Mamphela Ramphele and the triumph of narcissism over strategy

by The Editor

MamphelaRampeleFEATURE: Mamphela Ramphele is due to make a significant announcement on Monday. All indications are she will announce, at least, the framework for a new political party; no doubt with her at the helm. If she does, it will represent the triumph of ego over sound political analysis and, as a result, the indulgence of narcissism above South Africa’s best interests. That, and a failure to learn from history. Here is why.

Mamphela Ramphele and the triumph of narcissism over strategy

By: Gareth van Onselen

12 February 2013


Mamphela Ramphele is due to make a significant announcement on Monday. All indications are she will announce, at least, the framework for a new political party; no doubt with her at the helm. If she does, it will represent the triumph of ego over sound political analysis and, as a result, the indulgence of narcissism above South Africa’s best interests. Here is why.

The nature of the opposition battleground

Since 1994 South Africa’s opposition has battled every five years to establish a meaningful counterweight to the ANC’s unhealthy majority. By far the most successful party in this endeavor has been the Democratic Alliance, which has grown from the 1.7% it managed as the Democratic Party in 1994 to boast the support of some 3 million South Africans in 2009 and 16% of the vote. In the 2011 local governments, it exceeded in absolute terms its support in the last national election, up to some 3.2 million votes and 22%. As a result of this growth, it governs a province and a metro, among other things – the real test of any alternative offer. At the same time, all other opposition parties have shrunk; some to merge with the DA, others to decline to the point of insignificance, others still, to the point of no return.

The remarkable nature of the DA’s growth is rarely properly understood and, I suspect, only in some significant time will people fully appreciate the various and significant obstacles the DA has had to overcome. Establishing itself as the preeminent opposition force has involved not merely consolidating behind it that support disaggregated between the myriad opposition parties in 1994 but, in the last three elections, defending and growing its base in the face of new opposition parties; each one the darling-of-the-day, each one systematically dispatched to the political back waters as its lack of ideological clarity, hard and human infrastructure, an over-reliance on a single personality-based reputation and, most importantly, an ignorance of the political market place would see them implode into obscurity.

The three examples I allude to were: the United Democratic Movement (UDM), formed ahead of the 1999 national elections; the Independent Democrats (ID), formed ahead of the 2004 national elections and, most recently, the Congress of the People (COPE), formed ahead of the 2009 national elections.

In each of those elections, those parties would eat into the DA’s potential support and retard its growth, slowing down the consolidation of opposition voters and, in turn, the prospect of a meaningful alternative to the ANC being well-established. They would, effectively, spilt the opposition. DA resources would have to be spent not only on defending its base, but on ensuring potential new supporters went with it and not some other temporary fireworks display, glorious in its uncritical public reception but, inevitably, quick to fade away as the demands of a sustained and principled political presence proved beyond each and every one of them. [I have set out the declining electoral fortunes of South Africa’s smaller political parties elsewhere, see here.]

Quickly fading fireworks

And what of each of these parties? The UDM won just 3.4% in 1999, by 2004 that had slipped to 2.3% and, in 2009, all it could muster was 0.85%. It had, over ten years, lost around 400 000 voters; down from 546 000 to just 149 000. Its leader, Bantu Holomisa, at the time of the party’s establishment the bright new hope, now pops up every now and then as the third or fourth commentator on a news story no one reads.

The ID, in 2004 the media flavor of the day, pandered to uncritically and welcomed as an exciting and necessary new development, slowly self-destructed as a poor showing in 2004 (1.7% or 270 000 votes) compounded by a frail if not non-existent infrastructure and a series of internal power disputes, snowballed into virtual collapse in 2009, as it managed just 0.92% or 162 000 votes. Over 100 000 votes, gone. To its great credit, it merged with the DA. The effect of that played no small part in the DA retaining the City of Cape Town with an outright majority in 2011.

