Mamphela Ramphele and Helen Zille at a press briefing in Cape Town last month, where it was announced Ramphele accepted an invitation to be the DA’s presidential candidate in this year’s national election. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Mamphela Ramphele, left, and Helen Zille at a press briefing in Cape Town last month, where it was announced Ramphele accepted an invitation to be the DA’s presidential candidate in this year’s national election. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

SOUTH Africa has had its fair share of egomaniacs post 1994 but it was Marthinus "Kortbroek" van Schalkwyk who set the bar for self-interest so high in the early 2000s. That record has now been shattered. We have a new champion. In Mamphela Ramphele we have someone willing not just to fashion an entire political party after her own image but to run it into the ground and then abandon it, lock, stock and barrel. There is a saying that all politics is personal. For Ramphele, everything personal is political. The ego has landed. And it has landed on the Democratic Alliance (DA).

That said, credit to the DA. In typically ruthless fashion, just as it systematically decimated support for the Independent Democrats over a period of years, it took only a couple of months to reduce Ramphele’s Agang SA to a quivering wreck. It didn’t even need an election. Aided by Ramphele’s endless navel-gazing, Agang SA was no more able to excite the public mind than a paper mache rock.

Make no mistake, this was a hostile takeover. Ramphele confused the size of her ego with the size of her support. The gulf was enormous and the political marketplace quickly drove her share price through the floor as a result. With Ramphele deeply in the red, exposed and with no influence or track record, the DA could demand any price it wanted.

If Agang SA was a business, it was about as competitive as a corner café. It now belongs to the DA.

Don’t think for a moment, however, any of this will result in humility, reflection or introspection on Ramphele’s part. Egomaniacs, in the luxurious comfort of their conscience, are never wrong. That apartment remains decked out in the finest money can buy. On Tuesday she didn’t concede an inch. The farce that was Agang SA was necessary, a noble venture born of compassion and concern. The truth, however, was that it was just a table, at which an insatiable appetite would feast. It can now gorge itself on the presidency, as the DA’s potential candidate. In the short term, that is plenty to satisfy both the DA and Ramphele.

But here is the real long-term problem for the DA: it is inheriting an individual who believes the world revolves around her — and with that, in those who do not feel betrayed enough to abandon her, an informal structure devoted to that idea; and, more to the point, a person who has demonstrated next to no grasp of the South African political market, how to run a political party, communicate effectively with voters or generate and maintain internal unity and focus.

The project "Agang SA" was a profound and utter failure. If Ramphele was the nexus around which it revolved, it is hers alone.

The DA says it is a party for all. Certainly it has now made pride of place for political failure amongst its ever-growing pantheon of pretenders to the throne.

One does not often see public evidence of the kind of destruction a personality like Ramphele can inflict on a party’s internal organisation. It takes time to manifest but the DA’s federal executive is quickly filling up with a wide range of sizeable egos — and the biggest one of the lot, if severely bruised, will not be a healthy addition to the mix.

It is also worth questioning her loyalty. She clearly seeks out platforms that allow her to project herself onto South Africa. When done, she abandons them. The presidential candidacy will do nicely for a while, but then she will be left to compete with the DA’s other celebrities. That will be a new experience for her and one her track record suggests she does not enjoy. Perhaps the DA will throw the leadership her way too. For Van Schalkwyk, even the deputy leadership was not enough.

Agang SA’s failure was Ramphele’s alone but others, loyal to her, will now carry the consequences. Whatever Agang SA’s limited prospects at the polls, many members will have had high hopes of being elected to office on its ticket. They will have to abandon those dreams too. Only Mamphela Ramphele will have a secure place on the DA’s list. Perhaps it will reserve a confidential candidate slot for one or two of Agang’s people, if they are lucky, but that’s as good at it gets. For the rest, as they found out on Tuesday, their aspirations were just a platform for the great doctor to secure her own future. They were sacrifices. And she happily spilt their blood.

They were ignorant sacrifices too, offered up unknowingly to the Ramphele alter. "Do not read any truth into them," an Agang statement said on Monday, as rumours of a DA merger spread like wildfire. That statement has been removed from the Agang SA website. History itself is already being rewritten. For those who didn’t see it, it opened with the following:

"Today, the Sunday Times speculates that our leader is on the Democratic Alliance list of candidates for the election. Ignore this speculation. In the run-up to the election you will read all sorts of suggestions in the media, and there will be rumours everywhere. Do not read any truth into them. The only truth is what we communicate directly to you."

It quickly went up on Agang SA’s social media platforms — all its members would have looked to it for guidance and security. According to Business Day, Agang spokesman Thabo Leshilo said on Monday he had not heard of any merger or alliance with the DA. He too was duped. They all were — deception on a grand scale. As it turns out, there was indeed much truth to it all. But, if one believes a political party belongs to an individual, as opposed to its members and supporters, then it follows that they will treat it as a mere plaything, to do with as they want. To buy and sell to the highest bidder; shareholders be damned.

