Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 20 February 2013

We don’t need another hero: Why I won’t be joining Agang

Mamphela Ramphele has said herself that she is no messiah. And certainly we don’t need one. What we need is a new generation of leaders who are willing to let others get ahead of them; leaders who are – paradoxical as it may sound – willing to follow.

So, I understand the excitement about Dr. Ramphele and her new platform. Weirdness reigns at the DA (Helen Zille speaking Xhosa badly at rallies, trying to back a commission of inquiry into the conduct of the police, and being as evasive as the ANC when it comes to Gupta funding, to name a few examples). Paranoia is the order of the day at the ANC (forcing FNB to apologise for something we were never allowed to see, mobilising its cadres to protect someone’s spear, refusing to tell us the truth about Nkandla). All in all, it feels like the poor South African voter is stuck between a rock and an incredibly smelly and uncomfortable place.

Despite this, I will not be supporting Ramphele and her Gang in their new endeavour. Here are three reasons why:

1. I’m not a joiner. When asked why her new Gang doesn’t enter into an agreement with the Democratic Alliance, Mamphela Ramphele responded, “I’m not a joiner.” I would argue that this is precisely the problem of formal South African politics: our leaders think they are different from regular folk. Ramphele can ask us to join her new platform. But she is above joining others? Hmmmn, methinks I won’t be joining that.

2. if I wanted to vote for the DA, I would prefer to vote for Lindiwe – who is smart, young and has incredibly good taste in shoes – rather than for the good doctor. With respect, Dr. Ramphele is sixty-five and has a jerry curl. It is a style choice that indicates an out of touch-ness that disturbs me. I know, no one ever discusses how male politicians dress, and how they present themselves, and it is dangerous to discern too much from hairstyles, but really, its 2013.

In the meantime, and more seriously, it is hard to see the difference between Ramphele’s platform and what’s on offer at the Democratic Alliance stand. In particular, her race politics are diffuse and watery in a DAesque manner.

Since 1994 we have heard little about black consciousness from the woman who was once its strong proponent. So her response to questions about race and black consciousness in the press conference two days ago was disappointing but unsurprising. She suggested that what South Africa needs is national consciousness, rather than black consciousness. I won’t discuss the merits or demerits of this view. The point is that it is evasive.

This vagueness is curious, given Mamphele’s forthright stance on the issue of her partnership with Biko. I have always admired her unapologetic attitude towards their relationship. Indeed, we have come to expect her to lay out her views on a range of subjects without mincing her words. And yet, when it comes to relations between the race, she has danced a strange dance.

At least we know what Mazibuko thinks. She is nothing if not straightforward. When asked what blackness meant to her at the end of last year, Mazibuko responded, “Black is simply what I am. It’s not a goal to be reached. It’s not a moral value. It cannot be changed any more than the fact I am a woman. It is a demographic box which has meaning because of the history of the country I live in. It ends there. It doesn’t define who I am as a human being. It amounts to an unalterable descriptor of me; it doesn’t amount to a description of my character, my worth or my value as a human being.”

Of course not. But most black woman have been denied access to education, employment, land and opportunities on the basis of the intersections between their race, gender and class. Mazibuko’s failure to do a class analysis, her refusal to admit that she isn’t the typical black woman (she isn’t even the typical white woman) allows her to both be breathtakingly eloquent, and comprehensively apolitical. It’s a scary combination, but one that can be corrected.

Indeed, with her maturity and experience, Ramphele could provide the kind of support that Mazibuko needs to develop in her own thinking. Intellectual support and perspective that I doubt she can get from Zille.

Which brings me to my third and final point.

3.  We don’t need another hero.  In a week in which another hero has fallen, killing a woman in the process, I am frankly, a bit tired of the idea that we can be propelled forward by believing in people with stories of overcoming great hardship.  In her speech on Tuesday, Ramphele painted herself as someone we should admire because of the barriers she has overcome.  She noted that “I have said that I am no messiah. No single individual acting on their own can build our nation into the country of our dreams.”

She would do well to take her own words seriously.  In a fragmented political arena in which opposition groups struggle to challenge the ANC, isn’t it time that we embrace the idea of responsible followership?  I would respect Ramphele’s decision to enter politics more if she wasn’t insisting on being at the front. Imagine what message it would send to those who are bloated with the arrogance of leadership if she used her credibility and clout to be a joiner.

Imagine what inspiration it would give us if her generation finally sat down and let the next generation lead from the front.

I am just as hungry for political alternatives as the next South African, but I fear that Ramphele doesn’t represent anything new. We’ve had enough of heroes and gangs. We need joiners. DM


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