South Africa

Mamphela Ramphele, take two: Still too much poetry and not enough plan

By J Brooks Spector 7 June 2013

Mamphela Ramphele must have been bottling up her slowly growing anger for years; biding her time; biting her tongue; waiting for her moment. After her much-heralded pre-launch in February, she returns to talk to the media, just weeks before her brainchild, Agang, is to become reality. The question, though, remains: is this to be her moment? By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

A crusader for rural health clinics back when such things would have been viewed as stalking horses for anti-Apartheid activism or worse, later as vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, then a senior official at the World Bank, the non-executive chair of the Gold Fields mining house, and (much earlier) partner and soulmate to black consciousness icon Steve Biko; Dr Mamphela Ramphele has finally decided to put her principles to the test of reality and to take her best shot at politics.

A few months ago she announced the formation of the Agang political platform to listen carefully to South Africans’ views about what they want in a politician and leader. Now she has made it clear that after the listening tour she is going to turn Agang into a formal political party to challenge the country’s current political leadership – all of it. Once, that is, she formally announces the party’s establishment later this month.

On Thursday, Ramphele met with international journalists based in South Africa over breakfast to set out her case for why she is poised on the edge of the precipice; why she is ready to jump headlong right into the pool, heedless of whether the water is warm and inviting – or filled with hungry piranhas and alligators.

She tells her audience that the country has reached a crossroads. “Twenty years after the beautiful day that welcomed our democracy there is no doubt that we have not lived up to a dream.” One just has to read the business pages, she says, to see how far things have sunk. South Africans had a shared vision back in 1994 and now, two decades later, the government has simply not lived up to its promises.

A particularly bitter irony is that some 37 years ago South Africans fought against the indignities of Apartheid education, but now the country’s educational system is worse off than it was then. The current educational system lies to the children under its care, telling them it has succeeded when the graduate with those 30% passes in their exams. The health system, meanwhile, has virtually collapsed, what with maternal mortality at appalling levels. The country spends 8% of its national income on health – significantly above world percentage spending standards – but just look at the results, she charges. And South Africa again has a police force – not a system, per the Constitution – whose members are the law unto themselves. In short, after two decades of non-racial democracy, the country’s democracy is on the wrong track.

She speaks intently, even fervently, about old age pensioners who must see their pensions pilfered or looted and all those residents of RDP houses whose water and sewage lines are hopelessly intermingled, where their settlements’ water reticulation is egregiously polluted.

For Ramphele, it is clear that most of this stems from a deep lack of accountability on the part of politicians – and, worse, corruption has become the new norm, the accepted way of things. Now is the time to bring back a sense of accountability. (One almost looks for that avenging angel, bearing a flaming sword, swooping in to, finally, set things aright.) She tells her audience that things are so bad, the South African population’s taxes are going up into thin air.

Intellectually at least, her audience this morning seems to be in her corner, despite that well-known journalistic cynicism; no one, after all, likes to see taxes wasted, flushed away. Ramphele is outraged by what she has seen around the country – that is absolutely clear. But there is an interesting disconnect between anger and presence. As she speaks, she sits, erect posture, eyes fixed firmly on her audience, but staying nearly motionless. She is wearing an immaculately tailored blue silk suit, her hair is perfect. The message seems to be: by golly, there are still standards!

She speaks entirely without notes. It is all in her head, worked out thoroughly in deep, precise detail, but her voice just barely rises above the kind of tone at home in a corporate boardroom during a mildly contentious committee meeting about a corporate takeover.

She moves seamlessly into her dissection of South Africa’s political system, placing the reason for much of the current mess on the failed connection between the people in the nation’s Parliament and the people who put them in that hall through their votes. Public officials, insists Ramphele, must be forced to have their business interests known and that no government official must be allowed to do business with the government. Moreover, the culture of the whistleblower must be allowed to flourish – rather than quashed for making waves.

She is in this thing for real she says. The Independent Electoral Commission will get Agang’s registration certificate this week for its formal party announcement on 22 June so that they can contest next year’s election. She tells her audience, Agang is putting together a young team for a young country, but she admits it has been hard, so far at least, for her to announce the names of key supporters. She explains, “we underestimated fear as a determinant to public support” for her nascent party.

