ONE day last year, I sat in suspense, very close to my phone, radio and TV. A few days earlier, I had been told by an impeccable source that former black consciousness activist and University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Mamphela Ramphele would be joining the Democratic Alliance (DA).
In fact, for many weeks before that rumour, there were many others and all of them were about DA leader Helen Zille.
Other impeccable sources regaled me with stories about how Zille had already been ready for many months to hand over the party leadership to a credible black leader if such a leader were to materialise.
If the political gossip is anything to go by, the poor woman has been waiting for quite a long time.
Maybe part of the waiting was informed by the belief, either on her part or that of others, that such a black leader does exist, but is not a member of the DA.
If the rumours were grounded in political reality, are Zille’s prayers about to be answered? Is last year’s rumour about Ramphele joining the DA about to become a reality? By the way, the stories of my impeccable sources ended with Ramphele putting her toes in DA waters only to recoil because a cold shiver ran down her spine.
Now, new impeccable sources have been whispering in the ears of a former politician, journalists and political commentators that Ramphele is about to enter the political arena. The first thing to remember is the fact that she is already in the political arena.
What people mean when they say she is about to enter the political arena is that she is moving, assuming the rumours are true, from the nonparty-political space to the party-political domain.
The second thing to remember is that political parties do not occupy the entirety of our democratic space.
Our democratic space consists of both the party and nonparty political spaces. What is important in this respect is for us to realise that the quality of our democratic experience depends on what we do and, therefore, on what happens in both the party-political and nonparty-political spaces.
The fact that ours is an uncompetitive party-political space characterised by the single-party dominance of the African National Congress (ANC) should not detract from this argument.
In addition, the fact that opposition parties in South Africa are too weak at the moment to constitute alternatives that are credible enough to act as agents of restraint is not good enough a reason for us to think that our political salvation depends solely on political parties or the words and deeds of individual political leaders.
Put differently, what should citizens do when they are failed by both the ruling party and opposition parties?
Shouldn’t they rely on their own agency and political engagement in the nonparty-political space, of which civil society is an important component? This is the space Ramphele currently occupies.
If the rumours about her entering the "political arena" are true, two questions arise: First, is she forming her own party or joining the DA? Second, as a party politician, is she not going to compromise the respect and credibility she has accumulated in the civil society space?
If she forms her own party, she will be accused of fracturing the opposition at a time when opposition parties are talking about how to co-operate during the campaign period ahead of next year’s elections.
Further, given the fact that the space on the right of the ANC is characterised by the single-party dominance of the DA, and left of the ANC there is nothing (apart from the alliance partners of the ruling party) that is worth mentioning, how is she going to position such a party? Also, how, in class and racial terms, is she going to position the new political formation?
She must bear in mind that attempts at foregrounding the constitution and the rule of law in ways that seek to project the ANC as a threat to constitutional values have, so far, failed miserably.
The failure to excite the popular imagination through these issues does not mean ANC voters do not care about the rule of law and constitutional values.
What they want to know is how opposition parties intend to deal with issues such as poverty and unemployment, especially among those who were oppressed during apartheid. She must ask herself whether her voice still resonates with the poor and the working class.
Over and above this, she must be very clear about how she will navigate class and race contradictions and the convergence of interests if her new political venture is to maximise the kind of support that, in future, will transcend the cleavages of history, race and class.
Her greatest challenge, however, lies in the ability to export the values and principles that have earned her respect and admiration from the civil society space to the party-political space.
The party-political space is ugly and suffers from duplicity, a surplus of broken promises and a deficit of honesty.
If she forms her own party or joins the DA, these and other vicissitudes and vagaries of party politics will become part of her new political universe.
In fact, she has already been given a taste of how ugly things may become if she enters the realm of party politics.
Surely, she hasn’t forgotten how her own morality was attacked by some ANC leaders, when she commented on what she felt was wrong with the moral content of the ANC.
References to her relationship with the late black consciousness leader, Steve Biko, are but a taste of what will happen if she enters party politics and remains uncompromising in her criticism of the ANC.
What she must pray for is that moral issues will continue to score very low as an election issue, or that such attacks will say more about those doing the attacking than the intended victim of their attacks.
For now, what is important is the possibility that the formation of a new party may be a ruse.
In other words, whatever she decides to do, if she enters party politics, it is probably a winding but short road that leads to the welcoming arms of Zille.
On the other hand, her entry may be the beginnings of some kind of realignment outside of the DA.
But such a re-alignment may deliver nothing better than the consolidation of the political interests of some sections of the black middle class, with minimal support from minority voters, for whom the DA has become a political home.
Whether she enters party politics or not, the period between next year’s and the 2019 elections will test the capacity of opposition forces to reinvent themselves.
Further, it is clear that the path to an electoral defeat for the ANC will begin with a two-party system in national electoral politics. It remains to be seen whether Ramphele will defy history by succeeding where the United Democratic Movement, Independent Democrats and the Congress of the People failed.
Whether the rumours are true or not, they are a measure of the desperation that exists for the emergence of a credible alternative to the ANC.
• Matshiqi is a research fellow at the Helen Suzman Foundation.
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