04 Feb 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
Even before the shortest-lived union in SA’s political history was over, commentators were already suggesting that Mamphela Ramphele is the political equivalent of Zsa Zsa Gabor, writes Tony Leon
LAST WEDNESDAY evening, Cape Town’s Mount Nelson Hotel was the venue for the launch of a homage to the grand dame of South Africa’s old opposition, Helen Suzman.
|Agang SA leader Mamphela Ramphele|
And the past, present and future leaders of that project were gathered for the event: former president FW de Klerk, Inkatha boss Mangosuthu Buthelezi, this columnist, and the youngest leader of the parliamentary opposition, Lindiwe Mazibuko. But all eyes that night were on two of the speakers, Helen Zille and Mamphela Ramphele, whose political betrothal had been announced just the day before. Within days, they would breathe new life into the cliche, "Marry in haste, repent at leisure."
Robin Renwick’s concise and affectionately penned book, Helen Suzman — Bright Star in a Dark Chamber, relies more on anecdote and research than on critical analysis. The book and the launch speeches dwelt on one part of the Suzman story: the immense reserves of character and conspicuous displays of courage and wit of a parliamentary David, who went up against the Goliath of the apartheid order.
But it leaves unexamined the paradoxical simplicity of that difficult task. Suzman had principle and a righteous cause on her side. She was in opposition to a system that, while popular with white South Africans, was universally opposed by the black majority, much of civil society and most of the world.
In electoral terms, to continue her work, Suzman needed the support of just one constituency out of 166 in white South Africa — Houghton. As I discussed with her daughter, Frances Jowell, after the event, despite the fact that she was certainly the most famous member of her party, she never sought, and in fact resisted, the idea of ever becoming its leader.
As a conviction politician, Suzman’s work was relatively uncontaminated by the messy compromises of party management and the need to expand the base of her movement.
With South Africa’s attention riveted by the off-on-off parachute jump by Ramphele into the top slot of the Democratic Alliance, it is easy to forget quite how unenthusiastic Suzman was every time her beloved Progressive Party felt the need to merge and reinvent itself to meet the expectations of opposition voters, who, then as now, craved the unification of a fractured opposition and the injection of some political glamour to refresh the project.
Renwick’s book does not mention the hostility between Suzman and Harry Schwarz, leader of the Reform Party breakaway from the United Party, which resulted in the Progressive Reform Party, later the Progressive Federal Party. And when that formation had reached its electoral sell-by date, the Democratic Party (DP) was formed in 1989.
Renwick writes, appropriately for a diplomat of long and distinguished standing: "She did not take kindly to suggestions that, to try to widen its appeal, the new entity should try to shed the Progressive Party image of which she was understandably proud."
Actually, when the DP was formed with its ill-conceived troika leadership, she had a much earthier response: "This is the biggest hijack since Entebbe and there are no Jews around to rescue it." When the decision was taken in 2000 to merge the Democratic Party with the New National Party to create the Democratic Alliance, I was the recipient of Suzman’s incandescent fury. She reluctantly accepted the electoral logic of the arrangement, but told me, and then repeated in public, that it should have been a pact, not a full-scale merger. One can only speculate on her reaction to the events of last week.
On hearing the news of Ramphele’s accession into the DA, I thought it tactically smart but strategically questionable. It seemed to breathe excitement and enthusiasm into the opposition ranks.
In the long or even medium term, I thought it bequeathed the opposition with more problems than solutions to the quest for refreshed leadership and policy coherence. And then, even before the shortest-lived political union in South Africa’s political history was over, the controversies erupted. Across the board, commentators and insiders suggested that Ramphele was the political equivalent of Zsa Zsa Gabor. The latter was "famous for being famous", the former for high offices she had achieved rather than any significant achievement in them.
Then came Ramphele’s calamitous weekend interviews, in the Sunday Times and Rapport. In both, she presented herself as a narcissist on steroids. But Zille and the DA leadership had been led to and dropped at the altar by Ramphele once before.
It brings to mind the aphorism: "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." Surely the key issue was to tie down Ramphele in explicit terms to signing a DA membership form before the announcement? Without that, it’s like selling your home without confirming the price. On the one hand, a fatal combination of vanity and naivety. But, on the other, it is better to cut your losses than to double down on a huge mistake.
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA