Ramphele’s fleeting flirtation with power

EWN takes a look at the rise and fall of the Agang SA leader.

Dr Mamphela Ramphele speaks at Wits University in Johannesburg on 25 April 2013. Picture: Sapa.

JOHANNESBURG - Agang SA founder Mamphela Ramphele on Tuesday officially announced her departure from politics. With that in mind, Eyewitness News decided to take a look back at her brief yet fascinating rise and fall in South African politics, starting just under a year-and-a-half ago.


In February 2013, the partner of late Black Consciousness Movement leader Bantu Steven Biko ended weeks of speculation that she would be entering politics by announcing that she intended to launch a new party.

"Our society's greatness is being undermined by a massive failure of governance," she told the media gathered at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on 18 February 2013.

"Today I announce that I am working with a group of fellow South Africans to form a party political platform that will focus on rekindling hope that building the country of our dreams is possible in our lifetime."

The widely-respected academic, activist and medical doctor, who was once also the managing director of the World Bank and a board member of several major companies, began clearing her plate by resigning from said boards and preparing to take on full-time politics through the Agang SA (Build South Africa) initiative.


Soon enough, the controversy began, with Ramphele fighting off claims just a day after the announcement that the party was being funded by foreigners.

As early as April last year, Ramphele revealed that the party was in talks with the Democratic Alliance (DA), the country's largest opposition party. While she wouldn't say too much about the nature of the talks, she said more would come to light in the near future.

For some South Africans, the idea of a respected, powerful black woman with a proud struggle history joining hands with the DA was a thrilling one - could a united opposition finally weaken the ANC's broad political control?


Ramphele at the launch of Agang SA in Pretoria West, 22 June 2013. Picture: AFP.

Agang SA officially launched on 22 June last year with much fanfare and excitement among certain quarters. But President Jacob Zuma said, quite simply, his party wasn't worried. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, however, was pleased with the new arrival, saying the country needed a political leader with Ramphele's calibre, intellect and resourcefulness.

Within a few days, the new party registered with the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and the wheels were officially rolling with elections less than a year away.

Less than two months later, Ramphele decided to reveal her net worth. Bring on the controversy. As a prolific businesswoman, she had accumulated a net worth of over R55 million. Speaking on Talk Radio 702, she said, "South Africa doesn't have a culture of holding those in political office accountable and asking them what they own, so Agang has a new political culture."

Ramphele called on Zuma, among other major political leaders, to follow her example. They obviously didn't and, in fact, the gesture appeared to backfire on her somewhat as some accused her of showing off and others of simply playing on weak strategies. Worse even, Forbes Africa revealed that Ramphele never denied their 2011 claim that she in fact had a nearly 10 times higher net worth of around R500m.

Ramphele's introduction to politics was certainly off to a rocky start. Just a few days into the new year, Agang SA was forced to dismiss claims that it had found itself in financial difficulties, while media coverage of the party seemed to be waning in the wake of its formation.

Like any opposition leader, Ramphele had many harsh words for the ruling African National Congress but, beyond those, it was often unclear what exactly she hoped to achieve. There was the usual rhetoric of better lives for women, improving education and giving a voice to the people, but the party failed to achieve a solid support base.


However, things started looking up as the nation edged closer to the elections. Rumours of a merger with the DA began circling and on 28 January, DA leader Helen Zille announced that Ramphele would be the party's presidential candidate. Opposition voters cheered - there was no longer a need to choose between the two women whom they'd come to love so dearly. The pair were to become a neatly packaged item. There was even the famous kiss.

Picture: Twitter/@RodMacleod.

But of course, the whole thing fell apart almost immediately. Ramphele soon had to defend her move to confused and disillusioned party loyalists while rumours of her expulsion began surfacing.

Within less than a week, the love affair was over. Zille immediately began slamming her former "BFF", labelling her as someone who could not be trusted and admitting the DA had made a terrible mistake by inviting her on board in the first place.


Ramphele speaks at the manifesto launch in Atteridgeville, Pretoria, 8 March 2014. Picture: Thando Kubheka/EWN.

Controversy within Agang SA was rife but seemed to subside as Ramphele affirmed her commitment to the movement. By March, the party officially launched its election manifesto. However, only a few hundred supporters pitched up, but the ever-optimistic Ramphele maintained that the party enjoyed wide support and kept her sights on the elections which were just two months away.

On 7 May this year, millions of South Africans set off to their polling stations to make their mark in the national and provincial elections.

Very few of them placed that mark next to Ramphele's face - half a percent, giving the party just two seats in Parliament. That, sadly, was the beginning of the end.


In a bizarre move, Ramphele decided not to take up one of the seats herself. Then within a month, news emerged that the Gauteng branch of Agang wanted to lay charges against her for unlawfully having direct access to party funds. Many wanted her to resign immediately.

However, others in the party still favoured Ramphele's leadership and the fight was on. Last week, a court interdict was won by her supporters which prevented her removal, while a number of enemies were expelled from the party.

Today, though, the wheels came to a complete stop and Ramphele announced that she was stepping out of politics altogether. She says she achieved what she set out to do in creating a new home for those outside of the political mainstream and that she would return to working on transforming society into a more just and prosperous place.

Ramphele called on the remaining members of Agang SA to continue doing what they can to strengthen and build the party.