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Dr Mamphela Ramphele, as recently as yesterday morning, had not yet registered a political party with the Independent Electoral Commission. She has no political machine she is about to unveil. She can only unveil her colourful self. So the curiosity about her entry into active politics, including my own, says more about us than about her.
It is a sign that there is room for a new political party to challenge the ANC.
But here’s the nexus question: assuming there is space for a new political party, is there room for one founded and led by Ramphele?
If she asked for my advice, I would tell her to either stay put in civil society or to join the DA. A one-person band cannot make it in South African politics even if the lead singer can hold a political note for a few seconds.
Being a brilliant academic, incisive commentator and thoughtful writer does not mean you are, by virtue of those traits, cut out for politics. Look, for example, at how Dr Wilmot James is struggling to be relevant inside the DA. How many DA supporters even know of his existence as party federal chairman? His academic prowess stood him in good stead at civil society institutions like Idasa (Institute for Democracy in Africa). They are not helping him to be a game changer in the political arena.
Many academics and intellectuals have of course been effective, or at least influential, politicians. The likes of Pallo Jordan, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, Blade Nzimande and Ben Turok come to mind. But it is important to realise these individuals are not only academics or intellectuals. They also have a mix – in various combinations – of other traits: the ability to play the political game well by building organisational structures within which they can shine; campaigning effectively inside and outside their parties; capturing the imagination of ordinary citizens through rousing, popular speech; a willingness to play dirty to get ahead; and generally displaying good strategic sense.
They were and are successful career politicians because they grasp realpolitik and are good at it. This is why many mortals with less impressive academic and intellectual CVs than Ramphele are effective politicians, such as brilliant career politician Patricia de Lille or even Bantu Holomisa, the UDM president, who refuses to become politically extinct.
Why then do I think that Ramphele has poor realpolitik prospects?
First, a new party would need the right human resources. It would require men and women with governance and career political experience to join her. As reported in The Sunday Independent yesterday, many credible black intellectual and political voices assumed to be keen on a new party headed by Ramphele aren’t interested. These include commentator Moeletsi Mbeki and the brothers Pityana (the ANC-raised Sipho and the Black Consciousness Movement’s Barney) with only former Cosatu boss Jay Naidoo being noncommittal.
Worse, no one inside the ruling ANC government or within the DA seems to have any intentions of jumping ship. So even if black intellectuals were to join Ramphele from the outside, they would be hamstrung by a lack of sufficient collective governance and party-political experience.
Second, it really isn’t good enough to be angry and to ask citizens to fight for our country to be returned from thugs. Look where that motif got Cope. You need a clear ideological identity and some signature policy alternatives to what is on offer. It has to be asked, for example, why angry South Africans wanting to “fight” for their country would not join the more established machinery of the DA?
If I am gatvol with the ANC, why must I go to Ramphele rather than to the DA? Her skin colour can’t be the tie-breaker: Cope and the UDM have black leaders who do much worse than Helen Zille’s party.
A new party must not just preach the importance of the rule of law and bemoan ANC failures; it must offer substantive solutions to our problems. It would be remarkable if Ramphele spotted policy and ideological wins that both the ANC and the DA have overlooked.
Finally, we middle-class and intelligentsia types must stop pretending we are the poor black majority. The fact that we know Ramphele, think she is compelling, and enjoy her intellectual goodies does not mean the poor black majority would recognise her picture or be moved by her dry speech. Hate me for keeping it real, but Julius Malema can excite more poor people than Ramphele. She is one of us, fellow middle-class peeps, and not “one of them”.
Ramphele should join the established machinery of the DA and solve their leadership headache. Or stay an active citizen outside politics. Politics, like mopani worms, is not for everyone.