Mamphela Ramphele. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Mamphela Ramphele. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

IT WAS reported in Sunday’s edition of the Sunday Times that the Democratic Alliance (DA) had given Mamphela Ramphele until Sunday night to sign a membership form, as required by the DA constitution, should she want to stand as its presidential candidate.

Whether or not she signs and Ramphele’s appalling behaviour aside, the "DAgang" debacle necessitates that some serious questions be asked of DA leader Helen Zille, and of the party more generally. As the senior partner in this deal, it badly mishandled the whole affair and, as a result, its 2014 election campaign is floundering badly, as it lurches from crisis to another.

How things deteriorated to the point that ultimatums had to be issued is not entirely clear. Whatever the cause, Ramphele’s membership is the technical detail at the heart of the problem. If her weekend statements are anything to go by, she appears under the misguided notion that she was merely entering in a "partnership" with the DA. That, and comparing herself to no less than Mandela, such arrangements do not require consultation.

This is blatantly dishonest. The merger press conference made it perfectly clear she would be on a DA list. This was to be the end of Agang SA — Ramphele would formally join the party and, with that, relinquish it and its constituent parts to the DA.

Perhaps the DA did not cater fully for the inevitable backlash from Agang SA members and the media alike, both of which would have cut Ramphele to the core. Big egos often mask even bigger insecurities and the need to be loved and adored is a fix such people cannot be without for long. For Ramphele, this was 24 hours. In response, wounded and hurt, she retreated, reneging on the deal.

But the Sunday Times also reported that a mere hour before the press conference announcing the agreement, Ramphele had also tried to renege. She had to be threatened to comply in order to produce the statement the DA wanted South Africa to hear: Agang SA would not contest the elections. So there were clear signs early on that Ramphele was not going to come quietly.

To most that would constitute a red flag but all Zille seems to have been able to see was the chequered variety — the finishing line to a long, mostly private mission and she would be damned if she did not drag Ramphele kicking and screaming over it.

Whatever the reason, when you defeat a political opponent, the first thing you do is lock up power on your terms. To the victor go the spoils. To do that, your opponent needs to sign on the dotted line. Verbal agreements might count for much in law, in politics they count for far less. The DA drew up the contract, got both parties together and then failed to close the deal. If it could not secure Ramphele’s signature, it should have abandoned the deal. The result was rushed and ill conceived. If it had managed to wrap this all up beforehand, the deal would have been victory.

The reverence with which Zille would appear to hold Ramphele seems detached from her actual record in politics. While she was busy talking behind the scenes, front of house Agang SA was imploding. None of this seems to have registered. Zille simply picked up the conversation from where they left it off last time, a kind of self-induced amnesia she thought the world shared.

In the real world, for all her virtues, the public was exposed to many of Ramphele’s flaws. When it comes to politics, it turns out, the empress has no clothes. Yet all Zille seems to be able to see is royalty dressed in the finest robes money can buy; the robes she wore in days gone by.

The resultant fallout has been significant. The decision dominated the Sunday papers and was panned in highly critical language by all and sundry. In an election year, "DAgang" is a DA communications disaster. But it’s not the first.

The DA has now bookended the new year with two serious communications disasters: it led out 2013 with a public U-turn on affirmative action; it led in 2014 with a confused and contradictory, half-in, half-out agreement with Mamphela Ramphele. Both have done little to deliver a clear and cogent message to the electorate or, for that matter, to its own staff.

But generally there hasn’t been much on show from the DA when it comes to clear and cogent messaging. Its Black Economic Empowerment campaign saw national spokesperson Mmusi Maimane and federal chair Wilmot James contradict each other on public radio.

Its "Know Your DA" campaign had to be painfully explained and re-explained as it alienated those, the DA claims, it never intended to alienate. Youth Leader Mbali Ntuli and Helen Zille are in the midst of a public argument about the now-cancelled march on Luthuli House. Wilmot James has publicly attacked former leader Tony Leon and Parliamentary Leader Lindiwe Mazibuko and communications head Gavin Davis are the subject of another war.

It might well be true that the DA suffers an internal culture of silence and conformity but it more than makes up for the lack of meaningful debate with conflict and contradiction. It now has "DAgang" to deal with – not quite the Chernobyl of DA meltdowns, but fairly radioactive nonetheless. All the while, the election date creeps closer and closer.

Here is a question: What is the DA’s message for this election? Does anybody know? Does it have one? We are in February now. No campaign, no slogan, no posters, no manifesto. Between failed marches and defection confusion its core offer has been lost. Indeed, not even the well-defined "the #BelieveGP campaign" — largely a euphemism for stopping e-tolls and the supposed glory days of former president Thabo Mbeki — has faded into obscurity, the African National Congress (ANC) has stolen a march on jobs and the party faithful seem to watching on while a giant ego wreaks havoc on the front pages.

