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Public interest in Ramphele’s movement stems from despair

Dr Mamphela Ramphele this week launched Agang, not quite the long-awaited political party that has been the focus of so much speculation, but rather a “consultative platform” that is yet to morph into one.

The assessment of political commentators so far has been mostly delivered with barely stifled derision. There’s widespread agreement that Agang – South Sotho for ‘’build the nation’’– is a silly name, that Ramphele dressed funnily, that she has ugly curls, and that she is a naive egotist who wouldn’t know how to consult if her life depended on it.

Given the absence of policy detail, except that she wants to rekindle the dream of a vibrant democracy in South Africa, there admittedly wasn’t much to dissect. Indeed, much of her launch speech was ‘’vision stuff’’, easy to be cynical about.

And there are convincing arguments as to why Ramphele hasn’t a hope in hell. A regional base is important in politics; she doesn’t have one. She needs an established political infrastructure to deliver votes in just 18 months’ time; she doesn’t have it.

Further, Ramphele needs a clear constituency, in SA historically defined by race, language and ethnicity, which almost instinctively will vote for her. She doesn’t have one. The poor black vote belongs to the African National Congress; the middle-class minorities’ vote belongs to the Democratic Alliance.

In Business Day, Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, dismissed public excitement over Ramphele’s plans as ‘’based on wishful thinking more than sound analysis’’. On Politicsweb the London Sunday Times’ RW Johnson wrote off Ramphele as just a floundering beneficiary of affirmative action, her achievements ‘’negative or nugatory’’, and assessed Helen Zille’s attempts to draw Ramphele into the DA as ‘’quixotic, even suicidal’’.

The underlying assumption of Ramphele’s critics is that her ability to draw considerable voting support in the 2014 election, without cannibalising the existing opposition, is the only worthwhile measure of success. They are wrong.

In the 1970s the DA’s predecessor, the Progressive Party, acted as midwife to a similar ‘’consultative platform’’, an organisation called Verligte Aksie. The idea was to create outside the confining moulds that defined white politics, a space where enlightened (verligte) Afrikaners could be weaned from the National Party without having to leap directly into bed with English-language capital.

While Verligte Aksie didn’t manage to break the ethnicity mould, it did put cracks in it. By the late 1980s these had widened into fissures, with Afrikaners trekking into Africa to negotiate with the banned ANC.

There are many now disillusioned black ANC voters who, like those verligte Afrikaners, cannot bear the thought of embracing the white establishment, in the form of the DA. Agang could be a critical staging post on their journey towards an opposition entity that from the very outset transcends race.

Nor are the political contours facing Ramphele as bleak as they are painted. As Post columnist Kanthan Pillay points out, Gauteng is a potential power base ripe for Ramphele’s plucking. It’s the wealthiest, most urbanised, most educated province ‘’and the most pissed off at [ANC] inefficiencies’’, he writes.

But possibly Ramphele greatest possible contribution, not to be underestimated, is to revive hope. The highlight of the State of Nation debate was not the president’s dreary itemised wish list, nor the predictable point-scoring rebuttal of the leader of the opposition. It was the clearly heartfelt words of Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

The old stalwart spoke eloquently, and with unusual brevity, of his ‘’utter distress’’ at the loss of hope that sustained the liberation struggle. ‘’Even in the darkest nights, we retained hope … and that hope kept our cause alive. Without hope, the future can no longer be imagined or pursued. For the first time in my life, I worry that our nation’s future is darkening as, inch by inch, we drift further away from hope.’’

The interest in Ramphele’s initiative is not political naiveté or wishful thinking. It’s about hope at a moment when SA is awash with despair.