Bridge over troubled water

Ranjeni Munusamy

Businesswoman and academic Mamphela Ramphele certainly got the country’s attention. She coasted on the media hype about the imminent launch of a new political party and kept her cards close to her chest until her highly anticipated public briefing on Monday.

It was all well-choreographed to maximise the theatre of the announcement. The location was the historic Women’s Gaol at Constitution Hill and the scant detail about the event ensured mass media attendance – both local and international. Ramphele floated into the room flanked by a posse of strapping bodyguards and sat down on her own at the front of the room like a blushing debutante.

She was introduced by outspoken gender activist Nomboniso Gasa, who drummed up the anticipation further. And when Ramphele took to the podium to deliver her address, it was indeed a rousing performance. She pressed all the right buttons, tapped into the mass discontent over government performance and reminisced about the hopes and dreams on which South Africa’s democracy was built.

"Do you remember the dream we embraced to build ours into a great society – a prosperous constitutional democracy united in its diversity? Do you remember our commitment to promote human dignity (Ubuntu) and banish humiliation and disrespect of our apartheid past? Do you remember our vow to promote transparency and accountability in public life? Do you remember that we agreed that our democracy would be known for being responsive to the social and economic needs of all citizens? Do you remember?”

She summed up her entire illustrious career in one sentence: “I have had to overcome the high barriers to opportunity confronting many black people, especially black rural women, to become a student activist, a medical doctor, a community development activist, a researcher, a university executive, a global public servant at the World Bank and now an active citizen in both the public and private sectors.”

And instead of throwing stones at the ruling party, Ramphele played the stateswoman by accepting responsibility for what has gone wrong.

"The dream has faded for the many living in poverty and destitution in our increasingly unequal society. And perhaps worst of all, my generation has to confess to the young people of our country: we have failed you. We have failed to build for you an education and training system to prepare you for life in the 21st century. As a result, the dream has faded for young people in both urban and rural areas.”

A few days after President Jacob Zuma presented a flat, mechanical State of the Nation Address, Ramphele veered to the other extreme, playing on popular emotions and disillusionment over poor performance and corruption in government.

“Our country is at risk because self-interest has become the driver of many of those in positions of authority who should be focussed on serving the public. The great society to which we committed ourselves following our relatively peaceful political transition is rapidly unravelling before our eyes. The impressive achievements of the past 18 years are being undermined by poor governance at all levels of society. An unchecked culture of impunity and the abuse of power as well as public resources rob children, young people, rural and urban poor people of the fruits of freedom.

"Corruption, nepotism and patronage have become the hallmarks of the conduct of many in public service. Corruption is theft. It steals textbooks from our school children. It steals drugs from sick people. It steals social grants from old people and poor children. It robs citizens of hope and destroys dreams. This party political platform will declare war on corruption. It will work with all those in civil society as well as individual citizens and dedicated public servants who share our concerns to fight this scourge,” Ramphele said.

Her delivery was impeccable, she oozed charisma and she made every point with conviction. She is a powerful package of impeccable struggle credentials, a learned scholar, a respected international figure, a successful businesswoman and an impressive social commentator. Ramphele is an engaging speaker with natural magnetism to hold the attention of a room. All that, coupled with the hunger in South Africa for inspirational and good leadership, meant the moment was hers for the taking.

When she announced the formation of a “party political platform” under the working name “Agang” (which she explained meant to build South Africa), it was almost evangelical.

“I am here today to invite you, young and old, to re-imagine the country of our dreams and to commit to building it into a reality in the lives of every South African. I have said that I am no messiah. No single individual acting on their own can build our nation into the country of our dreams. But I am willing to be a bridge between my generation – those of us who fought for freedom who remember not only with their minds but also with their hearts – and that of my children.”

But that’s where it became frothy.

Other than announcing a million signature campaign for electoral reform, Ramphele was short on detail on what she wanted to do. It was all well dressed up as a powerful statement against the demise of the South African dream and “massive failure of governance”. But other than an elaborate diagnosis of all of South Africa’s problems and the ANC’s failures – all of which are well known – there was nothing tangible Ramphele presented as a basis on which to fight and win electoral battles.

