The X Factor
Windhoek – “If you are going to form a political party you must say there is a space of new ideas, and that you are going to galvanise that.
“Also, you must have a checklist or record that says you’ve been able to bring people on your side. Mamphela Ramphele has been an academic and she has worked at the World Bank but she has not been rooted in the struggles of ordinary people in the past 20 or 30 years.
“To think that one can just open the tap and people are just going to jump in is a misreading of the politics.”
This is the assessment of political analyst, Sipho Seepe, on Mamphela Ramphele’s entry into mainstream South African politics this past week.
Known more for her social activism, and for sitting on the board of major miner Gold Fields, Ramphele has never been much of a politician.
Prior to her launch of her “political platform” – not a party – called Agang (which is Sotho for “let us build”), Ramphele’s strongest political linkage for decades has been that she was the mistress of murdered Black Consciousness Movement leader, Steve Biko.
The Southern Times reported last year that she would likely enter mainstream politics, as the leader of a centrist alliance that draws from the ANC, the Democratic Alliance and the Congress of the People (COPE).
And now she has declared she wants to challenge the ANC in the 2014 elections.
The South African media, as they have always done, have largely had kind words for Ramphele.
But not everyone thinks she has what it takes to cause a significant shift in South African politics or to dislodge the ANC’s 101-year-old dominance as the country’s major political movement.
Analyst Sipho Seepe doubts her political acumen.
“One (can) see this in her disappointment with the election of Jacob Zuma – any person knew that Jacob Zuma was going to win at Mangaung so for one to be surprised shows that you don’t even have the political acumen to be able to read the signs.
“The analysts would have told you even a year before that Zuma was going to win. When one looks at the writing, she was surprised that Kgalema Motlanthe did not win.
“What this says is that her political sophistication was so low that she was still pondering over that question when it was already clear cut.
“As Gwede Mantashe (ANC Secretary-General) said, ‘You’ve been commenting from the sidelines.’ It’s good that she is moving from the sidelines where she has been complaining about the ANC but the only thing is that she does not bring anything new.”
Steven Friedman, director at the Centre for the Study of Democracy in South Africa, also sees rough times ahead for Ramphele.
“Excitement at Mamphela Ramphele’s political plans seems based on wishful thinking more than sound analysis – and on very little appreciation of what it takes to get large numbers of people to vote for a party.
“Ramphele has formed a ‘political party platform’, Agang. Why she has chosen to call it a platform rather than a party is unclear since its website declares that it hopes to contest the next general election: whether it does this or not, it is hard to see the logic of those who see a Ramphele-led party as a political game-changer.”
Friedman believes Ramphele is out of touch with the grassroots, having spent much of the past decades at “elitist” institutions, including being MD at the World Bank, Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT), and chair of a huge mining company.
Sipho Seepe agrees.
“When she was at UCT the black students that were there said they didn’t support her, the black workers that were there didn’t support her. Staff members that were there didn’t support her.
“They didn’t see her as a change agent. If you’re going to tap into the so-called black middle class but once these truths come out that she is not a change agent ‑ and she will not be tapping white voters because Helen Zille has those ‑ the question is, who is going to vote for her?”
SA’s Black Middle Class
Ramphele could be targeting South Africa’s black middle class and liberal whites, demographic groups that might want to “try something different” from the ANC.
But that will be a hard electorate to woo.
Firstly, a significant proportion of the black middle class are in their positions of relative affluence as a result of either ANC connections or ANC policies. So they are unlikely to go to Agang.
Besides, Cyril Ramaphosa’s rise to ANC Deputy President – in hindsight – could have been a masterstroke as the businessman could be used to campaign to retain the support of this demographic group.
Secondly, those in the black middle class who are inclined to “try something different” have already thrown their lot in with COPE, and unless a person with the stature of Former President Thabo Mbeki throws his weight behind an alliance with Agang, they are unlikely to vote with Ramphele.
Thirdly, white liberals and their black counterparts who are not pro-ANC have gone for the Democratic Alliance (DA). It will be difficult to see these people opting for a start-up formation while ditching an established movement.
Friedman says, “She (Ramphele) is admired in the DA’s constituency but DA voters will not desert a growing party for a new one, no matter how much they like its leader. And she does not speak for the identities that dominate among ANC voters or supporters of other black-led parties.
“Among ANC voters, it is not being black that counts but a background in the ANC: that is why COPE won over one million votes in a few months.
“Ramphele has no ANC background. Her original political identity was in the Black Consciousness Movement but she has moved away from both the movement and many of its positions.”
Seepe adds: “…even when you look at the DA, people are saying, ‘Why doesn’t she join the DA because her ideas are not any different from the ideas of Helen Zille?’
“It’s going to be interesting – at least she has the courage to say, ‘I’m no longer going to stay on the sideline – I’m going to enter the political fray.’ That should be welcomed.”
Will she radicalise ANC?
Given the above, it is unlikely that Ramphele will cause much concern within the ANC leadership.
This means the ANC is unlikely to adjust its key economic and social policies as a reaction to her.
It also means the largely neo-liberal economic and social development models that have not resulted in any significant changes in the conditions of the poor since Independence in 1994 will remain in place.
With South Africa still ranked one of the world’s most unequal societies, some analysts believe a strong political antithesis to the ANC would have spurred the ruling party into greater action to address the challenges the country faces.
Analyst Phillimon Mnisi says, “Agang comes at a time when opposition parties are frustrated by the ANC's disrespect, arrogance and incompetence, yet they cannot change the status quo.
“Agang will rejuvenate the disgruntled public, whose faith in politics has dwindled after betrayal. It seems like a breath of fresh air, especially because it has chosen to recognise the existence of indigenous languages.”
This appears to be a rather optimistic assessment, as the voices of ordinary people on Ramphele’s ambitions indicate a marked apathy towards her. Perhaps the real worry for the ANC, in political terms, would be what happens after 2014.
The party will most likely retain the Presidency and control of Parliament in the 2014 elections.
But there have been indications that Ramphele will lead a convergence of ANC and the DA ahead of the 2019 elections.
The idea is to end the outright dominance of the ANC at that election.
Mmusi Maimane, a spokesperson for the DA, has said: “Dr Ramphele shares the DA's core values of non-racialism and constitutionalism, and her move is another step in the long process of realigning South African politics around these values.”
Analyst Udo Froese says, “It is on record that Dr Mamphela Ramphele wrote the policy documents for the DA under Helen Zille.”
Mamphela Ramphele Biography
Born on December 28, 1947, Mamphela Ramphele became an anti-apartheid activist and one of the founders of the Black Consciousness Movement.
She had two children with activist Steve Biko, who died in custody in 1977 and whose story became the film “Cry Freedom”.
She was internally banished by the apartheid government to the town of Tzaneen from 1977 to 1984.
She has earned several degrees, including a medical degree, two postgraduate diplomas, a bachelor of commerce in administration, and a PhD in social anthropology.
Ramphele was promoted to Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town in 1996, the first black African and the first woman to serve in that post.
She joined the World Bank in Washington as the MD for Human Development in 2000. She left the bank in 2004.
The executive chairperson at Circle Capital ventures, a venture capital black economic empowerment company, she is also a board member of the Rockefeller Foundation. Last week, she stepped down as chair of Gold Fields. – Financial Times