“Fear? Fear of what, precisely?” one asks silently.

Ramphele’s bill of particulars isn’t finished yet by any means. She wants to make it clear that regardless of any roadblocks in her path, competing in next year’s election is the plan – the only plan. Waiting until Agang builds a broad-based, solid, grassroots organisation, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, and fighting for political power in 2019, will be “too late”. The rot will have set in too deeply to be extirpated. As a result, it must be 2014.

She starts to explain the electoral maths as she and her advisors now see it – well, really, it is more an electoral shopping list than a carefully calibrated, vote-collecting battle plan, since all of this is more than a bit squishy just yet. She argues that drawing upon internal polling, they now think strong areas for them will be in harvesting those millions of absent votes, that is, all those people who have given up on changing the government through the ballot box, and to challenge them to rejoin a crusade, Agang’s crusade, to try to fix things.

She says Agang plans to target the young (those sought-after “born-frees”), rural women, and increasingly disenchanted, urban middle-class voters. Perhaps the only ones left out of her plan are those older rural men with more than a minor vested interest in traditional leadership structures in the “tribal” hinterlands – although she doesn’t use quite those words to describe them. And in any case, some of the voters she wants to target are the rural women who were nearly boxed in by the proposed Traditional Courts Bill that would have effectively removed them from the protections of the Constitution’s court system. Her eyes light up as she points out that those rural women were the reason the Bill was finally beaten back. That’s the energy she wants to tap into for her crusade to political power.

In what may be the best, most memorable catchphrase to come out of her briefing, she explains she aims for “a public service that serves the public”. She wants to restore the promise of freedom and respect for the country’s citizens on the part of government, rather than obeisance towards government. Buried back in there somewhere seems to be a an echo of Thomas Jefferson’s famous phrase he put into America’s Declaration of Independence, of that “decent respect for the opinions of mankind”. For Ramphele, Agang’s political possibilities represent a chance for a national fresh start, a do-over, a chance to wipe the slate clean, to try again and get it right the second time.

It’s hard to disagree with anything she says Agang stands for – it’s all common sense. That there is something wrong with government officials doing business with their own government department seems obvious. An official alliance between the governing party and the major labour federation it is often at odds with over wage negotiations similarly seem rife for conflicts of interest. But what she will do, exactly, is still left unexplored.

In response to questions, she explains that ultimately she and DA leader Helen Zille agreed to disagree on a show of unity to contest the election, even though they have deep respect for each other.

Concerning the initiation rites scandal that stems from the deaths of initiates, she says she cannot understand how certain regions of the country can be sliding backwards in terms of health and sanitation for these rites of passage.

Turning to her criticisms of the ANC, in response to whether she believes the governing party has “lost the plot”, Ramphele argues the ANC, like so many other liberation movements, has stumbled over the same challenges faced by all liberation movements – moving from that position to one that tackles the quotidian challenges of building a nation. She muses about whether it might have been better for the country if Nelson Mandela had served two – instead of one – terms of office in order to set democratic behaviour and principles of political tolerance on a firm, stable footing. But her comments are also a swipe at the IEC for failing in carrying out its mandate to educate the country’s citizens that the vote is theirs because it represents the power to choose, to punish office holders who lose the people’s confidence, and because it allows the citizenry to express its wishes politically. She sees something of a culture of political bullying taking hold, exasperated, for example, that MTN and First Rand allowed themselves to be bullied, that they didn’t – or couldn’t – stand their ground over their business decisions when they came in contact with the political world.

When questions turn to her experience and tenure at Goldfields and whether the government responded effectively to the tensions in South African mining, Ramphele insists she has been warning for years that the South African way of mining – with low wages and relatively unskilled labour – is obsolete, rooted in the past. However, a democratic political system generates demands and the industry has been incapable of responding to these demands when they are expressed in economic terms. Moreover, she has been criticising the migrant labour system for years as well – insisting that the “live out” system (a monthly payment to miners who choose to live in quarters other than the miners hostels) is primarily responsible for the shack slums that have sprung up around the mines in the platinum belt. Beyond that, the government’s alliance with the labour movement makes real, meaningful, fundamental change very difficult. Overlapping roles where NUM offices double up as ANC district offices simply doesn’t work for a democratic political system.

