South Africa

Ramphele: ‘COPE looked to the past. Our focus is the future.’

By Ryland Fisher 21 June 2013

Agang SA, the political platform established by Dr Mamphela Ramphele late last year, will be launching itself as a formal political party at the Pretoria Events Centre from 9am on Saturday 22 June. In an interview this week, Ramphele spoke, among other things, of her disappointment with South Africa’s leaders, her relationship with Helen Zille and her belief that Agang SA could, at the very least, be part of a coalition government after next year’s national general elections. By RYLAND FISHER.

Daily Maverick spoke to Mamphela Ramphele on Wednesday, a few days before  Agang SA’s interim leaders were to be announced. Some of the names are:

Nkosinathi Solomon, campaign director. He joined Agang from ABSA Bank where he was Chief Operations Officer: Life Assurance Business. He previously occupied senior roles at BP, Chevron and the Anglo American Corporation.

Professor Mills Soko, director of policy and political research. He was previously an associate professor of political economy at the University of Cape Town and a former head of policy and legislative research in the National Council of Provinces.

Zohra Dawood, director of fundraising and scheduling. She was a director of the Open Society Foundation of South Africa and Indonesia for the last 13 years and has worked in government and civil society.

Thabo Leshilo, director of communications. He has served as the editor of several major newspapers and joins from a public relations company where he was a media strategist and director.

Tim Knapp, chief of staff. He comes from McKinsey & Company where he was associate partner, having spent six years in South Africa working on key public sector health, transport and field projects.

Rorisang Tshabalala, field co-ordinator, a young entrepreneur.

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You have a strong history of involvement in struggle. Did you think in the bad old days of Apartheid that we would have a democracy in your lifetime?

Yes, we were probably the first generation of young people who very defiantly said that we would either die fighting for freedom or live to see it. We were not going to sit and wait for freedom. Sadly, many of my friends died in the struggle for freedom and that is partly why as a survivor of that generation I feel that I have to make sure that the legacy of their sacrifices is not betrayed.

How well or badly do think South Africa is doing almost 20 years into our democracy?

I wish that I could be singing the praises of my beloved country, but sadly, despite the huge potential we have in terms of our resource base – natural, mineral and human – we seem to have systematically underperformed on all of the key indicators of a successful democracy.

Having established a firm constitutional foundation, we failed to live by the foundational values of human dignity, equality and freedom. That shows up in the underperformance of our economy because it is not an economy which creates opportunities for all South Africans.

It shows up in our underperformance in education, ironically a sector which triggered the June 16 revolt which saw many young people sacrificing their lives for the freedom we are enjoying today because they would not allow themselves to be subjected to inferior education.

The education we have today is inferior to what they had then in terms of quality. Yes, it is accessible, but even that access depends on who you are and where you are. For children to still be in mud schools with pit latrines, no laboratories, no libraries and no sporting facilities is a scandal for a country with our resource base.

The other scandal is the health care system. I was reading today that more children are likely to be born HIV positive in the Eastern Cape because of the intermittent availability of ARVs.

We know that in the Eastern Cape 8,000 public officials in the department of health were doing business with the government and they are still in their jobs. Poor people don’t have drugs and they don’t have the basic necessities that a health care system should have.

Alongside that is the massive increase of women dying in childbirth and neonates dying unnecessary deaths because of neglect, and inadequate facilities and professionalism in healthcare.

Finally, another big irony is that one of the rallying cries of the freedom struggle was the protest against police brutality, against deaths in detention. More people are dying now in police custody than ever before. We have brutality no different from during the Apartheid era, by inadequately trained and led police in our system. Crime and insecurity is at its highest, including gender based violence which the police simply don’t know how to deal with.

In your opinion, is there anything positive?

The positive story for me is that we have the foundations of a great constitutional democracy very firmly in place in our Constitution, and in the institutions that we have set up to support that Constitution as the pillars of our democracy.

But the toxic mix of unaccountable, corrupt and weak leadership has and is already beginning to undermine even those pillars of our democracy. Look at the NPA, which has had an acting head for how many years?  This is in the midst of all the crime and corruption.

Look at our courts, the whole controversy around whether we are getting the best brains to be the legal brains that power our courts and our constitutional dispensation.

