Dr Mamphela Ramphele didn’t have to wait long for her first bitter taste of the realities of active politics. It came on Monday, when she finally launched, well, her intention to launch the “consultative process” that will eventually launch her party. And, if the launch was any yardstick, life outside her academic and corporate cocoons is not going get any sweeter.
When it first emerged last month, through the helpful offices of one Mr Tony Leon, that Dr Mamphela Ramphele would soon launch a new political party into our already crowded surrounds, the reaction from politicians was welcoming, if somewhat cautious. The exception was Gwede Mantashe, the secretary general of the African National Congress and the ruling party’s most dependable battering ram.
Labelling her a “biased academic”, Mantashe said Ramphele had used her critiques of the ruling party in the past decade as a launch pad for her impending political career. Now that she was about to come out of her academic cocoon and “unmask” herself as the opposition politician she had always been, the ANC and South Africans would be able finally to take her for what she is, and “deal” with her in those terms.
Now you can interpret this typically over the top reaction in two ways; generously, as a timely if unsolicited reminder of the unforgiving rough-and-tumble of active politics, with its deficit of honesty and integrity, its estrangement from munificence, its abundance of petty enmity, and the disdain with which ordinary people regard all who engage in it for a living. Or you could see if for what it is; a warning that the gloves would now be off, from undoubtedly the most accomplished bully in South African politics since the forced retirement of Thabo Mbeki.
But if one looks beyond the Mantashe in the statement, it is easy enough to appreciate the useful grains of truth and a few lessons in it, and Ramphele hasn’t had to wait long for her first bitter taste of the realities of active politics. It came on Monday, when she finally launched, well, her intention to launch the “consultative process” that will eventually launch her party.
The first point to make is that unless you are Jacob Zuma, indecisiveness is not a winning strategy. You either have a political party with a programme for changing the country, ready to be taken to the electorate at the earliest opportunity, or you have a broad societal forum for articulating and discussing our problems, a platform for interested political parties to coalesce around, leading eventually to wherever its internal momentum takes it. On Monday, Ramphele attempted to do both, with frustratingly messy results.
The danger now is that when April 2014 comes round, she may have neither.
These internal inconsistencies regarding what Agang (the name of her “party political platform”) led to the next painful lesson she will need to absorb quickly: the media will see her differently now, no more free rides. Already at Monday’s launch there was a palpable sense of frustration from many journalists as they battled to extract straight answers from Ramphele about the political stance of her organisation (too strong a word?), its specific programmes, and even the process going forward. Rolling eyes, despairing sighs, groans and moans accompanied each question skirted, each rhetorical flourish to avoid a direct answer, in other words, every instance of her acting like a politician. That will be the way of life now.
The South African political press corps is a particularly jaded bunch. They will approach everything she does now – as they did the press conference on Monday – with a sense of “we’ve been here before”, because they have. The older journalists in the room on Monday will have been veterans of the launch of Bantu Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement in 1999, Patricia de Lille’s Independent Democrats in 2004, and Mosiuoa Lekota’s (assuming it is now legally established as his) Congress of the People in 2009. They know it will be someone else’s something else in 2019. They are increasingly disinclined to mollycoddle the perpetual succession of chancers who are conceited enough to posit themselves as saviours every time an election is around the corner. Dr Mamphela Ramphele the former academic and civic advocate may have enjoyed a positive public profile and generally could rely on the media to pitch up at every event and hang on her every word. Being profiled as “an intellectual” of course helps. (Most journalists fear the very mention of the word.) They think it’s a sign of some mystical qualification they have no hope of ever obtaining for themselves. They would rather quote you verbatim no matter how long-winded you are, than paraphrase you; they won’t dare question your facts, let alone your conclusions, they defer to your knowledge of everything, because you’re “an intellectual”.
