Built on a foundation of lies
One can be forgiven for being euphoric about one’s entry into politics. One can also be forgiven for being naïve about the realities of what is required to fight an election campaign which necessitates a party with legs and a machine with the ability to get voters to the polls in large enough numbers to make it count in ways that really matter.
One can even forgive the folly of idealists who enter politics believing they are destined to be the ones who can deliver real change and remain immune to the seduction of politics, power and patronage.
But one cannot be forgiven for entering politics on the basis of utter falsehoods.
Such was my first impression of Dr Mamphela Ramphele’s speech and her answers when pressed by journalists upon the occasion of the launch of Agang, the party political platform she announced amid much fanfare at the evocative Women’s Jail on Constitution Hill in Braamfontein this week.
Let me explain.
For those who might have missed Ramphele’s much-anticipated and carefully choreographed media debut in electoral politics, she posited her party/platform on a few false “firsts”.
She announced a million-signature campaign calling for electoral reform and said it must be the first order of business of the post-2014 election Parliament.
At a press conference after her address she told hangers-on and the bevy of local and international media that her new party was the first to campaign for electoral reform. She also claimed it was the first to really fight corruption.
These rather glib comments were in response to the many questions from journalists, all of whom tried to get Ramphele to explain just how, in policy terms, Agang would set itself apart from the 156-odd political parties already operating.
For a newly minted politician, the falsehoods rolled off her tongue with the ease of a seasoned hack used to speaking with a forked tongue. Of course, every political journalist with even a modicum of institutional memory is well aware that Ramphele was taking liberties with the truth when making these claims.
But even if one puts aside her messiah complex, so evident when she casually informed the nation that she had been “called” (she didn’t explain by whom, but no matter) to enter the political space, her hubris about what constitutes responsible and active citizenship in and outside party politics was telling.
More so if one considers that South Africans vote in their millions in free and fair elections and have consistently made their choices clear at the polls.
But if one believes, as Ramphele clearly does, that most South Africans (read black) need saving from a World Bank executive and lapsed mining executive, because their actions during elections can be explained as a mere emotional hang-up with the past (because they vote ANC) and is devoid of all agency, then being economical with the truth is hardly surprising.
For those with short memories, electoral reform is and has been on the agenda since the time of Nelson Mandela’s presidency.
Chapter 3 of the report of the Independent Panel of Assessment of Parliament, headed by the late Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, which had as a central focus the lack of accountability of MPs to voters (brought about by the absence of a constituency-based electoral system and the top-down effect of the party-list system), began with the words of Madiba in the final sitting of the first democratic Parliament on March 26, 1999 in which he said: “… we need to ask whether we need to re-examine our electoral system, so as to improve the nature of our relationship, as public representatives, with the voters”.
Since the completion of the report, the DA – as far back as 2010 – has consistently raised the issue inside and outside Parliament, pushing for a debate on the findings, which call for greater accountability and a change in the system.
Cape Town mayor Patricia De Lille, in her former life as leader of the Independent Democrats, has also long been a champion of electoral reform, arguing for a better mix of a constituency-based and party list system.
Cosatu has also championed the cause of electoral reform, raising the issue sharply within the tripartite alliance.
While the party political list with its proportional representation system has many shortcomings, it is important to remember why it was chosen when the new political dispensation was being crafted.
It was the model through which smaller parties were more likely to flourish and remain relevant, especially against the background of a behemoth like the governing ANC which was virtually guaranteed hegemony taking the lion’s share of the vote in all general and municipal elections since 1994, never dropping below 60 percent of all votes counted.
But even if electoral reform was to be engineered, there is little evidence that a constituency-based system is the elixir that will deliver greater accountability (though that’s the subject of another column). The less said the better about Ramphele’s claim to be the anti-corruption crusader among political parties.
Again, the sterling work of De Lille during the arms deal fiasco, when she put the spotlight firmly on corruption linked to the entire sorry saga, seems to have escaped Ramphele, her speech writers and her entire spin machine.
And I suppose Cosatu’s Corruption Watch doesn’t really count. After all, it’s just another ANC lapdog.
This vanguard (read: if I don’t lead, it’s not real) approach to politics on the part of Ramphele suggests she has little regard for efforts other than her own when it comes to tackling issues affecting the body politic.
When she launched her movement for active citizenship in Cape Town last April, she displayed a similar wilful blindness to the efforts of many active and effective civil society social movements.
