Mamphela Ramphele has permanently tarnished her image by entering the election fray. She is ill-equipped for the cut and thrust of politics, writes Thebe Ikalafeng.
While politicians are rarely regarded as standard-bearers of integrity, Mamphela Ramphele was a rare hope. Articulate, educated and respected, she was the hope of a new era of the African politician.
But in one disastrous week, she destroyed her reputation after reneging on her promise to merge with the DA. “Ramphele,” said DA leader Helen Zille, her friend of many years, “has proven she cannot be trusted”.
It was a damning indictment by the former Rand Daily Mail journalist who exposed the truth behind the death of Ramphela’s late partner and co-founder of the Black Consciousness movement, Steve Biko, in the late 1970s.
Ramphele’s defence for her flip-flop is that she had “fallen victim to party politics” and a forced marriage by a potential international donor.
Given her prior public statements about the DA, she should never have agreed to their proposal.
In a lukewarm round of fund-raising engagements at Chatham House and Tate Modern in London in January, she dismissed any suggestions of merging with the DA.
In her recent memoirs she said her son told her “he would rather die than vote DA”. Now she says “there are millions of South Africans who will never vote for the DA”.
Zille’s motives were always clear. Despite her anti-apartheid credentials and sterling tenure as mayor of Cape Town and the premier of the Western Cape, she knew that the majority of South Africans – more than 80 percent black – would never elect a white person to lead South Africa in this generation. Zille’s best chance was to get a (qualified and palatable) black face to challenge the ANC’s Jacob Zuma and EFF’s Julius Malema for the national office. Her (probably now former) “friend” Ramphele fitted the bill.
For a week.
Ramphele’s motives are a mystery. But her chances were much better of being a president of South Africa with the DA’s then-rising 16.6 percent electorate (from the last elections), albeit a long shot behind the ANC’s 65.9 percent. Zille alleges that naively Ramphele wanted to be a presidential candidate for both AgangSA and the DA – as if to hedge her chances.
An “electoral nonsense” as Zille put it, that showed Ramphele’s political inexperience.
Even with her credentials, it was always going to be an uphill battle for Ramphele to go against the ruling party’s 102-year history and 20-year government record, the DA’s formidable campaigning ingenuity or the EFF’s fiery rhetoric.
These parties had already been effective in dismissing as illegitimate Ramphele’s struggle credentials (as co-founder of the Black Consciousness Movement) – a struggle “mistress” as Gwede Mantashe put it; branding her a rich “clever black” who is out of touch with the poor masses.
By abandoning her civil society advocate platform for a formal political role Ramphele may have overestimated her capabilities and appeal.
The trouble with Ramphele is her inability, as Zille put it to, “to see any project through to its conclusion”.
Her “political” career is littered with unfinished “projects” – not sustaining the Black Consciousness Movement she started with the late Biko, positioning herself as a champion of civil society with Freedom Under Law, forming AgangSA and now for a mere week, being the DA’s presidential candidate.
As soon as the DA/Agang alliance was announced, the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) said Ramphele “is not fit for politics… unprincipled and self-centred.” The stunned reaction to her short-lived defection to the DA by members of her party leadership, staff and constituency bear testimony to this.
To build a winning campaign requires a clear and consistent value proposition, a distinctive and viable constituency, a sustained and co-ordinated campaign, and trust. Mamphele didn’t have enough time to establish any – let alone create her own “struggle songs” to counter Awulethe umshini wami and the like.
Winning a political campaign is about leadership and responsibility. The great ones are not only charming but decisive, and take responsibility for their actions.
Ramphele’s actions over the years have found her wanting in all regards.
With an established political infrastructure, Zille and the DA will recover – although their momentum has been derailed.
But for Ramphele this must be the end of yet another unfulfilled political ambition.
It is the end of what could have been an improbable political partnership of perhaps the two most powerful women in South African politics and realignment of the political landscape just 20 years into the democracy.
As Allister Sparks told Reuters, “it puts a fatal end to Mamphela Ramphele’s image and reputation (as a political figure)”. It must be the end of a “flicker of hope” as she described Agang in A Passion for Freedom and her “vision to restore the promise of our great nation and offer the hope of a better future for every South African”. It is also a setback for ambitious young girls who looked up to her and dreamed of one day running for president.
Ramphela should never have tarnished her reputation by entering the political fray.
With an impressive academic and corporate record, Ramphela may have been motivated by Plato’s assertion that “one of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”.
By joining politics, she descended to their ranks and affirmed a Machiavellian observation: “Politics has no relation to morals.”
Sadtu general secretary Mugwena Maluleke says Ramphele is a “political hypocrite” and urged her to “go back to her world of academia and business, which perhaps has room for people to deceive and exploit others”. It may be the soundest advice she has received yet.
Ramphele says “the people’s trust in me will not waiver”. The elections will be a rude awakening. Ramphele’s political campaign is a case study on how not to do it.
To avoid the embarrassment of the election outcome, she must step aside now.
While this was always a three-horse race between the ANC, DA and EFF – the fallout of the DA/Agang alliance may have created an unlikely opening for EFF to become the official opposition party. Unlike the DA and Agang, the EFF has been clear and consistent. It’s a stunning lesson for the well-educated DA and Agang leadership, but the less-educated Malema.
While it’s said that in politics a week is a lifetime, it will take a long time for Ramphele to repair her reputation, not just in politics but everywhere.
She cannot be trusted “to restore the promise of our great nation and offer the hope of a better future for every South African”.
* Ikalafeng is a global African branding and reputation architect, advisor and author who successfully led the political branding of Ghana’s ruling party in 2008 and 2012. @ThebeIkalafeng.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.