Then, along came COPE – every left wing, politically correct and anti-ANC nomad’s answer to their fragile conscience. It managed to achieve each shortcoming the UDM and ID had suffered, not in 10 or five years, but a mere six months. Its one or two recognizable personalities tore each other’s flesh off in a messy public cat fight, its complete lack of infrastructure meant it failed to erect more than a handful of posters let along present a coherent campaign and its ideological incoherence (to this day it is next to impossible to describe COPE’s political philosophy) saw it scrape together just 7.4% of the vote in 2009, despite so many expectations it would split the ANC. Make no mistake, a significant part of that support has evaporated into the ether since. It has evaporated because, outside of the moment, and with the benefit of perspective, as with the UDM and ID it quickly became apparent to those temporary supporters of such initiatives that only the DA was able consistently deliver a credible alternative.

And remember, these represent only the most substantial efforts to redefine opposition politics. Along the way there have been any number of smaller, one-man-bands, that have attempted the same thing, only to see their proud song disintegrate into political static. In every case, at the center you would find a single personality, convinced their own standing was enough to change the course of the country. It must have come as a bruising blow indeed to discover the actual number of people willing to make a mark next to their name.

It is significant too, that no new opposition party has managed to distinguish itself from DA ideologically. Each seems to be founded either on vague, anti-ANC sentiment or some generic promise to protect and promote the constitution. So, again, there exists no clear blue water between what they might offer and what the DA already offers, far more credibly and convincingly, to South African opposition voters. If you want someone to switch brands, ideally you have to distinguish yourself altogether from those offers that already exist; if not, then to demonstrate your offer is the same but superior. No opposition party has been able to do that for the simple reason that the DA so completely owns ‘constitutionalism’ in the eyes of the average opposition voter.

What sets the DA apart?

Through each of these developments, the DA has grown. Say what you want about the party, it runs a political ground and air war comparable with the best in the world. And I do not say that lightly – the party has machinery behind it so complex and sophisticated it would boggle the mind of the average political commentator. Indeed, I remember laughing hard with colleagues when one or other commentator would express their misguided ‘opinion’ on a DA poster or campaign, with absolutely no reference to any market research or the actual opinions of voters, which the DA had carefully interrogated and mapped down to the finest detail (if Ramphele suffers an inflated ego, it is nothing compared to the arrogance of political commentators, who assume their opinion genuflects public sentiment). In any other democracy, they would be laughed off the newspaper pages they so dominate here. The day South African political analysis is based on market research, not the whims of post-graduates, we will have made some significant progress as a democracy. Of course, we would then need credible market research companies.

But I digress. The DA has its finger on the pulse of its supporters and potential supporters alike, because it relentlessly canvasses them using techniques and tools that are highly advanced, incredibly insightful and extremely effective. Like it or lump it, the decisions it makes and the messages it communicates are a response to the demands of those people it is talking too. A fact very often confused by analysts with the attitudes of those markets it is not talking too; that is, those analysts able to understand the idea of markets in the first place.

Political parties 101: Know your market

This point is absolutely critical, for it goes to the heart of this critique. You cannot simply start a political party without a detailed market analysis: the careful in-depth market research of a demographically representative sample of South African voters, in order to determine what voters are available to you, what potential voters are available to you, who they are, where they are, what their concerns are, how best those concerns can be met in line with and without compromising your core beliefs and, most importantly, whether the offer you intend to make to them will be better received than were it made by another political party. If this was America we would have already seen several, high quality polls on this question and the requisite accompanying analysis.

That last point is essential, because it goes to the fundamental obstacle each of those other parties failed to address or overcome in elections past. They assumed, often on no more than what they believed to be the all-conquering and infallible reputation of their leader, they could more credibly make the case they would better provide opposition to the ANC, than the DA. Each one of them failed fundamentally. Why? Because even when they did manage to present such a case (many of them failed to do even that) they could not convince opposition voters they could uphold it better and more effectively than the Democratic Alliance.

And that makes perfect sense: the DA boasts an offer that is simply more credible than its competitors. It is well-established in every province and nationally as the biggest, most powerful and effective opposition party, with the most compelling track record. It holds the ANC to account as an opposition and, where it does govern, it does so to a high standard. But, most importantly, it understands both its market and its potential market, what their concerns are, how best to address them and it does that with a communications machine that punches so far above its weight it puts even the ANC to shame. That fact is something of a vicious circle – the longer and better established a party, the more clout it has; but a fact it most certainly is.

