Mamphela Ramphele has a Party

Ramphele has never enjoyed widespread grassroots support as a political figure in South Africa and hasn't been in active in any political movement for at least 30 years now.

Mamphela Ramphele. Image: Chatham House.

Apathetic liberal hearts in South Africa (and some in the mainstream media) will beat a little faster, but fleetingly, for the cause of “Agang” (‘Let us build’ in Sesotho; though some claim it means something else completely), the new political platform launched earlier this week by Mamphela Ramphele, to “rekindle the South Africa of our dreams.” South African voters’ dreams are certainly jaded, the promise of the early nineties eroded by a rising tide of inequality, rampant unemployment, and the realization that the African National Congress (ANC) has merely been masquerading as the benevolent vanguard of the masses. The movement of liberation has been thoroughly exposed as just another grubby political party, encumbered by vicious factionalism driven by the prize of state power–tenders, contracts, cookie jars. But Ramphele and Agang are unlikely to touch the impoverished lives of the majority of South Africans or stall our dissipating dreams.

It has been a long walk from Lenyenye, the impoverished township of Tzaneen, to which Ramphele was banished by the apartheid government for her activism in the cause the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) led by her partner Steve Biko (they had two children together while he was married to Ntsiki Biko). The good doctor is a remarkable woman, venerated internationally, and beloved of white liberals at home for her hard-nosed managerial acumen and her personification of the proof that black women can be hard-nosed and managerial.

Under the guidance of Francis Wilson, a well-known liberal stalwart and University of Cape Town (UCT) economist, she co-wrote two books on poverty in South Africa in the late 80’s and early nineties which propelled her from the imposed obscurity of her banning order, to the forefront of the liberal critique of apartheid. Harvard and Carnegie fellowships followed, and thereafter managerial appointments at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA), UCT and World Bank. At the finalization of her term at the Bank she returned to South Africa where, with her son, Hlumelo Biko, she commenced a brief, but enriching career as a business woman.

It is unclear to what extent her track record as a manager has contributed to her stated intent to “[make our dreams of South Africa] a reality in the lives of ordinary people,” unless they are nightmares. During her time at UCT, hundreds of blue collar workers were laid off, their jobs outsourced and their livelihoods obliterated as part of an initiative spear-headed by Ramphele to increase the pay of university professors.

More recently there was speculation that the opposition Democratic Alliance wanted to make her its leader. She turned up at their events and seemed to flirt with the idea (there’s confirmation it seems), but later declined. (Among others, some DA leaders were worried followers couldn’t stomach a black leader yet.) DA leaders and ideologues, who used to praise her, are definitely disappointed and have tried to undermine her in public; either leaking her plans or disparaging her career (here’s that old reactionary RW Johnson “analyzing” Ramphele’s decision).

It would be unfair to blame Ramphele for the jobs massacre that has unfolded on her watch in the mining sector, but her presence on the board of Anglo American, and her appointment as Chairperson of Gold Fields appear to have done nothing to arrest the destruction of a quarter of a million jobs through the course of the past two decades. For that she won’t be getting any union members signing up for her party.

So what precisely will Agang build?

Ramphele has never enjoyed widespread grassroots support as a political figure in South Africa and hasn’t been in active in any political movement for at least 30 years now. The BCM is all but dead, living–to the extent that it does–in a handful of university seminar rooms, and in the blustering oped copy of a few, largely irrelevant, newspaper columnists. Much of the actual movement’s leaders ended up in Thabo Mbeki’s Cabinet, as advisors or in senior posts in the civil service. Regardless of which Ramphele’s political authenticity is premised on a largely symbolic association with the BCM, a movement with which she has had no practical connection since the early 1980’s.

It is a matter of deep historical irony that Ramphele’s natural constituency is precisely that against which Biko–before he was assassinated–railed in his days leading the fleetingly powerful BCM: She remains something of a heroine for the dwindling band of old school South African liberals (reluctantly still in the DA now) who have manifestly failed to project a successful political strategy, or find a political home since the noxious “Fight Back” campaign of the then-Democratic Party in 1999.

While Agang will stir the hearts of liberal newspaper editors, and lead to excited chatter in the old age homes of Constantia and Houghton, it is unlikely to draw significant support or break the existing mold of South African politics. We don’t yet know who will join her on this journey, who is funding the party (media reports suggested Mbeki’s brother and corporate backers), and–apart from an earnest critique of the electoral system (how that’s the main concern of the average, and we don’t mean suburban whites or blacks, voter–the party’s policy platform remains unknown. Don’t watch this space.

  • Sean Jacobs contributed to this post.

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