Dr Mamphela Ramphele the politician will find the going tougher. Suddenly, people who used to be keen to report your views on invasive plant species in suburban gardens no longer diligently record everything you say. They ignore even your most important outpourings on matters of clear public interest. They now believe you have “an agenda”, a flaw which presumably did not exist before your entry into formal politics. And henceforth everything you do will be seen and reported through the prism politics, power, and its pursuit. If you contest an election and come out on the other side with nothing but a handful of seats, you will be promptly deposited into the file marked “small parties” and forgotten about. From then on, only the junior reporters are sent to cover your press conferences, and even that’s not guaranteed. (“Sorry, the kid’s at the magistrate’s court this afternoon, we’ll pick it up off Sapa.”)
And that leads inexorably to a third lesson: the need to recalibrate her relationship with the fourth estate, acknowledging and engaging with the fact that the power dynamic between herself and them will shift (it already has). Someone of her background and her obvious hubris will struggle with this adjustment. She hasn’t had the most promising start either. She’s already threatened one newspaper editor in a fit of anger (menacingly telling him she “reserved” her rights), and snapped at his correspondent for having the audacity to pose questions she didn’t feel ready to answer. She’s chastised the media about daring to write and speculate about her initiative before she’d made a formal announcement, seemingly believing that she had a right not only to control her own story (doubtful) but their news agenda as well (fanciful). On Monday, she attempted several put-downs of people who were asking question she didn’t like, rather than engage (or if possible, you know, answer) them. She berated the room for repeating questions, oblivious to the fairly simple reality that if people feel you haven’t answered a question they think is important, they’ll repeat it.
In one revealing exchange, a young female reporter asked her what she planned to do about the fact that she wasn’t “known in Soweto” (which was being used as shorthand for all similar locales). The doctor was visibly irritated by the suggestion, and pointed to one of her supporters seated in the front row, who hailed from Soweto and “knows me”. The whole interaction was a study in evasion and missed opportunity.
Of course there are people in Soweto that know Ramphele, there are even people there that will follow and support her. The formulation of the question may have been clumsy, but at its core was a query about the very real gap between Ramphele’s media-driven public profile on one hand, and her links (or lack thereof) to ordinary rural and urban township folk on the other. By fixating on how many people “know” her (how does demonstrating that some people in Soweto are aware of your existence, which is how the term “know” is being used in this instance, even begin to answer the question posed?) in “Soweto” (which was only the symbol for a greater whole), she missed the opportunity to put to rest the fears of many who may be inclined to support her, but fear being led into another wilderness by yet another one-wo/man movement with no organic links to the only constituency capable of sustaining a viable opposition political party, the working class and the poor. As a general rule, if you intend to launch yourself into the venal mud bath of electoral politics, the last thing you want to do is squander the goodwill and favour of the press. Once lost, it is rarely ever regained.
Which bring us, through that circuitous offer of unsolicited counsel, back to the main question. The question that all of us should be asking is really: What the hell is this? Why has Ramphele not just launched a political party and given it an ideological (or at least programmatic) identity and be done with it? It’s clear that’s what she wants in the end. Why make a show of consulting South Africans (and all South Africans, not just the prominent ones, keep in mind) if you have a fairly set idea about what you want in the end? What if, after all the diligent consultations with everyone, their overwhelming view is “no thank you, we have enough snouts at that particular trough. We don’t need another party in parliament.”?
What then? Does she go back into her box? Would Gold Fields even take her back? The answer of course is that ultimately Ramphele wants more than just a political party. She wants the ultimate political movement outside of the ANC at her fingertips, and she wants it to land there on her own terms. Ramphele, it seems to me, imagines Agang (or whatever results from it eventually) not so much as a political party, but as the amalgamation of all the unfortunates who have spent these past two decades sniping at the heels of the ANC. She hears the talk and sees the frantic moves toward a “realignment” of opposition politics, and she wants in. She simultaneously wants to be a part of it, and to be above it. She does not so much want to join the opposition coalition; she wants the opposition to coalesce around her. Why has she not joined the DA, which espouses all the values and aims she articulated on Monday, and which according to reports has been wooing her to the point of guaranteeing her the party leadership at the next electoral congress of the party? She is well aware of the party’s desire to unite the disparate opposition, mainly around the same constitutionalist platform she claims to champion. Yet she eschews the DA, behaving as if the party carried some taint she is keen to avoid.
