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To succeed, Ramphele cannot afford to oversimplify race

Nomboniso Gasa

Nomboniso Gasa

Published Feb 2, 2014


Dr Mamphela Ramphele and DA leader Helen Zille are close in their policy thinking, writes Nomboniso Gasa.


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Johannesburg - There was almost something: then nothing. I looked into her eyes, held her hand and said: “Failure is not an option.” She responded, with a clear voice laden with conviction: “Failure is not an option.”

That Friday, our meeting finished, we went our separate ways. Later, I wondered what possessed me to say this to Dr Mamphela Ramphele. Did I, unconsciously, sense her endeavour would fail? Had I become one of those people, especially black women, who feared we can’t afford to fail? So what if she failed, I asked myself, since when did I believe that only projects that guaranteed success were worth pursuing?

If Ramphele had similar doubts, she never raised them. For this was not the last time I used these words: “You cannot afford to fail.” Always, her response echoed my words.

That meeting in Cape Town on February 15 last year was at my request. I wanted to explore the possibility of public discourse on gender-based violence and sexual violence, using the Citizens’ Movement.

She was preoccupied with changes in politics. Tony Leon had jumped the gun and announced what he knew or thought he knew of her plans. She was on the back foot. I understood this.

In our brief meeting, we kept the discussion to a minimum. I appreciated her candour and her economy with words.

I sensed this was the pitch she was giving people who were not in her inner circle. I was relieved – I didn’t really want to know much about her plans and the processes that led her to this decision. I trusted her instinct to “move beyond complaining and do something concrete to reclaim the promise of freedom and get into politics”. I trusted mine “to stay away from organised politics and continue to make a contribution in my own way”.

Yet, on February 18, I, the most unlikely candidate to be beside her, chaired her press conference as she announced her political platform at the Women’s Jail Atrium at the Constitutional Court. She requested me on February 16, two days before the event. Clearly, others had suddenly become unavailable.

I agreed, knowing that in the public mind I’d be associated with Agang. This didn’t bother me. I knew where I stood. I respect Ramphele but don’t share her conviction about formal politics.

The day is etched in my mind as if it happened yesterday. I refer here to the evening in 1994 at Kempton Park. The Women’s National Coalition hosted an evening with politicians called “grill the politician” on the eve of elections.

Dr Ramphele was invited to give a keynote address. Her focus was on equity. As she built her thesis that was opposed to quotas and affirmative action, I was struck by the centrality of “meritocracy” and “excellence” in her presentation.

In that speech, she was at her most eloquent. I disagreed with her lack of historical and contemporary context on how women get to where they are. I was terribly disappointed with her inability to see that structural connections between people’s location and the deeply patriarchal, racist and culture of class exclusion and hierarchy in our society.

As soon as she finished, my hand was among the first to shoot up. Literature on affirmative action and quotas is vast and shows they are not always “short cuts to power and positions by mediocre people”. On the contrary, when best applied, quotas create an environment where those who may have been excluded simply because they do not reflect the image of decision makers can be included. In most cases, these people have the skills and more often than not excel in their work. There are countries, including in developed democracies where quotas are legislated, they work. There are also countries where these mechanisms are abused. She did not explore these issues.

Years later, I met Dr Ramphele at the World Bank. I was in a delegation from the Development Bank of Southern Africa.

Wearing the World Bank director’s cap, she shared her views on the challenges facing the continent. Her assertion, “Africa must stop blaming colonialism, the West and everybody else and deal with its development problems”, made me the most uncomfortable.

Nowhere, in her analysis did the long-lasting impact of Structural Adjustment Programmes feature. Nowhere in her thesis on Africa’s development path did she look at the relationship between Africa’s raw materials that are shipped to developed countries and the products that come back at top dollar.

She seemed unaware that until the Structural Adjustment Programmes, Senegal and many countries had an abundance of freely available water. She did not examine the impact of privatised water on the health, cultures and sub-cultures of the continent.

Here was the same person I encountered in 1993 with the same doctrine which now seamlessly fitted with the World Bank.

Yet, Ramphele is the only politician who has been able to stick her neck out on the Traditional Courts Bill. She has been vocal on its devastating impact should it become law. Hers has been the clearest and most dependable voice on an issue that has implications for the citizenship of those who live in areas designated “traditional communities” – bantustans by a fancy name. This is Mamphela of the 1970s. This is the woman who, despite the naysayers, knows rural communities, not only because she hails from Bochum. She worked alongside others, such as Aninka Claassens, against forced removals.

The Ramphele who is against quotas and affirmative action will be at home in the DA. Her economic policy outlook will be an asset to the DA and free market fundamentalists.

But what will happen to the courageous woman who sees the link between the Traditional Courts Bill and apartheid spatial geography? Will she be muted?

I hoped Ramphele would succeed. After listening to her at Wits, a friend and I decided to organise a small meeting between her and a few women.

In that session, we gave her constructive but critical feedback. She took it in her stride. Our democracy will thrive only when we embrace plurality.

Her move to the DA comes as no surprise. Ramphele and Helen Zille are close in their policy thinking. What was strange was that Ramphele made this option a no-no, declaring: “I do not want to be a black face on the DA’s list.”

Well, I hope for her sake, she will be much more than that. To prevent this, she must sort out the mess in AgangSA. She needs a constituency in AgangSA and in the DA itself.

The big question is what value she will add to the DA’s electoral fortunes? Right now, it seems not much, but politics is dynamic. Will this merger strengthen our democracy? Surely, decisions of this nature are motivated by something more worthy than an “anti-ANC” stance.

The DA has yet to offer us something more concrete than a critique of the ANC’s corruption and undemocratic inclinations. Mind you, given their handling of this merger, one wonders how democratic the DA is.

Ramphele and Zille also need a nuanced understanding of race and history. People do not vote ANC out of race solidarity or sentimentality. Professor Hermann Giliomee and others have made that crude argument – “elections as racial census” – before. It has been blown out of the water. It’s insulting to those who choose to vote for the ANC.

Ramphele knows race matters. Any politician and historian worth their salt knows elections are far more complex. This reductive argument is lazy thinking at its worst.

Whatever else Ramphele is, she is not lazy.


* Gasa researches gender, politics and cultural issues. She is a senior research associate with the Centre for Law and Society.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers

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