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Creating a new identity could be Agang’s biggest opportunity

by Stephen Grootes, 20 February 2013, 06:48
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TOUGH TASK AHEAD: Dr Mamphela Ramphele addresses the media at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on Monday. Picture: MARTIN RHODES
TOUGH TASK AHEAD: Dr Mamphela Ramphele addresses the media at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on Monday. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

AS DR Mamphela Ramphele sets off on a path that could culminate in her Agang "party political platform" contesting next year’s general elections, among her many challenges will be the problem of creating her own identity.

However, that is also possibly the biggest opportunity for her new formation.

This is because identity plays an important role in our politics, and often appears to come above issues of even class or policy in the minds of voters.

But should Dr Ramphele get this identity right, she might succeed in removing some of the power of identity politics from the calculations of voters, and thus party leaders.

A brief analysis of the 2011 local government election results — where it is relatively easy to identify the population groups that live in certain wards and the candidates they elected — appears to demonstrate that, in broad terms, most black people voted for the African National Congress (ANC), and most minority groups voted for the Democratic Alliance (DA).

There are some areas where this was not the case, or where candidates for the United Democratic Movement or other smaller parties prevailed.

But by and large, our political discussion is often predicated on the assumption that "black people vote ANC, white people/minorities vote DA".

There are times when this has worked for some parties. Former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema told 94,000 people at the FNB Stadium ahead of the 2011 elections that "the DA is for white people, the ANC is for you."

At a time when it appeared the DA could almost win a ward in Soweto, that comment may have been calculated to win the vote in that part of the country.

It would not be possible to make such a claim against Agang. As the ANC discovered during the 2009 general elections when the Congress of the People was able to win 1-million votes, this could make it harder for the party to campaign against Dr Ramphele.

No one can accuse her of not doing her bit during the anti-apartheid struggle.

At the same time, her emergence comes as identities, and the importance ascribed to them in our politics, appear to be changing.

While in the past the most important political question about many people appeared to be their race, since the legacy of apartheid seemed to define their present, that may no longer always be the case.

Now it appears the major differences in the life outcomes of young people are determined by whether they are urban middle class or the rural poor.

It is hard to imagine schools in Soweto going without textbooks as long as schools in Limpopo did.

This would indicate that the real battle lines in our politics may well start to be drawn between those who cater to rural poor constituencies and those who represent urban middle-class communities.

Thus there is a possibility that racial identities start to matter less and less.

This is a dynamic that Agang could well tap into.

While Dr Ramphele is often labelled "intellectual", it may be possible for her to change that label to "urban".

At the same time, the DA could be changing as well. At some point the identities of the communities that these two, for now separate, organisations are canvassing among are likely to overlap.

It could be then that their policy priorities will also overlap, leading to a possible fusion under a broader, less racially specific identity.

Should that happen, the ANC would battle to counter that organisation without locking itself into campaigning primarily for the poor rural constituency.

• Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter.

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