In fact, the political rumour mill is abuzz with the story of how she told DA leader Helen Zille that she wouldn’t join the DA, but that she’d be happy for the DA to “join” her!
Now, one need not like the DA to perceive just what an outrageous slight that is to the party. Nor should one be a fan of the Bantustan general from Umtata to acknowledge that he has, since 1999, worked tirelessly (with only modest success) to build the UDM. By what logic should he, the man who had trouble following Mandela, follow Ramphele? As for Lekota, he took a real risk when he tore COPE out of the rib of the ANC and showed evidence that perhaps, under the exterior of rotund buffoonery there still beat the heart of a UDF warrior. Nothing was guaranteed when COPE broke away from the ruling party and however badly they’ve since squandered their momentum, it took a real understanding of and efficient use of the political ground operation to poll as well as they did in 2009. Add to this the slick political machinery of the DA and ask why any of that accumulated know-how should be handed over as a gift to someone who hasn’t demonstrated any ability to organise communities politically in the 21st century.
Dr Ramphele’s behaviour is hubris of the most breathtaking kind, and personally I’m not sure how the opposition parties can stand for it. Are they so desperate, so unsure of their own ability to articulate an alternative vision to the people of this country that they could fall for Ramphele’s obvious trick? Is everyone so desperate for a black messiah who ticks all the boxes (African woman, check. Struggle credentials, check. PhD, check. Media darling, check), that anyone with a half-decent CV and a history that stretches back before 1994 will do? There is absolutely no basis for the deference with which the opposition parties are treating Ramphele, and they will pay a heavy price for their seeming indulgence of her self-delusion. Even if one accepts, for argument’s sake only, the wholly dubious notion that South Africa is in danger of “failing” and needs saving, it takes some leap of credulity to believe that the saviour is the chairwoman of a mining company board and ex-World Bank bureaucrat with no political constituency.
On Monday Ramphele made a few astounding claims for herself and her new “party political platform” that suggest any number of unflattering things about her as a politician and a potential leader. Asked why anyone should care about Agang and whether she had a political programme that went beyond the statement of middle class grievances she had just read, her answers were a hodgepodge mixture of half-truths and obvious fabrications, inventions and complete rewrites of our recent history:
I said earlier that the idea that this country is on the brink of collapse and needs to be rescued is itself disputable, and is usually advanced by its advocates for completely self-serving purposes. This remains so despite that view being espoused by The Economist. And even if you acknowledge, as I do, that there is a lot that has gone and is going wrong about our post-Apartheid direction, it is dishonest to pretend that the causes can be located exclusively in the political arena, and a change in “leadership” can deliver us to the country of our dreams.
Are South Africans, even those who steadfastly support the ANC, entirely satisfied with the ruling party’s stewardship? I would say no. What is their attitude to Zuma and their assessment of his time as head of state? I would say sceptical at best. But the ordinary people for whom Ramphele and others claim to speak have a more comprehensive view of their country’s problems. They have been betrayed by politicians no doubt, but they have also been taken advantage of by greedy corporates and executives. They know the causes of their poverty and inequality are systemic, and not the result of a recent “failure of leadership” that Ramphele could miraculously cure.
To them she offers no real solutions other than general platitudes about “restructuring” our economy so it “can serve everyone”.
I remain, like them, cautiously pessimistic. DM
Vukani Mde is co-founder and consultant at LeftHook Solutions, a Johannesburg-based political risk and comms consultancy. Previously he was the Group Opinion and Analysis Editor at Independent Media, with oversight of opinion/editorial content across the group's print and digital titles. He was previously a senior Political and Policy analyst at africapractice, and SADC editor for Southern Africa Report. He has also worked as political editor for The Weekender, Business Day's Saturday sister publication, and as a political writer at Business Day and This Day.
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.