Much has been made of Ramphele’s personal wealth. It has obviously come with a sense of entitlement too.

There are ideological concerns but Ramphele dismissed those during the press conference with the kind of giggling obfuscation a drunk driver musters when pulled over with a half-finished bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand.

In her recent autobiography (yes, she has two, which says something itself, no doubt with a third to come), she explained her reasoning for rejecting the DA before. She stated:

"For seven years the DA had been running the city (of Cape Town) yet there were still squatter camps. I could not understand why."

In Tuesday’s press conference she said she was describing "the traditional DA" in the book, not the DA of today. The "traditional DA" of all of 12 months ago; she seems to have forgotten Helen Zille herself was mayor for the first five of those years.

She says in the book: "So what would be achieved by my joining the DA or even joining a rebranded DA? Nothing. Clearly what was needed was a new platform."

On Tuesday she said she "never presented Agang SA as an alternative to the DA". Yes, there is "no truth" to that assertion; we all know what that means — only the small matter of an entire political party.

In the book she says, "I felt the DA was complacent, trapped in their inability to realise that poverty could be eradicated."

Yesterday she said: "I remain consistent … we are coalescing around our shared commitment to the future of the country." The trap is sprung open. Dr Ramphele has the key.

In her book she says, "I did not believe that the English-speaking white supporters of the DA understood the inequities visited on the majority in the country and the consequences of their perpetuation for the quality of our democracy."

The great triumph of the DA’s move is that English-speaking white supporters will generally react well to it. They like the idea of a consolidated opposition. So much so, they will happily suspend any disbelief that, in Ramphele’s eyes, they are the actual problem.

She has the same criticism of the DA itself: "The DA and I disagree," Ramphele said in June last year, "not because they have a different kind of policy position, but they don’t understand just that … the scars of racism in this country have not completely healed."

On Tuesday Ramphele said that one could not ensure progress by "holding onto the views of yesterday". That is convenient, with that attitude it is surprising Agang SA didn’t fare better. Of course, the press conference was yesterday. Perhaps her views have changed since then?

For those of you who did buy her autobiography, much like those who bought into Agang SA’s offer, remember that next time — they are just words on a page, no more meaningful or sincere than the Agang SA media statement on all that untruthful speculation.

Much of it can probably be dismissed as hubris and the politically correct, easy-hit pot shots of someone trying to buy some credibility or sell a few books, but you would be foolish to dismiss the theme entirely.

Ramphele believes the DA is unsympathetic and its supporters racially alienated. And the truth of that is not entirely relevant — the point is, she has an analysis of the party and its problems in her own head, and with her will come a series of personal impulses to fix them. The degree to which they are presented, agreed with, compromised on, enacted or dismissed will go some significant way towards determining her internal effect, and the party’s internal effect on her.

Certainly the DA will dismiss them all as empty rhetoric. It cannot afford to believe its presidential candidate has such a wide range of problems with the party and its membership. Best to turn a blind eye and pretend it’s all water under the bridge.

One thing is for sure, if the DA suffers a reputation as shouting from the sidelines (however unfairly, for it has many excellent policies), Ramphele will do little to rectify that. Agang SA was essentially a megaphone for Ramphele’s disgust at the ANC’s conduct and she shouts better than most — articulate, passionate and powerful. But when it comes to actual solutions, the volume seems to drop significantly.

All these are problems the DA must now deal with. Ramphele, who has had a career defined by adulation and deference, will have to cope with defeat too. Agang SA was her first comprehensive failure, although many have written of lesser failures along they way.

Importantly, one must distinguish the self-serving egomaniacal behaviour of Ramphele herself, from the DA. For the party locked into an election this move is a triumph. Whatever Ramphele’s personal flaws, her public reputation is not built on them, although it is becoming more battered with time. It has in Ramphele secured what it has always been after: a prominent, black veteran of the struggle. She brings with her much celebrity and a record deeply and authentically grounded in the fight against apartheid. That is the payoff.

No doubt the DA has thought carefully about Ramphele’s track record in actual politics and, despite it being a profound and thorough failure on every conceivable level, made the judgment call that, under the DA’s guidance and with the support of its infrastructure and administration, the benefits far outweigh the risk. It is correct so far as the 2014 election goes, this move can only ever give it a boost. How big that is we shall see.

The DA has said it is aiming for 30% — presumably it is now aiming for 32%? Or could it be that any prospect of that initial figure was dwindling, and in Ramphele it is trying to make up the numbers? Someone should ask.

As for the cost, whether or not Ramphele herself is actually capable of things such as compromise, consultation, and accepting guidance or advice, that too we shall see. But that might take a little longer. Perhaps if they are all on her own terms.

In the meantime, history will show Mamphela Ramphele tried politics, and her first attempt ate her up and spat her out like a stale piece of bread. And the DA can now parade the crumbs around like they were nothing less than gold dust.