She announced that she was “working with a group of fellow citizens” to form a political party-platform that would be consulting with people across the country towards the formation of a political party. It was only during the media conference later that she confirmed that she intends contesting the 2014 national elections, but it is unclear what the party she might lead would stand for and where it would be positioned on the ideological spectrum.

Ramphele said much about the party would be determined during the consultative process, during which she would also be engaging with other political parties. She has not ruled out joining forces with other parties, but denies that she had been in talks with the Democratic Alliance before deciding to start her own initiative.

Ramphele would not give straight answers as to who she is working with, other than to say “we are an energetic team of five”. But Politicsweb reported last night that Whois.co.za records state that the agangsa.co.za domain is registered in the name of a non- profit organisation called Great Potential for South Africa.

The company was registered with the Company and Intellectual Property Commission on 14 December last year. Its directors, all of whom were appointed on the same day, are listed as Prince Mashele, Brutas Malada, Moeletsi Mbeki and Ramphele. Mashele and Malada are part of the Midrand Group, and Mashele has since fallen out with Mbeki.

Mbeki attended the event on Monday but said he was there merely to “listen”.

Ramphele would also not say how her movement will be financed – other than to say that it would be funded by “South Africans in South Africa and in diaspora”.

The hint at foreign funding gave the ANC a gap to denounce Ramphele’s political formation by suggesting that there is a dubious outside influence and agenda behind her.

“This pronouncement comes after reported fund raising efforts by Dr Ramphela in foreign countries that include the United States of America. We just hope that the pumping of foreign funds in South Africa will not undermine the further democratisation and transformation in our country,” ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said in a statement.

While most opposition parties welcomed the entry of a new a new player into the political arena, the ANC said “Ramphela is goading South Africans to participate at the periphery of our political dispensation”.

“We also believe that this initiative is grievance driven, whilst Dr Ramphela rehash [sic] the known challenges facing our country she does not bring any new suggestions to the table,” Mthembu said.

Cosatu also immediately dismissed Ramphele’s initiative, saying her “economic policies are totally indistinguishable from those neoliberal views of the Democratic Alliance”.

“Stripped of its bombastic rhetoric, Mamphela Ramphele’s speech offered no solutions to the triple crisis of unemployment, poverty and inequality but was a manifesto for neoliberalism. She speaks for the class of capitalists which has embraced her and now sees her as a saviour from their working class enemies,” Cosatu said in a statement.

But the truth is that nobody really knows at this stage what Ramphele’s movement will stand for, what her policies might be and on what platforms she will campaign. With just over a year to go to the next national election, it is unclear how her consultative initiative will translate into a political party and whether it can draw mass appeal. While it is playing on the discontent in society, without any machinery or resources to support this initiative, its ability to develop into a formidable political formation is limited.

Ramphele’s message on Monday was remarkably similar to the message by former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and the then US senator, when she announced in January 2007 that she was running for president.

Clinton called her consultative campaign a “presidential exploratory committee”, which she also said would be a national “conversation”. She, too, wanted to play on the discontent in the US at the time under the disastrous presidency of George W Bush. Clinton’s “dialogue”, though yielding a powerful campaign, did not win her the presidency. It was Barack Obama’s full-frontal “Yes we can” campaign that did succeed.

Ramphele, though an impressive personality, has never tested her support or appeal on the ground before this. Yet she intends going up against the ruling party which dominates over 60% of the vote and has 1.2 million signed-up members in branches around the country.

It is an extremely brave move to put herself out there purely on the basis of her personal credentials and aspirations. Ramphele wants to change the electoral ballgame and take the ANC on by being what it is not. What that is exactly remains to be seen. Personality-driven parties and negative campaigning have up to now been unsuccessful in presenting a real challenge to the ANC.

Ramphele thinks she has what it takes to change this. She has put the Kool Aid out there. Let’s see if South Africa drinks it.

This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.