The Treatment Action Campaign, Equal Education and a host of other formations which are preoccupied with real issues affecting the poor and marginalised are simply airbrushed out of Ramphele’s narrative when she speaks of how South Africans must take ownership of their destiny.
No wonder Equal Education, the NGO that has interdicted the Department of Basic Education on textbook delivery, denounced as untrue Ramphele’s claims that she was “in conversation” with it over how to engineer change at the polls come next year.
Her call for transparency around party political funding, as if she is the first to raise the issue (DA MP Douglas Gibson brought a private member’s bill on the matter), is another example of how Ramphele fails to acknowledge that she does not have the corner on what ails politics.
Her caginess over where her funds are coming from suggests that she, too, like her DA counterparts, will want to have less and not more light shone on her benefactors. Her charge that the party political system robs citizens of their rights to choose their own leaders directly also rings hollow when she remains coy about whom she will bring on board to join her with less than 14 months to go before she contests elections.
Surely, if voters must choose their own leaders, she has to reveal who her leadership is beyond the five-person team she named during an interview with Eusebius Mckaiser on Talk at Nine on Talk Radio 702? If she wants voters to follow her, especially those trapped in poverty and squalor, surely she should articulate what her views are on how to tackle inequality, instead of slamming social grants as “humiliating”.
I am reminded of a tweet which read: “The poor are poor, not stupid! They won’t vote for Ramphele. I will tell everyone what she did to workers at UCT (when she was vice-chancellor).”
Ramphele’s invocation of Mandela and his leadership also rings false, especially if one considers her disavowal of race as a fault line in present-day South Africa and her dismissal of affirmative action as a means to address historical injustice.
Mandela explained the correctness of redress when he put it thus: “Affirmative action is not a threat either to standards or to individuals.
It is an internationally recognised method of redressing past wrongs.
To reject this mechanism is to accept the status quo and to ensure that the fruits of war, colonialism, racism, sexism and oppression continue to be nurtured in our society.”
While the chattering classes are rooting for her in the hope that she gives the ANC a run for its money, the reality is that her outfit is likely to go down like a lead balloon and will tank rather than soar, not only because she doesn’t have an election machine or a clear set of policies, but because her entry into politics denies the lived realities of the majority of voters and their own efforts to bring about change.
Agang’s entry into active politics reflects an emerging cultural fissure within black politics
Just as the proceedings got under way, we held our breath. We were wondering, anxiously, how the two invited guests would react on meeting each other on the podium.
The occasion was the opening of the Steve Biko Centre in Ginsberg on November 1. The cause of our anxiety was Barney Pityana, a dear friend and comrade of Steve Biko’s, and President Jacob Zuma.
Pityana, whom Biko adored as the best among them, had come to talk about the meaning of Biko’s life.
In recognition of Biko’s stature, Zuma, whose government had also donated handsomely towards establishing the centre, had come to confer official sanction on the momentous event.
Ordinarily, the two men wouldn’t have met. Pityana disapproves of Zuma as president (see his plea for Zuma’s resignation, Page 13), while Zuma probably dismisses him contemptuously as “a clever black, that walks around with a briefcase full of books and cannot answer a question without opening a book”.
So, as Zuma got closer to the podium, we became even more apprehensive on realising that Pityana, who was seated closest to the staircase, would be the first he meets as he steps on to the podium.
To our pleasant surprise, what happened was a classical political act.
Zuma embraced Pityana as an old friend whose company he had missed.
Pityana showed no obvious signs of cringing.
Zuma was in “enemy territory” that morning. Ginsberg has been Pityana’s second home. Not only was Pityana right there next to him, but Mamphela Ramphele was also seated right in front of Zuma as he stood on the podium.
The mother of two of Biko’s children, Lerato and Hlumelo, and probably the first woman black doctor local people encountered, Ramphele is loved in Ginsberg.
Her founding and running of the most prominent black clinic, Zanempilo, with Biko, simply made her a legend in the township.
And she’s no friend of Zuma.
Dressed up gracefully in Umbhaco, a Xhosa traditional gown, Ramphele stared Zuma right in the eyes. But JZ looked at home among critics in their own backyard. He sang unhurriedly and took his own time making the speech, as if he had the whole day.
Now that Ramphele – a former academic, medical doctor and businesswoman – intends joining active politics, questions have been asked: is she capable of putting on an act? Can she conceal her inner feelings and project a fake appearance to gain favour?
Ramphele is known for her candour and impatience with mediocrity. The necessity for alliance building in politics breeds tolerance for mediocrity, while a harsh truth alienates important allies.
It is difficult to tell how Ramphele will fare in active politics. It’s a novel experience for her.
