Dr Mamphela Ramphele

One of South Africa’s most dynamic women appears ready to enter politics, setting off rampant conjecture about whether she could finally help forge a viable alternative to the seemingly unshakeable ANC.

Something close to hysteria greeted news that the celebrated academic and liberal darling, Mamphela Ramphele – a former World Bank managing director and anti-apartheid activist – had been wooing potential donors to a new party.

As a highly qualified black woman with a solid history of anti-apartheid struggle, including a relationship with slain Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko, Ramphele has a formidable profile.

“She is one of the great success stories of post-apartheid South Africa,” said Adam Habib of the University of Johannesburg.

After she founded the Black Consciousness movement with Biko, who was murdered in police custody in 1977, authorities banished her to a remote northern town until 1984.

A doctor and successful businesswoman, the 65-year-old Ramphele holds a commerce degree and a doctorate in social anthropology, and was the first black woman to run a South African university. She sits on the board of several companies.


Although she has frequently joined causes championed by the ANC, she has become increasingly outspoken about the party’s rule.

She recently wrote a book that was critical of the country’s trajectory and in interviews has called the ruling party “corrupt” and “unaccountable”.

The ANC, Ramphele argues, has failed to improve the lot of the poor.

“Is it possible to have a liberation movement transforming itself into a democratic governing party?” she asked in a BBC interview last year.

“There were glimpses of it during the (Nelson) Mandela administration... but the rest of the ANC, quite frankly, from the very beginning was more about taking control and... stepping into the shoes of the former coloniser.”

Recently Ramphele is said to have been fund-raising in the US, where she confessed “she is now going into politics to save the country”.

On Tuesday she went out of her way not to deny those reports in a statement.

“I have always been clear in articulating my views on matters of public importance and will speak on my own behalf about any decisions I might take about my future engagements.”

Susan Booysen, political analyst at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said Ramphele was “really pre-empting this through her publications and social commentary that there is some political party or some political role in her future”.

Her timing is impeccable, just a year before presidential elections.

And Ramphele’s squeaky-clean reputation could give the ANC a run for its money, media and analysts agree.

“I think that South Africa can only benefit from a viable opposition party,” Habib said.

“If Mamphela Ramphele can come in and facilitate that, it will be good for the system and good for accountability.”

Booysen agreed Ramphele could “break the mould” of the country’s politics.

“If she’s to start a party, it has the potential to undo the stagnation we’ve seen in South African politics,” she said.

Some speculated she might join the DA, but ”its image continues to remain the image of a rich person’s party”, Habib said.

But without the wide network of an established party or support base, it will be a long road for any new party.

“The question is: Can she establish a viable opposition party? We had many attempts at establishing opposition parties. Most have petered out,” Habib said. A case in point is Cope. In-fighting has now driven the party to the brink of implosion. – Sapa-AFP