Opinionista Ryland Fisher 4 February 2013

Some advice for Ramphele: Stay away from party politics

Recent history and the need for a certain moral flexibility in the practice of politics strongly suggest Mamphela Ramphele is not ideally placed to lead an ANC breakaway party. Ramphele’s NGO, Citizens Movement for Social Change, remains her most effective vehicle for making a difference.

The only constant about politics and politicians is that they are bound to change. This is probably why some people say a week is a long time in politics.

Just ask Helen Zille. Who would have thought a week or two ago that the darling of most of the media would now be putting out fires with regards to her views on the funding of political parties?

But I digress even before I have started.

The governing party, the African National Congress, has in its 101 year history undergone many metamorphoses. It was started as an organisation of African intellectuals and middle-class individuals and over the years it was coerced into embracing non-racialism and working with people from other races and move away from its middle class roots.

Even the collaboration with other races was not initially done in true non-racial fashion, but based on Apartheid identities: with separate organisations for Africans, coloureds, Indians and whites.

At some point the ANC was forced by its youth league to become more defiant of the Apartheid regime, which had just been voted into power, and it retained a policy of non-violent resistance until the organisation was banned and it saw no alternative but to resort to violence against the state and state institutions.

In its exile years, the ANC had to adopt a different modus operandi; it could not operate openly for security reasons and this, of course, led to bad habits which are still with us today. Some of these bad habits include not being held to account for your actions and trying to share as little information as possible with the people who put you into power.

It is clear that the organisation has struggled to transform itself from an underground party into one which has to carry the hopes and aspirations of 50 million South Africans.

Over the years, the ANC has also changed because of its leaders, especially its presidents. There is no doubt that the ANC under Oliver Reginald Tambo was different to the ANC under Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. In the same way, the ANC under Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma is different to the ANC under Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki.

This is not necessarily bad because people change and politicians have to change if they want to continue getting support from the people they purport to represent.

Over the years there have been people who have been unhappy with the ANC leadership and policies and they have expressed their displeasure in different ways. For instance, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania was formed in 1959 by a group who believed the ANC should have adopted a more pro-Africanist stance.

The United Democratic Movement, led by Bantu Holomisa, was formed in 1997 after Holomisa was expelled from the ANC after he made allegations of bribes paid to the former prime minister of the Transkei, Chief George Matanzima, and Stella Sicgau, who was then prime minister and who later became a South African Cabinet minister.

The most recent high-profile breakaway from the ANC came in the form of the Congress of the People (Cope), with its leaders including several people who had held high positions in the ANC under Thabo Mbeki and who were upset when Mbeki was trounced by Zuma at the ANC’s 52nd national elective conference in Polokwane.

Many people had hoped that Cope would present a real alternative to the ANC. There is a strong feeling in some quarters that the only real opposition to the ANC will come from inside the ANC.

Instead, Cope crumbled into itself amid serious leadership squabbles from which it has been unable to recover.

There is no doubt that many people are upset with what the ANC has become under Zuma and are searching for alternatives. However, the grouping that opposed Zuma very publicly at the ANC’s last elective conference, in Mangaung in December, has remained mum about its intentions.

It seems that they would prefer to regroup inside the ANC and bide their chances as opposed to starting yet another breakaway. They have clearly learnt the lessons of the failed Cope breakaway which saw many deserters crawling back to the ANC with their tails between their legs. Some of those who returned were rewarded with high positions inside the ANC.

So how does one create a viable alternative to the ANC, if indeed something like this is needed? And are those so desperate for some real opposition to the ANC clutching at straws with the latest mumblings that Mamphela Ramphele was considering entering party politics?

Zille should probably feel offended by the fuss made about Ramphele’s possible entry into politics, even though Ramphele was once Zille’s boss as UCT (Ramphele was vice-chancellor and Zille was in charge of communications).

Surely Zille could argue that the increasing trajectory of support for the Democratic Alliance over the past few elections should indicate that it is on the right path to eventually beat the ANC at the polls? It has already done so in the Western Cape and feels confident that it could pose a serious challenge to the ANC in the Northern Cape, Gauteng and even the Eastern Cape, which has traditionally been a stronghold of the governing party.

Here is the nub: no matter how revered Ramphele is among the chattering classes, she does not enjoy grassroots support, something one needs if one is to seriously challenge for electoral power.

Ramphele might have her roots in the black consciousness movement of the 1970s, but BC has not made of a dent in the ANC’s electoral support since 1994. Also, it is doubtful whether she would still today enjoy the support of BC stalwarts. In fact, there are many people within BC circles who are upset at the way in which she is perceived to have used her extramarital relationship with Steve Biko to promote her own interests.

So, which constituency would Ramphele be able to represent and deliver at the polls? The people who support her Citizens Movement for Social Change – and we are not clear how big this support is – might not necessarily support her by voting for her political party even though they support her organisation as an NGO through which they can help to make a difference to society.

Running a political party – where one has to chase numbers all the time – is very different from running an NGO which does not have to stand for re-election. NGOs can remain true to their mission statements. Political parties have to sometimes take populist positions in order to gain voting support.

I am just a writer without any political ambition, but I have seen over the years how people have been corrupted by politics. Good anti-Apartheid activists have become bad politicians because they are no longer driven by a cause, but by the number of votes they can win at election times.

My two cents of advice to Ramphele would be simple: don’t enter formal politics but rather build the Citizens Movement into a formidable force that political parties will have to take seriously. You can probably make more of a contribution to South Africa in that capacity than by becoming the leader of one of a myriad of opposition political parties with no hope of unseating the ANC. And that might eventually be gobbled up by Zille’s voracious DA. DM



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