572 Dr Mamphele Ramphele answers questions from the floor regarding her relationship with Helen Zille and the DA during a media briefing at Agang SA's office in Braamfontein. The party also announces that it will contest the 2014 elections as an independent party with her as their presidential candidate. 030214. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

After meeting Mamphela Ramphele, Tony Weaver hopes she can find a way to play an important niche role in our body politic.

Cape Town - I had a fascinating meeting with Agang-SA leader Dr Mamphela Ramphele on Tuesday, the first time I have met this impressive activist turned academic turned businesswoman turned politician up close and personal. We chatted for nearly an hour, and I came away from the meeting desperately hoping that she can find a way in which to play an important future niche role in our body politic.

And I say niche role advisedly – one of her opening comments was that “we know that we are never going to be the government, that is not our aim. We want to strengthen democracy in South Africa.”

I apologise to her if I haven’t quoted her verbatim, but I think I captured the gist of her comments in my hurried note-taking.

The first thing that struck me was that when I asked for water after a hot walk down to the Foreshore from our offices, I was brought a glass of Cape Town tap water (my second favourite tipple) and not bottled water. When I remarked on it, her reply was “that’s part of our environmental commitment”.

But it was her clear vision of what is wrong in South Africa today that struck home: “South Africans, black and white, are disempowered. They feel helpless. Look at education. We need high quality education, but teachers are disempowered, school governing bodies are disempowered, parents are disempowered.

“We spend vast sums on education, but it is spent ineffectively. We need a comprehensive skills audit, retraining of teachers. Schools don’t just need classrooms, they need infrastructure like libraries, laboratories, sports facilities. One of the reasons we are not excelling as a nation is that we don’t have a smooth pipeline of young people moving from Grade 0 to university.

“Education should be free from Grade 0 to post-grad, and it should be paid for through three years of national service – not military, but national service – or through taxation of the graduates.”

There was more of the same on our health system, and on entrepreneurship.

“The idea of the government creating jobs is anachronistic. The government must provide the opportunities and the environment for job creation, not the jobs themselves. Cut red tape, the Competition Commission must get much tougher on, for example, the costs of cellphone calls and bandwidth – the environment has been polluted by a government agency that is also a player on the competitive field. Senior state officials were dished out shares in companies like MTN and Vodacom, so why would they want to see profits drop?”

And she kept coming back to the theme of empowerment: “Effective government comes from an empowered citizenry. People feel disempowered and so they are burning tyres. Where are their elected representatives on the ground? They don’t have a door to knock on.”

Another area that burns her up is corruption in the government: “There should be a minimum sentence of 15 years in jail for corruption in government, that is another thing that is disempowering our citizenry. We have become a haven for organised crime, our borders are not properly policed. When you have corruption, you cannot build an effective environment that builds effective structures. Empowerment builds effective government.”

I asked her where she saw her party being particularly strong, and the answer was interesting: “The Eastern Cape, where we have a good relationship with the UDM, rural Limpopo, where the rural poor see right through the threats that they will lose their social grants if they don’t vote ANC, Gauteng, and we are making inroads in the Western Cape. But what we are really interested in is building coalitions. I will continue to be a champion of collaborative politics because we have no other option: our democracy depends on having a strong multiparty democracy.”

And she sounded a note of warning about our elections: “For the first time since 1994, there are worrying signs that the Independent Electoral Commission may no longer be fully neutral. We hear that they have printed 50 million ballot papers. Why, when there are half that number of voters? Who printed the ballots, what are the security features, are they barcoded? Will the votes be counted on site or transported to another venue, and if that happens, what security will there be?”

Mamphela Ramphele may have suffered a major setback in the kopstampery between her and Helen Zille, but, as Friedrich Nietzsche said: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”


* Tony Weaver is an assistant editor at the Cape Times.

Cape Times