Yes, the positive is the huge potential of this country and the firm foundations for it. But we are systematically undermining those, which is the reason why Agang is saying that 20 years into our democracy is too long to wait for a turnaround. We can’t expect a turnaround from the very people who have undermined the pillars of our democracy.

It’s been a few months since you announced your intention to enter the political arena. Has the response been what you expected?

It’s been more than I expected. Particularly from young people who have volunteered by the droves. Right now, for this Saturday we have to do a serious pruning job in managing the number because we don’t want a huge rally. We want a professional launch.

Young people are showing a hunger and an enthusiasm for a new beginning because many of them had begun to say, ‘This can’t be the freedom that my parents neglected me for.’

Many didn’t even bother to register to vote. They are young professionals, young entrepreneurs and young businesspeople. They are flocking to our website and our digital platforms and they are volunteering. Some are donating their time and energy.

I am also touched by the unemployed young people who see this as not only a way to get a job. They come to me and say, ‘Mama, we are volunteering, but don’t just teach us about politics. We also want to be helped so that we learn how to conduct ourselves so that we are able to participate in our country more effectively as citizens.’ That for me is really touching and very positive.

The conflation of the party, the government and the state is a big burden on the poor vulnerable people in this country and one of the most exciting things about the journeys around the country is explaining to people the differences and when you finish explaining, they say, ‘Well give me the piece of paper, I want to register’ and we say ‘No, no, no, we are not in the registration business yet. We are just here to hear you and to share our views. We will come back to you to register.’ That has been very encouraging.

But I must tell you that I have been shocked. I didn’t know that there were places like Silvertown in this country. It’s a squatter camp of about 20 years old in Port Elizabeth.

The people there are living in the confluence of all the drains from the Port Elizabeth metropole, including storm water, sewerage, everything. Given that the PE metropole has been under administration for a couple of years now, those drains are not serviced.

So come rain, the storm water drains, the lids of which have worn thin because they have not been replaced since the bad old days, lift and the storm water just floods into those shacks.

That’s not the only thing. The sewerage pipes, again with very thin lids on them, lift. The people say, ‘We can’t eat during the rainy season, because the whole place stinks. We have a bucket system and the temporary toilets which were set up way back when, have broken down.’

I didn’t know and I never dreamt that 20 years into our democracy people could be living like that with every inch of their dignity undermined. That shocked me. I’ve seen poverty before but I’ve never seen this level of wanton neglect of poor people.

You have a history in medicine, academia, civil society and business but this is new to you. How comfortable are you in the formal political space?

I have said, over and over, publicly and otherwise, that party politics is not for me. I’ve always seen myself, over the last 45 years, as an activist, a doctor, an academic and an active citizen but never in this role.

I felt that I could make a greater contribution by being non-partisan and being able to support whatever government was in power provided they do the right thing.

But I have to say after 19 years of doing that with successive ANC governments I came to the conclusion that things are getting worse rather than better and that the undermining of the pillars of our democracy is the biggest risk that we face.

If we allow the continued weakening of the quality of the judiciary, the weakening of the law enforcement agencies, and the weakening of the government systems, Parliament, we’re going to be in trouble. The longer that weakening continues, the more difficult it is to do a turnaround.

Look at Zimbabwe. By allowing that undermining of the democratic institutions of Zimbabwe, it’s difficult now to unscramble a scrambled egg. In South Africa we have a window of opportunity with this coming election to turn the tide away from undermining our institutions towards a turnaround strategy based on the lessons of the past 19 years.

Can you tell me a bit about what happened before you tried to take this step? It’s been reported that you had been negotiating with the DA and you only took the step after those negotiations failed.

Let’s put it this way, the decision to go into to party politics precedes the discussions with the DA. Having decided to enter party politics, one has to look at what the options are and that was one of the options.

We could work with them to get a new umbrella under which all of us, including other political parties, could come. Then we could form a truly post-Apartheid political party that people across the cultural and class spectrum would feel comfortable with. That was the whole purpose.

How far are you with this whole process? Are you going launch a new political party and when will this happen?

We are launching indeed on the 22nd, this Saturday. And we are launching in Pretoria.

Do you think you will have built up enough momentum ahead of next year’s elections?

If you look at how much we have accomplished over the last four months, you can see that we have tapped into an energy that has been trapped by the lack of options that people have felt.

