Helen Zille’s long-awaited autobiography ranges from her family origins to her anorexia, her early career as a journalist, her involvement with the End Conscription Campaign and the Black Sash and the political battles to become mayor of Cape Town, leader of the DA and premier of the Western Cape. This is a story about political intrigue and treachery, floor-crossing and unlikely coalitions, phone tapping and intimidation, criminal charges and judicial commissions.
Mamphela (Ramphele) arrived punctually, her normal confident and relaxed self. I did not sense there was a problem. I offered her something to drink and she chose water. She took a few sips. The way she put her glass on the side table told me she was gearing up to tell me something she knew I didn’t want to hear.
Then she began a long and convoluted explanation that took forever to get to the point. It was completely out of character. In a nutshell, she said that she and I were “engaged”, but unfortunately she would have to launch a new party on her own on February 12. The DA was no longer part of the plan. At least not in the initial stages.
I could not believe it, and I told her so. We had been working on a detailed plan for eight months, we had a final draft document just awaiting the last details and ratification, we had rescheduled two crucial DA meetings to fit her time frame, and she was just wiping it off the table. And going in a completely different direction. Why?
She then told me she had been presented with research done by someone called Jos Kuper. The research, she claimed, showed that if she launched a new party on her own, she could potentially attract about 60 percent of the vote. On the other hand, if she aligned with the DA, the maximum the relaunched party could draw would be between 30 and 40 percent of the vote. If we did it her way, we would win the 2014 election, she argued.
I could not believe what I was hearing. I told her she was dreaming. It would take a miracle, I said, even on the basis of a complete relaunch of the DA, for us to get over 30 percent, combined! She told me that I was so trapped in small thinking that I could not get my head around a new vision.
Without actually using the word, I intimated that she was deluded, and that if she launched a new party, she would be lucky to reach a percentage in double figures. She countered that Barack Obama had only started his bid for the US presidency with 1 percent support, and it had escalated from there. Jos Kuper’s figures had shown her that she could do the same thing.
I then told her in so many words that she was dreaming, and she told me to stop patronising her. I went further and said she clearly didn’t understand electoral politics. I said all she could hope to do, even if she teamed up with us, would be to add a few percentage points to our vote. She thought I was myopic.
We both ended up furious. I was no longer containing myself, as I had learnt to do over the years, working around her. As she left, in her chauffeur-driven car, I told myself it would be the last time I would meet her. I was up to my neck with being led by the nose. My emotions were as mixed as my metaphors.
On the one hand I was relieved to be rid of her. On the other hand, our Clause 4 moment would be pushed back yet again, and South Africa was in a race against time.
Later I sat in bed, looking over the sparkling lights of the Cape Town skyline, and poured my heart out to Johann.
“‘Tis better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all,” he said, misquoting Tennyson.
“I’ve invested a lot trying to reposition the party and it keeps backfiring,” I replied. “There is an enormous cost to trying and failing in politics. If I fail to diversify the DA’s leadership sufficiently and successfully, it will be at an even bigger cost to the country. The irony is that, if I fail, I will remain the leader. If I succeed, I won’t. But the worst of all possible worlds is having to remain leader with massively diminished political capital because my plans backfired on the party. And then it will be even harder to drive a new vision.”
I told him, for the first time, that my close allies were really angry and blaming me (with some justification) for the deteriorating situation in the national caucus.
And then, on top of it all – Mamphela!
If Mamphela, of all people, who agreed with our analysis and had guts, found it impossible to take this obvious step, even in a relaunched and rebranded version of the DA, what hope did we have of growing at the rate required to prevent South Africa becoming a failed state?
“Why is it so hard? Surely this step is as obvious to other people as it is to me?” I moaned.
“If you hadn’t tried, you would never have known it wouldn’t work,” replied Johann.
I was too tired to work out that double negative. It was just the start of a political year, and I already felt thoroughly spent. Shattered.
The next day I met my DA colleagues on the M-Plan team. They were stunned too. We had been taken for complete idiots. I apologised to James that he had spent the whole of his Christmas holiday working on a detailed document that was cast aside so lightly.
Mamphela sailed on.
I had to explain to the provincial leaders’ meeting, and the federal executive on February 1, what we had planned and why it had gone so wrong. I managed a cool façade, saying it was probably for the best. We had dodged a bullet. But I still felt betrayed and shaken.
Should I even have tried to bring her on board, I asked myself. Which again raised the question: Compared to what? If I hadn’t responded positively when Mamphela had said (repeatedly) that she was available, I would have been sidestepping a rare re-branding opportunity.
