DOCTOR (in both senses), professor, officer of the Legion of Honour, board member extraordinaire, general person about town and all-round protector of the faith, Mamphela Ramphele is a fantastic personality and a credit to South African cultural and political life. But will she be a great politician?
If the news reports are correct, she will launch a new political party soon, so the question is what effect she will have on the political landscape. The rumour mill suggests Ramphele was aiming to raise about $40m at a series of local and foreign fund raisers and that the creation of the party will be announced shortly after the state of the nation speech. There are also some rumours of complex political plotting between her and old friend Helen Zille, who as a journalist was involved in exposing the cause of the death of Ramphele’s life partner, Steve Biko.
I don’t know what happened during these discussions, but I’m willing to bet the conversation went something like this: Zille: "Please, please join the Democratic Alliance (DA)."
Ramphele: "No way, Jose." Zille: "Okay then, what about a kind of loose alliance arrangement of some sort in which we try to pincer movement the African National Congress (ANC)?"
Ramphele: "Hmm, sounds interesting, I’ll get back to you."
It’s easy to see how this arrangement might work — but, alas, it’s even easier to see how it won’t.
The upside interpretation is that a Ramphele-led party would galvanise the black urban elite, picking up along the way many of the Congress of the People’s (COPE’s) supporters who might be gravitating back towards the ANC or who are disaffected by it.
Ramphele seems made for this intervention: a person of enormous stature, history and experience. Ramphele is an out-and-out intellectual in an era when the leadership of the majority party is permeated with people who are not only not intellectuals themselves, but are repelled by intellectualism.
Ramphele’s root philosophy seems to be founded on an almost spiritual belief in popular action, contradictorily combined with a kind of high-brow injunction. She is a combination of your crabby, conservative aunt who is continually nagging you to do your homework and a political mystic preaching a supernatural development consciousness.
Way back in 1997, a New York Times profile commented: "Her fire-engine-red fingernails scissor the air as she speaks. She has a raspy voice and a cackle of a laugh. Her eyes appraise the world coolly through wire-rim glasses."
The same piece quotes Ramphele as saying: "Contrary to popular myth, poor people did not struggle in order to have equal access to mediocrity". Great quote, but did you catch the imperious undertone?
Not much has changed. Last year, she told BBC correspondent Andrew Harding: "Postcolonial South African citizens continue to function as subjects. Their mind-set is ‘those in authority know best, they will tell us what to do, they will decide when this or that happens’."
She complains once again about the ANC stepping into the shoes of the "colonial" rulers.
But what about the downside? Former DA leader Tony Leon tells me the problem, as he experienced it, is that being respected and having a positive media profile is all very well, but ultimately it means very little unless you have the tank squadrons and battle troops on the ground. The Democratic Party, in those days, had lots of respect but no real ground game until the ill-fated merger with the National Party, which gave the party traction on the Cape flats. Personality-wise, you need to be a team player and have a long-term application to the task. You also need a level of political "stickiness".
Frankly, amid all the respect people rightly have for Ramphele, there is also a whiff of the scolding schoolteacher about her. That’s fine for a commentator. But for a politician, it is less adhesive and the ANC is sure to pounce on this.
Still, I think she and her party might do pretty well. The proportional representation system encourages fragmented politics. Until now, the ANC has bucked that trend, but it will not be able to do so forever.
• Cohen is contributing editor.