The ANC must be laughing.

He is going to hate me for saying this because he has long since moved onto other things, but what the DA wouldn’t do for Ryan Coetzee right now. It seems to have no strategic clarity. You simply cannot run an election campaign like this. An election campaign is a story. You illustrate to voters your vision by taking up issues that resonate with them. The story is the strategy; the tactics are the issues. Tactics are how you implement a strategy.

But tactics without a strategy are no different from guesswork. And most of what we see from the DA these days is an array of tactical gimmicks.

This has long since been recognised as a strategic error. Sun Tzu said, "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." The DA is drowning in noise, and it’s not the kind it wants the public to hear.

Certainly it would appear tactics are what will determine the next DA leader, Ramphele or otherwise. Zille is slowly developing a long track record on this front. There is a trail of failed black leaders brought into the party on her watch, often feted as the heir apparent, only to fall out with Zille and be left by the wayside.

Former DA rising star Motlatjo Thetjeng was made national spokesman, mentored and promoted by Zille. He left to join the Congress of the People.

Masizole Mnqasela was "found" by Zille in her Khayelitsha constituency, nurtured onto the 2009 election list only for the two of them to have an almighty public fallout over Lindiwe Mazibuko’s election. Among other things, he accused Zille of running the DA like a spaza shop.

Then there was Mazibuko herself, celebrated by Zille, encouraged all the way to the position of parliamentary leader no less. Today their relationship appears broken, although publicly they put up a good face.

There was the initial flirtation with Ramphele, who rejected Zille’s years of private cajoling outright at the critical moment. Not just to say no but to start a new party that would oppose the DA at the polls.

Then came Mmusi Maimane, a new, bright hope for Zille, found in 2011, elevated through a failed mayoral campaign to the face of the DA’s Gauteng 2014 premiership fight (and a possible parliamentary leadership ticket in his back pocket, should that not work out).

The Sunday Times reported that one-third of the party’s federal executive opposed the idea of Ramphele joining and that the faction that rejected her centred on Maimane and Athol Trollip, who no doubt suddenly saw their own aspirations threatened should Ramphele come on board. So Maimane, too, must now be feeling left out in the cold. Or perhaps not quite yet, given how quickly the Ramphele venture has imploded.

That list is distinguished by two factors. First, almost everyone on it has ended his/her relationship with Zille via rejection or personal fallout of some variety. Second, each of them, in some shape or form, started his/her relationship beholden to Zille either potentially or practically — she found, nurtured or promoted them. It’s as though she is searching for the perfect puppet. Only, her puppets inevitably reject her. Or she rejects them, on realising they aren’t puppets at all.

Zille seems determined that the next leader of the DA is black, that she hand-picks him or her and that this person is beholden to her in some way. That is the tactic. And it’s fairly egotistical itself. The DA seems largely happy to let her pursue her interests in this way.

That is some of what is discernible from the public facts but political tactics are not always visible. Here is an imagined scenario that could shape decision-making behind closed doors, by way of illustration: a wealthy donor, or donors, with a vested interest in both Ramphele and the DA, could offer an incentive for co-operation – a substantial donation on condition the two parties merge. That is something the public would never be privy too. The merger would then constitute an entirely pragmatic undertaking. That might be imagined but no doubt there are donors to which the idea would appeal greatly.

It is difficult to understand the overnight rush to sign Ramphele up but whichever way you cut it the tactical cost is difficult to reconcile with strategic value. Zille speaks of building a united opposition and a unified force to stand against a crumbling ANC. But unity is no longer something you would associate with this deal and Agang SA is a force no stronger than the mildest of summer breezes. Perhaps the full advantage is concealed. Either way, something doesn’t make sense.

It is ironic indeed that in Ramphele, Zille has found someone so egotistical. Anyone who thinks that is an overstatement would do well to read her respective interviews in the Sunday Times and Rapport this past weekend; they are saturated with self importance. But when you pursue someone whose faults are so profound and put them in a potential position of power, you merge tactics and strategy. The tactic becomes the strategy, embodied in the will of an individual. Or, at least, that person replaces whatever strategy you had.

No leader of any political party anywhere in the world can ever be expected to run an organisation free from factionalism and disagreement. It is part and parcel of the game. When you mix power and ideals, it is a natural by-product. The test is not the absence of division but the extent to which it threatens the core project.

It is difficult to say where the DA’s threshold is. Certainly the ANC would seem to be flirting with a tipping point. What is for sure is that this level of discord, confusion, miscommunication, and bad strategic and tactical planning is enough to be cause for concern.

Perhaps some of the confusion is a consequence of bad leadership and an autocratic style; much of it, however, can be attributed to an obsession with tactics and a disregard for strategy shaped around the concerns of the electorate.

It needs to get back to telling a story it can control because, at the moment, every character it creates seems to jump off the page and follow a narrative of its own choosing.