Now that there is this new opportunity, this new fresh start, we have new people coming on board every day and you will see on Saturday when we will showcase our campaign team, but we will also showcase the plans that we have to build a very strong political machinery.

Many South African are angry with the ruling party but will still not abandon them for opposition. How are you going to convince them to support you?

We are guided by evidence. If you look at the analysis of the 2009 elections, in fact if you look from 1994, you will see that there’s been a decline in the participation by South Africans in the electoral process.

That tells you that people don’t feel they have the option to exercise their vote. I think in 2009 fully 41% of people who were eligible to vote, either didn’t register or didn’t vote.

Those are people looking for a home. Those are people who feel that what exists today does not represent their aspirations.

We have no doubt that with what’s been happening between 2009 and now there are more disillusioned people. There are new people coming onto the political scene. Democracy is about offering the electorate a menu from which to choose. At the moment the menu on offer has not proven to be attractive to a significant proportion of South Africa’s people.

Clearly you will not be able to dislodge the ANC in the next election. What are your immediate goals in terms of opposition politics? Or do you hope to dislodge them?

I think the issue of clearly is open to question and we are only going to be guided by evidence. As I sit with you today, I can’t tell you that we will get 10, 20 or 50% because we are going to be doing regular polls that will guide us to know what is a realistic target to set. Until that is done we are not talking targets.

But we are definitely aiming for a significant share of the vote so that either alone, or in coalition with others, we can form a new government because that’s what South Africa wants. South Africa wants a new start. The idea that poor people are somehow addicted and or dependent on the parties that exist has not been challenged by a new offering. I think the jury is out.

How is your relationship with the DA at the moment and how do you differentiate yourself from them and other opposition parties?

Well, Helen and I have a very long history as friends and colleagues and we continue to have a friendly relationship. We do also have ongoing conversations with them because we want to work with others so that we can ensure free and safe elections in 2014. That is in the interest of South Africa. We are not in the business of fighting fashionable battles. We put the country first. We focus on the future.

You answered this question partly earlier, but the majority of South Africans are young people, so how will you convince them to vote for you?

Young people are tired of the politics of yesterday and that’s one of the big differentiators of Agang. We are a future-focused party. We are looking to build the country of our dreams and we believe that South Africans have lowered the expectations of themselves and of their country. We are going to raise those expectations.

We are going to raise the expectations in terms of the quality of governance, the engagement of citizens, including having civic education in preschool right up to university and at work and in public space.

We are going to raise the expectation and quality of education. Young people are born with a genius in one or other talent area. We kill it in our current mediocre education.

What is exciting young people is the thought that they can get some support, especially those who have already dropped out of school. The 5 or 6 billion rand that goes into schools training that ends up with the SETA (Sector Education Training Authority) bureaucracy is going to be turned around to make sure that young people get opportunities for skills development so that they can be contributors to the economy.

Young people are excited by the fact that they will have a healthcare system where they will be treated with respect. Not to be told, you know, ‘Where did you get whatever?’ but to be treated like citizens who deserve dignity.

Young people are tired of crime and insecurity because they are the people who are really at the coal face. They are the ones who are at risk. They are the ones who are flooding our correctional facilities because we as adults have failed them.

We have failed to create homes where kids feel loved. We have failed to create school where kids are encouraged to aim high. We have failed to create communities that care. Then we turn around and say, ‘What’s wrong with these kids?’ There’s nothing wrong with these kids. There’s everything wrong with us.

How are you going to convince people that you are not just going to be another COPE? Because COPE also started off with a lot of promise and it just disintegrated after a while.

COPE was a breakaway. We are not a breakaway. We are a fresh start. COPE had a history focus. We have a future focus.

You’re launching the party on Saturday. What are the immediate steps after that?

After the launch, we will begin to register people as members. We want to register every citizen who is not registered to vote to register as voters. We want to help educate people about their rights and responsibilities.

We are going to put boots on the ground. We are building a formidable digital platform. We are going to reach every gogo in every hut in every province. We are going to continue visiting areas where the largest concentrations of people are. We want to engage with them to make them believe that it is possible for us to build the country of our dreams. DM

Photo: Mamphela Ramphele (Greg Nicolson)

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