On Saturday February 2, I had been invited to attend the gala dinner to commemorate FW de Klerk’s historic 1990 speech. The event was at the Radisson Hotel, where I was asked to say a few words. I needed a diversion, and looked forward to it.
Moeletsi Mbeki was there. I could hardly bear to look at him, but managed to greet him civilly. He indicated that he wanted to speak to me. He drew me aside to explain what had happened behind the scenes. He knew I was angry, he said, but he needed to inform me that we were being led into a political ambush.
I said I didn’t know what he was talking about.
Then he switched to conspiratorial mode. Prince Mashele, he whispered, was an NIA agent and had been on a mission to destroy us. The NIA wanted Mamphela to join up with the DA in order to damage her political credibility. Then, according to the NIA’s plan, we would make the announcement on February 12, so Zuma could destroy us both in his State of the Nation address two days later. “The Democrats” would be stillborn, he claimed. Prince had almost pulled off this diabolical strategy by persuading Mamphela to go along with it, said Moeletsi. That was why she had been so insistent on a February 12 announcement. Fortunately, he said, she had seen through it in time.
It was another absurd story. ANC leaders who had been in exile always seemed full of them.
I was sick to death of it all, but I held back. All I said was that I did not believe Prince was an NIA agent and that I could no longer expend energy on the matter.
I heard the real background story only later. Moeletsi and Prince had fallen out with each other over the controversial findings of an opinion survey they had conducted among trade union shop stewards. Prince wanted to release the findings; Moeletsi didn’t. That is where Moeletsi had come to the conclusion that Prince was an NIA agent, deliberately attempting to leak the findings because his “handlers” had allegedly told him to do so.
And their battle had spilt over into the M-Plan team. Moeletsi had convinced Mamphela that Prince was an NIA agent and that she should not fall into his trap set to destroy her – to join forces with the DA.
I wondered why Mamphela kept listening to these siren calls when it seemed to me so patently obvious what would be in South Africa’s interests. I was furious with the people who kept whispering in her ear at critical moments, convincing her to unravel months of work – first Sid, and then Moeletsi. It was so unlike her to vacillate in this way.
Circumstances were not getting any better in the DA’s parliamentary caucus either. I raised my concerns about the gathering anger and unease directly with Lindiwe, but she genuinely believed the rumours were being put about by a few disgruntled people. Lindiwe tended to withdraw in the face of problems; my style was to tackle them head on. We continued to talk past each other, when we spoke at all.
February 12 came and went, followed by Zuma’s State of the Nation address two days later. It was dismal. I have rarely felt lower in my life.
On Monday February 18, 2013, Mamphela launched what she described as a “political platform” and called it Agang, Sotho for “Let’s Build”.
People were puzzled by the concept of a political platform, but I knew what Mamphela was getting at. She saw it as a life raft onto which other opposition parties would all jump, as Agang became the voters’ preferred vessel, in line with her understanding of Jos Kuper’s research.
Mamphela’s new approach echoed a proposal that Moeletsi had made at the outset of our team discussions, in August 2012, but that everyone (including Mamphela at the time) had roundly rejected. He had wanted all the opposition parties to come together, around a new catalyst, which, he suggested, Mamphela would provide. Prince disagreed with Moeletsi, and won the argument. Once Moeletsi had manoeuvred Prince out of the way, with his “agent” story, he could resurrect his “platform” idea. Mamphela was by that time entirely convinced that the tide was coming in strongly for her, and that the DA would be swept along by the current that would reach its flood by the 2014 election. The DA would then join her, on her terms, rather than the other way around.
I asked myself what kind of Kool-Aid she was drinking. I had little doubt it was Moeletsi’s. In the end, after everything had collapsed around her, Moeletsi denied having had anything to do with the formation of Agang, and I know Mamphela was deeply stung by this.
All of us involved knew that Moeletsi was integrally involved. Indeed, he was the key person who persuaded her to abandon the work we had done over many months, and to launch the nonsensical idea of a “platform” to draw together all opposition parties.
Soon after Agang’s launch, it seemed as if the smaller parties might gravitate towards her. There were news reports about Cope and the UDM (with whom Moeletsi had also been speaking) wanting to join “the platform”.
I had a sense of déjà vu. Here we were, going into yet another crucial national election with a new and potentially exciting competitor, feeding off the same limited opposition pool. There was no way on the planet that Agang was going to take a meaningful slice of the vote from the ANC. I was at a loss. How were we going to break this destructive cycle?