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Ramphele poised to plunge into turbulent waters

Will she, or won’t she take the plunge? Feverish interest has followed on speculation that Mamphela Ramphele is set to launch a new political party. The enthusiasm is understandable, although she remains non-committal, but in reality the odds are stacked against her.

There is no doubt that Ramphele has impeccable credentials. During the darkest years of apartheid she helped found the Black Consciousness movement, along with her iconic partner, Steve Biko, who was murdered by the state. She is a medical doctor; a community activist; an academic; a former World Bank director; a business leader and finally, nurses a palpably sincere concern over South Africa’s moral and political decline. Ramphele ticks all the boxes.

But after decades of basking in the respect of her peers, one must wonder whether she has a stomach for the abuse that she will encounter setting up in opposition to the African National Congress on a terrain they believe they own by divine right. Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko can brief her about the vitriolic levels of sexism and racism that she will have to endure.

Ramphele has been remote from the bruising hurly-burly of everyday politics for years. These are murky and turbulent waters. International regard and a luminous past don’t mean much when it comes to the close-quarter stabbing and slashing that is necessary to build a viable political movement. It is unlikely, too, that she has much of a profile among the volatile black youth constituency that has grown to feral maturity since the disciplined activism of her youth.

Also, although small parties are favoured by SA’s proportional representation electoral system, they have not fared particularly well. Since 1994, the trend has been towards a two-party consolidation, with the DA and the ANC cannibalising the rest.

There can be no such thing as a true merger between vastly unequal entities. It is fear of being swallowed whole by the now numerically dominant DA, which is what happened to the Independent Democrats, that deters the smaller parties from merging, or at least forming an electoral front to oppose the ANC.

Despite these caveats, one hopes Ramphele takes the plunge. Here at last is someone who will resonate with the ANC’s captive black middle class, which although alienated by the corruption, the incompetence and sometimes the sheer farce of President Jacob Zuma’s administration, has largely baulked at joining the DA, because of its roots in white liberalism. That is why it is pointless at this stage for Ramphele to disappear into the DA.

While there may well be a point in SA’s political future when a combined opposition can be, as DA leader Helen Zille argues, greater than the sum of its parts, that moment has not yet dawned. Contrary to David Lloyd George’s World War II advice regarding the futility of trying to cross a chasm in two small jumps, at this moment — as SA confronts its own yawning chasm — a staging post is strategically necessary.

For the moment, smaller opposition parties provide voters with stepping stones in a voter’s journey out of an ANC that increasingly depends on the emotional hold of its liberation history, rather than its present performance, to maintain its hold on power. A party headed by Ramphele would have that requisite emotional resonance; a party headed by Zille, as she herself recognises, unfortunately doesn’t.

Consequently, there is enormous scope for a left-of-centre, charismatically led party that can talk to alienated eligible voters of all hues, not only to those alienated from the ANC. Public enthusiasm for democracy, as measured in voter registration and voter turn-out, is diminishing. That disillusionment can also be tracked by those withholding their vote from the ANC: while 58% of registered voters turned out for the ANC in the 1999 election, that was down to barely 50% in 2009.

These are potentially fertile fields for a new political party.


  • William Saunderson-Meyer

    This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.