180213. Women’s Gaol at Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg. Dr Mamphela Ramphele officially launched a new political party called Agang which means "build" in SeTswana. 948 Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Cape Town - Tony Leon, thank goodness, has mastered the art of the tweet. Having written one of the longest and, in all charity, most heavy-going of autobiographies, age or Argentinian air has conferred on him the wisdom of a brevity he so often lacked as leader of the opposition.

The other day he tweeted shrewdly that politics is a combination of high ideals and low skulduggery. The launch of Agang saw extremes of both.

That sage political hack, Evita Bezuidenhout, tweeted that Dr Mamphela Ramphele had given the State of the Nation address every South African had longed to hear, and which President Jacob Zuma had missed the opportunity to deliver as he headed into the parallel universe he so convincingly inhabits.

Evita was right. Ramphele spoke for millions and no one doubts her high ideals. Yes, many commentators are sceptical about her ability to turn these into the realities of a mass political movement or party, but few would be foolish enough to dismiss the breadth and depth of her analytical capacities or the rigorous research and reflection analysis that has led to Agang.

Let’s not forget this is the woman whose penetrating analysis, with Francis Wilson, of South African poverty in an acclaimed UN report formed the backdrop to so much emerging public policy – for the G8 and later the G20 – from the late 1980s into the new century.

It’s the woman whose research into the devastating impact of migrant working and into complex issues for adolescents in Western Cape townships has continued to see her produce the data and analysis to shape public policy, if only the ruling classes had the sense to listen.

She is, frankly, dynamite intellectually, and thus a real danger to a governing cabal that has so lost sight of its high ideals as to have made low skulduggery a way of life.

The ANCs initial reaction to Agang is in this sense predictably disrespectful and defensive. To suggest that the new political platform is a means to enable foreign influence to destabilise South Africa is cheap even by the ANCs exacting street-corner standards.

It shows just how frightened they are of rigorous critique. Cosatu’s further suggestion that her speech is short on policy is also predictably lame and misses the point. She is initiating a conversation that is needed rather than presenting a manifesto, a conversation that the ruling party tries systematically to close down.

In this sense, it is refreshing to see other players concerned to advance a genuine alternative react much more positively.

Of course no one need be naive here. It’s in their political interests to do so, to recognise such a powerful figure and to hope either to bask in reflected glory or to see the conversation she’s initiating turned into votes for them or at least for an opposition coalition. But there’s something much deeper at hand here.

The respectful welcome that Helen Zille has accorded Ramphele’s entrance into mainline politics is more than political calculation or the affection accorded an old friend.

While Nelson Mandela recognised the importance of the role of the leader of the opposition to the health and strength of democracy – and showed a respect to the office that one suspects its first occupant never fully recognised was being shown to him – its second occupant, Zille, has more deeply understood her role in the light of this Mandela trajectory.

She knows that she’s building a credible alternative that won’t see her accept the Air Force One salute at the Union Buildings herself but will see her leave an opposition landscape strong enough realistically to assume the reins of the government in the near future. Like Ramphele, Zille has impeccable struggle credentials.

Like Ramphele, she can’t be ignored because she has a history of delivery and an integrity that has shown her similarly to be fearless.

As the advancement of Lindiwe Mazibuko has demonstrated, Zille, like Ramphele, is not about self-aggrandisement, but about growing opportunity for others and the bigger task of building a credible alternative for government.

She isn’t out to create a cult of herself, whatever the superficiality of ANC sniping at her suggests. And it’s this sacrificial leadership – if a higher-ideal term may be used – that Agang is surely all about: a firm antidote to the low, self-serving character of many in the ruling party. It’s absolutely what is needed.

ZA news this week depicted Zille backstage at Ramphele’s launch saying to Mazibuko: “Girl we gotta up our game on the headdresses.” But the truth is that these three women – and let’s add Patricia de Lille to complete a quartet – already stand head and shoulders above the rest.

* Chris Chivers, former Canon Precentor at St George’s Cathedral, is a freelance writer and broadcaster. His latest book, Telling it Slant, has just been issued by Pretext Publishing in Cape Town.

Cape Argus