What is certain, though, is that her intellectual demeanour and business background do not disqualify her.
Politics is as much a domain for the non-intellectual as it as for the intellectual. South African politics in the 19th and 20th centuries was effectively an intellectual activity.
Afrikaner and African nationalisms are intellectual inventions. They were invented and led by intellectuals. Intellectuals created symbols and wrote histories that gave their nationalist ideas popular resonance.
In the latter part of the 19th century, for instance, a Cape-based Dutch-speaking elite invented Afrikaans to bridge a cultural gap between themselves and the rest of the Dutch descendants. This is a language created out of the many local dialects, including one spoken by slaves and domestic workers.
Afrikaans created a sense of community among Dutch descendants where none existed. People who were formerly divided by language, region and income came to rally around a common identity – Afrikaner – and the belief that they shared a common destiny.
The volk was not divined into existence, but was consciously created by intellectuals, who then gave it popular legitimacy and, consequently, mass following.
African nationalism was no different. From its early articulation in the 1870s, it was similarly invented and led by intellectuals. Zuma does not represent a totality of the leadership of the nationalist movement, but is an exception to a long and accomplished tradition of intellectual leadership.
An anti-intellectual posture might be fashionable these days, but the nationalist movement owes its longevity to intellectuals. They thought of ideas that found expression in political action.
That the Struggle was the most global resistance movement in the 20th century, for instance, was a reflection of the genius of its intellectual leaders.
They cast South Africa’s political problem as a human rights issue, thereby giving it a universal appeal.
Ideas change society, not slogans.
Slogans are simply a package, to give ideas popular resonance.
To argue that Ramphele’s intellectual demeanour disqualifies her for political activity, therefore, only betrays ignorance not only of history, but also of contemporary politics. Ramphele’s business background doesn’t make her any more elitist than our current leadership.
All three candidates nominated for ANC deputy president at Mangaung are millionaires.
The country is poised to have a millionaire as its deputy president and possibly president.
South Africans, it seems, are smitten with the elite.
And elitism is not only inevitable, but also fashionable in our politics.
The governing party had a problem, for instance, with local councillors who relocated to the suburbs as soon as they got their first salary.
They hardly visited their wards thereafter.
It’s not clear whether the insistence that councillors reside in their wards has curbed the exodus out of townships.
What we do know, though, is that ordinary folks see political leaders as the elite, “other”.
The township lexicon used in reference to politicians suggests a social distance between themselves and political leaders. Bayatya (they’re just eating), people often charge, which doesn’t solely suggest corruption, but also implies a lack of solidarity with the rest of society.
If elitism is indeed a disadvantage in our politics, it will not impede Ramphele only, but will apply equally across sectors.
At another level, Ramphele’s entry into active politics reflects an emerging cultural fissure within black politics.
Black politics has always maintained a separation between the public and private spaces.
The public space has been the domain of progressivism, while in private people practised their particular and different cultures.
In public, leaders articulated more of what brought people together, and shunned the emphasis on their uniqueness.
Zuma is a (culturally) polarising figure within the black community.
He’s not only conservative, but also makes a mockery of those who don’t share his views.
His predecessors have admittedly been modernist, but never ridiculed conservative ideas.
Nelson Mandela presided over a modernising ANC, while resident at Qunu and active in the affairs of the Thembu royalty.
Zuma’s comments about women and kids, black people and dogs, and gay people do not endear him to some people.
This is the constituency that will be lost to his party.
A self-made, articulate and fine black woman, Ramphele not only appeals to the liberal and progressive sections of our society, but across society.
Remember, black folks are accustomed to, and admire, elite leaders. And, to her credit, Ramphele doesn’t come across as a snob.
Her manner of speaking is typical of ordinary, African women: gesturing for emphasis and pausing between phrases to allow a point to sink in.
And its not surprising why Ramphele has chosen to go solo, instead of joining the DA. That would have stained her political credibility. Her Black Consciousness background sits uncomfortably alongside the DA’s liberal tradition. Her generation emerged out of disillusionment with white-led, liberal politics.
Ramphele’s challenge now is to become the transcendental figure she aspires towards, to articulate the joint culture that Biko wrote about so eloquently.
Ramphele represents a burgeoning of independent spaces within black politics. They are not built upon state patronage, but on self-generated income.
This is a much-needed critical voice that demands of our leaders to prove their worth, instead of claiming entitlement to leadership. Our democracy is becoming healthier.
* Ndletyana is head of the political economy faculty at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection