SA Today: Looking Forward

helenzille2011b1It is often said that the rear view mirror is clearer than the windscreen. It is easy to look back and say what could have been, what course of action we should have taken. It is much harder to press forward – particularly when the road ahead is obscured and littered with obstacles.

Moving forward in uncertain terrain is the risk we take to achieve great things. Sometimes the risk pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

For the past twenty years South African political life has been dominated by one party. This dominance is at the root of many of the problems our society faces. Corruption at the highest level of government goes unchecked, our criminal justice system is rapidly eroding and there is no urgency in government to tackle the jobs crisis. All this is because Jacob Zuma’s ANC believes it will be returned to power, no matter what.

If we are to build a better South Africa, we need to break the dominance of one party. We need to do it while the institutions of our democracy such as the electoral commission, the courts, the police, the army and the public broadcaster are still, by-and-large, independent from the party in power. We don’t have time on our side. In fact, South Africa’s democracy is in a race against time.

That is why I have invested such an enormous amount of time and effort into what we call the realignment of politics – the idea that we must build the strongest possible, non-racial, broad-based alternative to break the political stranglehold that is choking our young democracy. Practically, it means like-minded parties and individuals coming together under one umbrella to challenge Jacob Zuma’s ANC for power.

When my discussions began with Dr Ramphele in 2010 and became formal negotiations 18 months ago, we knew that, whatever happened, we were taking a risk. On the one hand, we knew that South Africa’s interests would be served by working with Dr Ramphele, instead of against her. As Agang’s policies emerged, we saw there were hardly any major differences with DA policy, so the move made sense.  And all our polling showed how much the voters want a strong, united, non-racial alternative.

Then again, on the other hand, we knew from bitter experience that mergers in politics are notoriously difficult, that the chances of failure are high. But we had to take the risk. Because that is what you do when you aim to achieve great things.

As most people now know, the merger didn’t work out. Last night, Dr Ramphele went back on an agreement reached exactly one week ago that she would stand as the DA’s Presidential Candidate, and that the structures of her party would be incorporated into the DA.

Dr Ramphele has her reasons for reneging on the deal. Whatever they are, they will be cold comfort to the many South Africans who saw the political possibilities when we announced we were joining forces last Tuesday.

As the Leader of the Democratic Alliance, I feel wholly responsible for what happened. Last Friday I met with the broader DA leadership at our Federal Executive to make the case for this merger. There was a strong majority in favour of taking this risk in the best interests of our country.

It is easy now to gaze into the rear view mirror to see where it all went wrong. Perhaps we shouldn’t have agreed to her insistence that we announce the next day.  Our agreement was clear and unambiguous.  I wrote it down and repeated it twice:  “Dr Ramphele will become the DA’s Presidential Candidate and a technical task team will manage the incorporation of Agang’s branches, members, and volunteers into the DA”. There has never been any dispute that this was the agreement.  Last night Mamphela accepted that this was our agreement, but she could not bring her party on board. That is the real reason why this failed.

All along we agreed that the potential reward of realignment far outweighed the risk of failure. The risk we took in merging with the Independent Democrats worked very well.  Our merger with Agang did not.

I deeply regret that we were not more cautious in our dealings with Dr Ramphele. For that, I am sincerely sorry.

Our job now is to look ahead, through the windscreen, at the road ahead. There is an election on the near horizon. We are ready to roll out the biggest and best campaign ever waged by an opposition party in the history of our democracy. We will keep moving forward, taking our offer to the voters, and playing our part to fundamentally realign South African politics.

Helen Zille

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