ticket, one who wasn't even yet a member of the party, the DA would have heaped scorn on him.

One could argue that, because of their closeness, Mamphele and Zille can be forgiven for losing perspective and crafting an unworkable deal. The party's structures should have kicked in to put a stop to the nonsense, and they didn't.

In the aftermath, the DA sought to blame Ramphele for the disaster and Zille launched an ad hominem attack on her, but she refused to take the bait. A day after Zille called her "untrustworthy", Ramphele wrote to her party members: "The DA has served South Africa with conviction … It has within its ranks many who want only the best for South Africa." 

It was a small gesture. Perhaps too small, but in an election season defined by strife, a season in which no one seems to able to say "Sorry, I messed up", Ramphele's apology to her members was  important.

Perhaps my standards are too low, forced down by a political class stubbornly resistant to raising its own game. But, in my estimation, it mattered a great deal that the dissolution happened so quickly. 

Many saw this as cause for derision, but I believe it represented a forthrightness (and I think Ramphele was the more honest of the two leaders) that is often missing in the way the ruling party deals with its factional battles. 

The endless circus of denial that defines the internal politics of the ANC has become the norm. We are used to drawn-out accounts of secret national executive committee meetings, leaked before the proceedings have ended. We are no longer surprised when warring male leaders end months of speculation in a hysterical volley of open letters. We roll our eyes as we watch the dangerous games that almost always play themselves out on the bodies of women.   

In the Zille-Ramphele spat, there was none of this. Yet both are mocked because we did not have to endure months of friction and internecine warfare. This alone symbolises a difference to the ruling party's style of crisis management, and for that we should be grateful. 

I don't think Ramphele emerges too badly either. Beyond her political naivety, her flip-flopping and her shortsightedness, there is something gritty, tough and dogged about her – and, of course, there is that unshakeable self-regard.

No matter what the pundits say, no matter how many times she is called egotistical, she seems determined to keep moving forward. 

I was opposed to Ramphele's entry into politics. Her voice was far more powerful when it wasn't seen as partisan. Yet I find it difficult not to admire her tenacity. I find it even more difficult to deny that she is an extraordinary South African.

At a time when politics makes little sense, Ramphele reminds us that falling flat on your face is not the end of the world. A leader who cannot learn, who cannot recalibrate and change course, cannot succeed. We are often discouraged from trying lest we fail, but Ramphele has insisted on trying, failing and trying again. 

She has been publicly pilloried in the process. That matters not a whit. South Africa is a better country for having  a daughter who tries, who fails, and who is not crushed or humiliated  by it.   

Sisonke Msimang is a writer and activist who works for Sonke ­Gender Justice.

Sisonke Msimang
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