If one has no market analysis, no clear understanding of what voters are available to you as a party, who they are or what they want, and yet you still decide, on the basis of no more than a feeling in your gut, that you are what South Africa needs, rest assured, you are in for a horrible and humiliating experience. Because, as the UDM, ID and COPE have found out to their detriment, you can be a media darling and yet still opposition voters will not vote for you. They have simply done the maths: can this party do what the DA does, better than the DA, their good intentions aside? The answer they inevitably reach, is no. And that is only with regards to those offers made similar to the DA’s. Very often such new parties have no idea what market they are talking to or how to structure their core offer (market research costs a great deal of money).

I can hear the response now: but Ramphele’s party would not compete with the DA, it will target disgruntled ANC voters, it will split the ANC, which is a good and necessary thing, more opposition is better opposition. Nice sentiment but I am afraid it is delusional. Mere speculation. Years of market research – the canvassing of actual voter-opinion, tells one otherwise. The ANC enjoys a large support base that is simply not available to anyone else in South Africa. They are ANC-loyalists whose attachment to the party is emotional not rational and, as things stand, will not budge. Likewise, opposition voters are generally united behind the DA. They too are locked in, and baring the DA itself imploding, are not available to other opposition parties.

The only potential voters available in South Africa are a pool of some 15% of black, ANC-sympathetic voters, un-decided about how to cast their vote as the ANC slowly turns in on itself and erodes away its once proud reputation. Changing the political landscape in South Africa is a slow process. It might be difficult to fathom that so few people are open to change, given the ANC’s performance in government, but it is, I am afraid, a cold, hard fact. It’s what voters themselves say, when polled. That is the political reality we live with.

Our political reality

If the DA is to grow in 2014, it needs to attract these potential voters to the party by speaking to their concerns in a compassionate way that both shows it can better address them than the ANC and that it constitutes no betrayal to switch political allegiances, while at the same time looking after the concerns of its more traditional base and staying true to its core value system. No simple task.

It is true, there are scraps to be had from each of these two extremes – as the UDM, ID and COPE had gathered up in the past. And, together with some potential support from those undecided voters referred to above, a new party might in 2014 be able to cobble together 2% or 3% of the vote. But that is all. For the overwhelming part, however, that potential support will have been taken away from the DA and, with it, the chance of the only meaningful option to the ANC being able to further strengthen its position and provide South Africans with a real alternative. The DA will grow, but less than its potential and, once again, the full and proper consolidation of the opposition will have been set back another five years.

If Ramphele had done the requisite market analysis, she would know this. There exists no market for any new opposition party she might have to offer.

So, the real winner here is the ANC. If Mamphela Ramphele starts a political party she will damage the DA’s prospects and, like those parties who have attempted a similar thing in the past, split the opposition vote and, ironically, strengthen not weaken the ANC’s electoral hand. It would be an act born entirely of self-interest, one out of touch with the desires of voters themselves and our democracy’s best interests. And, her party will inevitably be crushed, like so many before it. Be it one electoral cycle or three, her party too will be eaten up and left on the wayside.

It would also be to ignore history, so it is doubly narcissistic. Nevermind about the lack of political awareness, I could set out in great detail the hard requirements necessary to establish and run a political party. You need a market, a philosophy, a constitution, a governing body, a structure, a brand, a message, an infrastructure to deliver that brand and message, an electoral system, legal advice, human resources, representatives who embody the party’s philosophy, resources (financial and otherwise – everything from posters, to radio ads, to day-to-day communications, to offices, to someone to do your tax returns), a presence on the ground and in the media, fundraising and human resource management, to name but a few generic considerations (I could, in turn, go into each one of these in great detail). A political party is more than an idea; it is a complex and real machine, which runs on an insatiable appetite for attention and maintenance, not ideology alone. That messy reality is so easily ignored by those who live in the abstract.

But you will notice, first and foremost on that list, is a market. Without that, you are fishing blind.


Take a moment to appreciate the size of the ego involved in that decision – to believe one’s personality alone is enough to supersede the credibility of every other offer in South Africa’s political market place, the attitude of voters, the nature of the struggle to establish a meaningful counterweight to the ANC, and then to push on regardless.

One thing is for sure, the ANC is laughing hard.

  • Gareth van Onselen (@GvanOnselen) is the Editor of Inside Politics (@insidepols), Winner: Best Political Blog 2012.

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