Mamphela Ramphele: “the ANC gives people food parcels, Agang builds citizens” – By Magnus Taylor
Mamphela Ramphele, leader of the “˜Agang’ political platform in South Africa, arrived in London this week with the intention of wooing business and the diaspora. Whether she managed to achieve either goal remains unclear.
Ramphele is an admirable woman with an impressive career and impeccable struggle credentials back home (she was the partner of murdered Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko). Agang was launched with something of a fanfare last year and Ramphele got the attention of the international media who styled her as “˜the woman who could save South Africa’ – quite a contrast from the variously corrupt and incompetent Jacob Zuma. Her greatest test as a political actor will be whether she can win mass public support on the back of her convincing criticism of the current government and make a dent in the ANC’s electoral hegemony.
Ramphele’s talk at a Royal African Society Business Breakfast on Monday 20th Jan was pivoted on the premise that South Africa currently stands at “a tipping point”. Ramphele says that “We have felt a shift [in the country] post-Mandela’s passing” – probably true – but whether this means a substantial shift towards her is another matter.
Ramphele’s analysis of what is wrong with South Africa at present is simple; it’s corruption stupid! Although she doesn’t elaborate a great deal on what can be done about it other than vote for her and presumably a coterie of morally upstanding representatives of Agang.
Beyond corruption, Ramphele argues that the poor state of education and the economy are the biggest drags on South African development – not something that too many would disagree with, but her pronouncement that “if we get them right we can turn the country round in 3 to 5 years” seems optimistic. In the first 100 days of the next government she proposes a comprehensive audit of the country’s educational resources.
This is not to say that Ramphele doesn’t have a sophisticated analysis of the current state of the country. She argues that South Africa needs to reformulate the way it is governed from wealth redistribution to wealth creation – saving some of her most scathing criticism for ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe, whose idea that the ANC still cares about the poor because it provides welfare to 16 million people, she rubbishes. “The ANC gives people food parcels, we build citizens” was probably her best line.
On the stump Ramphele feels like a serious politician and is a charismatic performer, but we shouldn’t forget that her party probably won’t win more than an optimistic 3% of the vote in this year’s elections (Africa Confidential predicts 1%). Ramphele may dispute this, but whilst pollsters are predicting a significant decline in ANC fortunes, they see these votes going to a combination of the established Democratic Alliance (focused on the Western Cape) and the insurgent “˜Economic Freedom Fighters’ of Julius Malema. Agang will probably come in 4th overall. Ramphele’s analysis of Malema is cutting; “he has learnt from the master [Zuma] the best way to avoid jail is to run for office” (following a corruption scandal); but the former ANC Youth Leader’s coterie of red beret-wearing Marxists and other fellow travellers probably worries the ANC more than Agang’s centrist approach.
The real unknown in 2014 will be the cohesiveness of the “˜Tripartite Alliance’, comprised by Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC. Ramphele says that Cosatu is “no longer formidable and Zwelenzima Vavi [its Secretary General] is disaffected.” The National Union of Mineworkers (NUMSA) has withdrawn its support and the National Union of Metalworkers is bleeding members to its rival union the AMCU (which is not aligned with Cosatu).
Ramphele’s most interesting insights, however, relate to the state of opposition politics in South Africa, and more specifically Agang’s relationship with the DA. It’s now well known that Ramphele spent several months trying to work out if her nascent party and the DA could be successfully brought together – she was offered the leadership of this putative alliance. The reason it didn’t happen was her own the belief that the majority of black South Africans would never vote for the DA – it is still seen as the white party and many believe (wrongly) that it would bring back apartheid. However, the DA’s established organisational structure, experience of governing and money would surely have been an asset to Ramphele’s platform.
Taking over the DA would, however, also have been the easy option. What she is trying to do with Agang is much more ambitious, but perhaps ultimately a mistake. It may be that expectations of what Agang can achieve electorally in 2014 are overly ambitious, but Ramphele believes that time is not on the opposition’s side: “We can’t afford to wait until 2019 to challenge the ANC – Zimbabwean people waited too long to try to get rid of ZANU-PF, and look what happened.”
Whatever happens, Ramphele is clearly highly committed to the cause. As she says, she has “stood up to lead the charge once more…a bridge between my generation that fought in the struggle and the new generation that needs to build a new South Africa.”
Magnus Taylor is Editor of African Arguments.