Just over a week after Mamphela Ramphele launched her “political party platform” Agang. GREG NICOLSON meets the newcomer to politics and looks at her initiative after its first week of operating.
Victor, a migrant worker from KwaZulu-Natal, searches a patron at a Jeppestown tavern. The security guard lives at the Jeppe men’s hostel with some of the revellers. Others come from the surrounding low-cost apartment buildings. Victor checks the patron for knives or guns then asks, “What about this Agang? This woman will change everything.”
“This woman, she has too much money, I’ve heard,” he continues. The tavern’s speakers blast a local house song. “The ANC’s too scared. Everyone knows this woman.”
Across Johannesburg, on a Sunday afternoon taxi from Diepsloot to town, two middle-aged men, wearing the overalls of labourers, speak in Sotho about wanting an alternative to the African National Congress (ANC), which they feel has let them down. “We will shift to Agang,” chuckles one.
When Mamphela Ramphele, 65, launched her “political party platform” Agang, meaning “to build” in Sesotho, critics painted her as an elite known only to the middle and upper classes. But a week after facing media at Constitutional Hill, the press generated from Agang’s launch is already generating broader interest.
Ramphele’s face graced the covers of a number of newspapers and her name was plastered through the streets on the papers’ headline placards. The ANC did its part by accusing her of representing foreign interests. Even the critics who spoke on television and radio about her aloofness promoted the Ramphele brand simply by discussing it. If it weren’t for Oscar Pistorius, Agang would have been the story of the week.
Speaking to media on Wednesday, Ramphele said on the day of the launch 1,500 people wanting to volunteer registered on Agang’s website and the number has grown to almost 5,000 in a week. She has received offers to speak across the country. “The response has been really encouraging, but to be able to get back to all those people we need to have a credible machine,” she said in an interview on Wednesday.
Agang will launch as a political party in mid-2013 but for now it remains a coterie of just six. Ramphele is joined by Zohra Dawood, a former executive director at the Open Society Foundation, Canadian-South African Tim Knapp, former journalist John Allen, Professor Mills Soko, with additional help in social media. Agang has a website, Facebook page, Twitter handle, and an email address for media inquiries.
What it doesn’t have is a Jackson Mthembu (ANC spokesperson), Mmusi Maimane (DA) or Malesela Maleka (SACP). Trying to get a comment on its first week of activity, I eventually found the phone number I used to called Ramphele when her Freedom Under Law group challenged former crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli’s reinstatement. Her assistant passed me onto Mark Peach, a senior vice president at FTI Consulting who is handling Agang’s communications.
The next morning I found myself sitting opposite Ramphele at a boardroom table in Sandton’s Maslow Hotel as she met journalists and editors. In black shoes, stockings, a blue skirt and matching blazer with black and gold buttons, she entered the plush hotel with two bodyguards. The outfit was stylish and her makeup subtle, but less striking than the traditional attire she wore for the Agang launch. She was polite but hardly charismatic when I introduced myself in the lobby.
Ramphele had just flown in from her Cape Town home and when we sat down she chatted freely. Agang is setting up offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town and in the next week hopes to double the size of the team. “We also have a huge number of volunteers that we will sift through so we can start having provincial organisers who in each of the key provinces will want to be active, managing and leading teams of volunteers in very interesting areas. We’ve got housewives, retired business people, retired teachers, retired clerks willing to volunteer to mobilise people in their neighbourhoods and that’s really going to be one important thing, building that machinery,” she told a radio journalist, looking directly at the interviewer while using her hands to illustrate points.
“The second thing is to build a social media platform so that we can meet the length and breadth of this country without necessarily having to visit every corner and that is going to be a very important one because we shouldn’t only have a media platform that people with access to the Internet can reach, but also people with cellphones, and South Africa fortunately has a got a cellphone in every home almost.”
Agang remains a “political party platform”, Ramphele stressed. The group will meet this week to set monthly goals ahead of the mid-year party launch. A plan to spend a week in each of its key target areas across the country is currently being devised. We’ll see Ramphele in rural and poor communities soon, she promised.
According to a City Press poll, academics predict Agang could grab between 0.25% and 8% of the national vote. That’s not bad for an upstart – in 2009 Congress of the People took 7.4% of the national vote and the Inkatha Freedom Party 4.5% – but it’s hardly power enough to achieve Ramphele’s goals of fighting the culture of impunity and instituting a capable civil service.
Yet it’s the other smaller parties that might still hold the key to Agang’s success. Apart from questions relating to her following among “the masses” and criticism on the lack of detail related to “Rekindling the South African dream” (the title of Ramphele’s Agang launch speech), media has relentlessly asked whether she planned to join the Democratic Alliance and what scope there is for coordinating with minority parties.
“We want to leverage what exists,” she said on Wednesday, acknowledging that talks with other parties are ongoing. “We want to be a value adder. We don’t want to go over ground that others have already covered.” Agang’s use of social media will help spread its message where other parties have struggled, Ramphele claimed.
Agang has secured some funding and is looking at attracting both large and small-scale donations, said Ramphele, who will be meeting both influential South Africans and ordinary citizens, who have shown great interest, she said.
She believes that launching a platform now rather than a party is a more inclusive option. “I simply invite South Africa’s people to give us the opportunity to build this platform, to hone our message, to see how we operate in a way that is different to some of the players that are currently there, but the most important difference for us is we want to put the citizen at the centre. We want to every South African person to feel respected and not used as simply voting fodder. To that extent we announced a political platform which gives scope for people to participate in shaping it,” she said on Wednesday.
With a small but respected team, Ramphele will be able to garner attention across the country as disaffection with the ANC grows. Agang’s performance in next year’s election will be determined by how it turns that attention into momentum and the machinery of a political party. For now, it remains a plan, void of the key elements of a party. But the plans of a former Black Consciousness Movement leader, University of Cape Town vice chancellor, managing director of the World Bank, and chairwoman of Gold Fields should not be taken lightly, even if she is racing against time. DM
Photo: Mamphela Ramphele (Greg Nicolson / Daily Maverick)
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine