HERE IS a piece of advice for South African citizen extraordinaire Dr Mamphela Ramphele: stay out of politics. You’re good at what you do. You have done a more than sterling job as a leader in the much-needed South African civil society movement. You’re fantastic as the current life and soul of this movement. Don’t move!
South Africa is where it is today, celebrating the 19th year of our democracy, because of the crucial role that the never-say-die civil society movement played, alongside political formations, to free all of us from apartheid.
So, civil society remains utterly important in the process to deepen democracy and to build our dream nation – one where the constitution reigns supreme, one where everyone is equal before the law and one that is fiercely intolerant of fraud and corruption.
Civil society remains the oxygen of the new South Africa. It is an important part whose absence will result in a guaranteed slow and painful death of our democracy. Civil society is not anti-government and needs to be strengthened. And this means that powerful and influential people such as Dr Ramphele must be encouraged to continue to play the vital role that our society so desperately needs.
In the same way that the civil society fighting for freedom pre-1994 kept the apartheid government on its toes and brought it to its knees, civil society in the post-`94 era has a special role – to provide tough love to a popularly elected government.
And the truth is that the ANC government, and indeed every government, needs a strong civil society. Every government needs a Dr Ramphele out there, away from party politics, being the voice of the voiceless – speaking truth to power.
Fact is, Dr Ramphele has been spot on in her analysis of the problems delaying the progress of our nation. She has become a stone in the shoes of many politicians in power. The ANC hates it when it is compared to the apartheid government, under any circumstances. And Dr Ramphele did not endear herself – not that she wanted to – to the ANC when she said Bantu Education, the inferior education force-fed to black people under apartheid, was better than what the ANC was dishing out to South Africa’s children.
The other truth is that governments with ulterior motives do not like a powerful civil society and many of them engage in subtle or underground campaigns to sabotage and destroy them. Most of the governments that start by decimating civil society have ended up as dictatorships – as democracies only on paper.
A powerful civil society is good for ordinary people but bad for governments that have forgotten why they are in office. The slow rebirth of the civil society in South Africa can only provide all of us with hope that the future might not be as bright as we want it to be but it is not dark either.
The children in Limpopo enter their second month in school armed with textbooks and all they need to learn because of an intervention by Section 27, a member of the growing civil society movement. The large successes this country has registered in our fight against the HIV/Aids scourge is mainly because civil society took up the cause and fought on behalf of every man and woman.
President Jacob Zuma was forced to institute a judicial commission of inquiry to provide answers to the many questions posed on the multi-billion rand arms deal because of civil society intervention. Residents and visitors to Gauteng have not been subjected to paying for e-tolls because ordinary South Africans have gone to court in protest.
Within the civil society movement, Dr Ramphele remains a credible and powerful voice; an individual whose mission in life is to get ordinary citizens to become active in processes and decisions about their lives.
In politics, she is going to join the fragmented ranks of opposition parties whose weakness provides eternal joy to the ANC. In politics her credibility as an independent voice is going to suffer.
Dr Ramphele, and many like her, does not need to enter politics to make a difference in people’s lives.
The civil society movement in South Africa is the future. This is where she needs to stay.
Dr Ramphele has a fantastic legacy spanning several decades. It is one of service and commitment to ordinary people.
A move into politics will place all of that at huge risk.