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18 March 2018 14:07 (South Africa)
South Africa

Agang: Big on dreams, still short on detail

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • South Africa
rebecca on agang.jpg

Much mystery continues to surround Agang, the party political platform launched by Mamphela Ramphele in February, which will become a political party in June. Who’s in it? Who’s paying for it? A Twitter discussion with Ramphele last Thursday promised answers – but didn’t end up delivering too many concrete details. By REBECCA DAVIS.

“Firstly a big hello to everyone out there tonight – welcome to our first Twitter chat. Molweni dumelang. Sanibonani. Goeie aand.” In this inclusive fashion, Agang leader Mamphela Ramphele kicked off the party political platform’s hour-long inaugural Twitter Q&A session on Thursday night. Agang is not the first South African political party to use Twitter in this manner: the Democratic Alliance has hosted a number of “Twitter Town Halls” to engage with potential voters, sometimes deploying multiple party leaders at once to handle the volume of inquiries.

Agang’s decision to run the Twitter Q&A so early in its existence may be an indication that Ramphele intends to challenge the DA’s supremacy in South African social media, a space in which the ANC appears to take little interest. Having said that, it’s clear that Ramphele is no Helen Zille when it comes to social media activity. Her Twitter account (@MamphelaR) was established just a week before Ramphele announced the formation of Agang, and she has used it only sparsely since then, to comment rather obviously on the budget – “South Africa needs growth, my big takeaway from the Minister’s speech” – and occasionally to respond to current events: “Shocking police conduct. Mido Macia did not deserve to die.”

A week after Agang’s official launch, Ramphele told journalists that building a social media presence was vital “so that we can meet the length and breadth of this country without necessarily having to visit every corner”. This is particularly essential given Agang’s small size: there were only six people behind the platform at its launch, though one of them – former journalist John Allen – told The Star last week that there are now around 20 people working for Agang. It has also advertised a clutch of key jobs in the past few weeks, most of which are communications-based.

You may recall that when Ramphele launched Agang, she stressed that she would consult widely with the people of South Africa. Since February, Ramphele has been travelling around South Africa, particularly to rural areas, to talk to people and inform them of Agang’s existence. This consultation period is the prelude to Agang’s unveiling as a full political party in June, when its emblem will be revealed and membership forms made available.

The Twitter Q&A, then, also had a role to play as a form of consultation, as the Agang strategists figure out what is currently felt to be missing from the South African political landscape that a newcomer might be able to supply. In response to a question about why a “listening campaign” was necessary at all, Ramphele replied: “People feel ignored and disrespected and forgotten. We’re here to listen first – that is why we launched a platform”.

The online conversation, hashtagged under #MRTC, became a “trending topic” in South Africa – an indication that a large number of people were engaging in the discussion simultaneously. But of course, not everyone was there to play nicely. Questions ranged from Ramphele’s preferences for apple crumble – she prefers cream to custard – to her past career: “Didn’t you disempower majority at UCT so you could bump up salaries of the few?” one asked. That didn’t get a response.

But most people wanted to know fairly basic stuff – like what Agang’s policies are, and who its leadership candidates would be. The answer to that, if you read behind the lines, is: Agang doesn’t know yet. “Policies & leadership candidates will emerge as we get ready to launch as a party this year,” Ramphele replied. “We’re listening to South Africans on issues and policies that matter to them right now. This is informing our policies across areas such as education, economy, public service, governance, health.”

Making policies based on what the public wants sounds like it could be a risky business. (A number of polls have found, for instance, that the majority of the country wants the death penalty to be reinstated.) But it is this receptiveness to the voice of ordinary South Africans that Agang is presenting as its unique selling point. Agang is taking what some people would see as its weaknesses – no history, few powerful figures involved – and painting them as its strengths. “This is an opportunity for citizens to be involved and to take ownership of their own country’s destiny and shape it,” Ramphele tweeted. “This is a journey where there are seats still available at the front of the bus – there are no reserved signs.”

She also hinted that the party will be paying particular attention to youth and women. Agang will not have a youth league, because it doesn’t want to “limit their involvement”. Ramphele invited young people to contact Agang if they wished to start a campus chapter or a young professionals’ forum. “Young people will be of central importance to Agang,” Ramphele wrote. Women, meanwhile, “make up more than half the population and they are the rock on which families and nations are built. The world is waking up to the missed opportunity of not having enough women in leadership.”

In response to a query about funding, Ramphele replied that all Agang’s funding is currently local, but she wouldn’t be drawn on further details. “South Africans are funding us now, and we plan to give all South Africans an easy way to donate,” she responded. “Just like any political party we’re open to receiving funds from abroad in future.” Ramphele did not reply to a follow-up question asking her whether Agang would take donations from the Guptas, nor to activist Zackie Achmat’s challenge to her to do things differently by opening up the books for scrutiny.

Ramphele gave away almost nothing about the policy directions that Agang will take, beyond confirming that she believed government employees should be banned from doing business with government, and that political parties shouldn’t be able to create commercial arms to benefit from government tenders. She also did not outline any possible solutions to current social ills, beyond gesturing at the problems. BEE demanded a “re-think on more effective ways”. When asked how she would go about restoring the youth’s faith in politics, she opened the question up to the audience. Education-wise, she said Agang would do “whatever it takes to make sure our children get a world class education”.

One question Ramphele received is a query on many people’s lips: whether South Africans will be able to relate to her, especially given that the PhD-holder is enormously personally wealthy. In an interview last week, Christiane Amanpour suggested that Ramphele was worth $50 million (over R445 million). Ramphele denied this, but her fortune is certainly vast. Forbes lists her as one of Africa’s nine richest women, largely as a result of her directorships of some leading South African companies. A tone of slight defensiveness crept in when Ramphele responded: “Why should there be a contradiction between being successful and being a leader?” She continued: “Think about all the leaders of the struggle – most were educated and successful. We need success.”

As the allotted hour came to an end, the official Agang Twitter account (@AgangSA) had another question for its Twitter audience: “What is the one thing that you would focus on to restore the promise of South Africa?” The responses were overwhelmingly focused on education, suggesting that if Agang really wants traction within the voting population, it would do well to concentrate on working up some plausible policy on this issue.

The reason why we didn’t learn much concrete about Agang during the Twitter Q&A is clearly that there isn’t yet much that is concrete about Agang: policies are still being shaped, and positions firmed up, in the course of its public consultation. Agang has promised that this was only the first Twitter chat “of many”, so future discussions will presumably flesh out the picture more substantively. For now, though, the currency that Ramphele is trading in is hope. “It’s time to restore the promise of the country of our dreams,” she concluded on Thursday.

How? Well, you’ll have to wait and see. DM

Photo: Mamphela Ramphele (Greg Nicolson/Daily Maverick)

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • South Africa

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