MAMPHELA Ramphele’s rumoured entry into national politics has brought some much-needed excitement to our sterile politics of scandals and shady dealings. The politics of despair dominate our existence, in contrast to the politics of hope that marked the first years of our democracy.
Ramphele could raise the bar of leadership and lift our politics out of the quagmire. She could help restore faith in public leadership, animate civil society as a source of social cohesion and open up new avenues for change beyond the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) liberationist politics.
She is embarking on the road less travelled, with no guarantees of success, in a country where the dominant themes of our existence are inspired by either the ANC’s parochial nationalist politics or the Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) politics of managerialism, intermittently characterised by false leaps into a postracial nirvana.
Most black South Africans still have allegiance to the ANC as the party that supposedly liberated them. The ANC has cleverly positioned itself as the custodian of black aspirations and of their dreams for a better life. This is despite the fact that the arrogance of power — what the party faithful euphemistically refer to as the sin of incumbency — has damaged its soul.
For most voters the "revolutionary" logic of the liberation struggle waged by the ANC remains valid, even though the party has become moribund, sapped by internal factions, and is the antithesis of progressive change. They still hope it can rediscover its true values and complete its journey to the Promised Land.
Many justify their continued support for the ANC on the basis that there is no credible alternative. They see the DA as a party beholden to the interests of its funders, mainly a white business elite, and its white core constituency. Ramphele’s move, if executed well, could be a lifeline in the forlorn ground of our opposition politics. It could also help to close the chasms in our deeply racialised politics.
The existing opposition parties have failed to take on the ANC successfully. The DA does not seem to have a long-term strategy to address the lingering legacy of the past with regards to race and social inequality while crafting a shared vision for the future. The two are not mutually exclusive.
What South Africa needs is a leader able to negotiate the difficult tensions that still mark our transition from the apartheid past. Such a leader should also be able to create a space where trust and understanding can be nurtured, as well as to build, through dialogue, enduring bridges towards a shared destiny.
If Ramphele’s party manages to garner a groundswell of support, the loser in the short to medium term is likely to be the DA. Its growing base of black supporters may desert it in droves. The DA remains, by and large, the most maligned party among a significant portion of the black middle and working classes. Its growth has limits. There is more chance of a populist nationalist party winning general elections than there is for the DA.
Ramphele could help forestall the emergence of such a radicalised populist party. Her broad set of competencies and experience as a voice of reason in civil society mark her out as a leader who could contribute to strengthening oppositional politics while paving the way for an alternative paradigm in South Africa.
To have a successful launch, she will need to pay attention to the following basics. First, she must build a solid media and communications infrastructure early on. This should include an ability to reach out across the diverse strands of society and maintain a presence in the social media.
Second, she must be aware that the imminence of a general election can be a disadvantage, as it generates anxieties about policies and campaign strategies. This is part of what strangled the Congress of the People — it was forced to microwave its policies, with half-baked outcomes. Further, questions will arise about whether this is a one-woman show or if there is thinking towards some long-term succession plan, especially because of Ramphele’s age.
Third, while it is inevitable to pitch a message that highlights the failures of the ANC, this should not be an end in itself. Ramphele’s party would do well to avoid obsessing about the ANC, instead projecting a unique and positive image. A professional outlook balanced with grass-roots engagement could endear it across the social spectrum.
Finally, the complexity of South Africa’s politics means any party that hopes to take power must position itself closer to the socially marginalised. Ramphele’s should therefore unambiguously champion issues of social justice while emphasising a broadly market-based economic policy. She would need to be perceptive about the importance of fostering understanding across racial lines.
• Qobo teaches politics at the University of Pretoria and is a member of the Midrand Group.