Reporters ask if she has been raising money abroad for her upcoming campaign and what that means, as well as if she expects to take the same kinds of criticism mining magnate Cyril Ramaphosa received when he became an office bearer for the ANC. Ramphele responds she has resigned from all business dealings. Period. She’s not in this political thing for the money; she’s doing this for her children’s and their children’s futures. Yes, she has been seeking funds from the South African diaspora (many of them are well-to-do). But this is because there are “hundreds of thousands of South African citizens in this diaspora. They must contribute their skills and their money to the country.” Somewhere, somebody is going to try to argue this means she is somehow in thrall to shadowy foreign interests – but not today.

Ramphele is asked about her economic philosophy, the Ramphele Weltanschauung, and she argues in our contemporary world the old-style distinction between left and right no longer makes much sense. Instead, South Africa’s political economy should be guided by a sense of social justice that is informed by the values engineered into the country’s Constitution. She pivots to say her real passion is education. “The government is now failing 80% of the people. Every child matters and every school must be a proper school with a library, a laboratory and toilets. There is no need for textbooks in the 21st century. We could have Wi-Fi in every school and tablets for every child. Textbooks are just a money laundering scheme for the politically connected.” Schools must prepare people for participation in the 21st century, not for looking back to the past. And as far as land reform goes, she explains she grew up among “peasant farmers” and that tells her it is no use to transfer land to unprepared farmers. She’s using land she owns as a test project for improving productivity, and she’s starting an Nguni cattle-breeding project as well – both as models for others.

Ramphele denies she is some kind of proxy for voters who are fed up with the ANC’s ineptitude but who are reluctant to make the move all the way over to the DA. She insists she has no time for such carping, “We have a country to build. I’m not going to become a pillar of salt from looking backward” – a not-so-veiled reference to the Biblical story of Lot’s wife.

As far as what she has learned on her swings through the country on the Agang listening tour, she says she was truly surprised by the levels of despair she encountered. “There is this sense of resignation and the challenge is to turn resignation to empowerment.” She argues the time is long past when people actually living on land should be able to access title to such lands, even as she laments the current government’s inability to even catalogue properly what land it owns. As she thinks about transformative land policies, she asserts that innovative ideas like the cultivation of industrial crops – biofuel crops, for example – can be grown on land polluted by mine wastes. The country also needs to engage on a great infrastructure rebuilding – and an infrastructure maintenance programme. The country must figure out ways to employ the unemployed young for these tasks and to use the country’s current reservoir of expertise to manage such plans. And she even has a mordant laugh line at the expense of government ineptitude – if that Boston bombing had happened in South Africa, the country’s police would still be looking for the bombers. Hmm….

In spite of her obvious concern, her evident hard work thinking through the problems of the country, and the broad brush answers to some of these serious and growing problems it confronts, one was sometimes curiously left thinking of that famous unanswered question, in the last line of the Robert Redford film vehicle, The Candidate. Redford’s character, a politician confronted by his surprise victory at the polls, turns to his advisors and asks as the film ends, “What do we do now?”

In the remote chance she does win big at the polls, let’s say, for example, Agang and the DA manage, against all odds, to carry Gauteng and get to pick the premier and cabinet, one wonders what Ramphele would do first. How would she order her priorities in government, as opposed to her current status as an intelligent, articulate critic of government. In America, the phrase has it that campaigning is like poetry, but governing is like reading the tax code aloud to small children. The really tough calls come in when hard priorities must be selected and not just listed; when incompetents or worse must be fired; and when a concrete action plan must be pushed forward against irascible political opponents. Right now, as Agang as an actual political party waits impatiently in the wings for two more weeks, Ramphele is only just beginning to mold and shape her message, to find her muse, to pick her political poetry. DM

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"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall

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