MAMPHELA Ramphele sent a strong signal this week that she will embark on a two-phase process of consulting a broad range of South Africans on her plans and forming a political party that will contest elections next year.
This consultative process should help her frame the more specific aspects of her campaign and allow for a language that resonates with the broad spectrum of society to evolve. This should be balanced with strong strategic intent so it is clear what she stands for that is distinct from the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the African National Congress (ANC). That is how new constituencies are formed. Constituencies are not naturally given; they are formed and reformed. She can create new constituencies around her message.
A key sign of good leadership is the ability to influence positive change and this requires a huge well of credibility. If she uses the consultative moment effectively to establish deep connections with the voters and to lay out a bold vision of her leadership, she should be able to pull good support over time. It is not just what comes from the bottom up that is important. It is also the heart and the voice of the leader that helps to galvanise people to rediscover their self-belief and inspire them to reach for something bigger.
Despite criticism from DA sympathisers, Ramphele’s initiative is much needed to shake up SA’s sterile politics, which is expressed in the binary fixation with the bunfight between the ANC and the DA. The two parties have different political agendas and cultures and they are largely responsible for the growing polarisation of our politics at the expense of the country’s future.
For its part, the ANC is steeped in a static and narrow African nationalism and is increasingly taking on the character of a racialised and populist party. This posture will be accentuated in years to come, with growing unemployment and socioeconomic demands from the marginalised.
On the other hand, the DA boasts a core constituency of a white, middle-age electoral base that is also a source of its income but which prevents it from making deep internal reforms. The DA is not trusted as a genuine voice for the interests of the black majority, which is blighted by joblessness and harbours resentment over inequitable ownership patterns in the economy.
The elephant in the room is that as long as the party’s main face is white, it will find it difficult to project legitimacy.
It is thus disingenuous for DA sympathisers to criticise Ramphele’s initiative as a spoiler for opposition politics, as if their party has a magic formula for SA’s challenges or has a God-given right to be the only candidate for alternative politics in SA, in the way that the ANC thinks it should rule until the second coming of Jesus.
What, then, are the prospects for Ramphele’s party in this political landscape? There is a growing segment of young South Africans who are desperate for hope and are looking for leaders with a well of credibility and who can paint a vision they can believe in. There is a clamour for fresh leadership and a new politics of hope.
This is not to suggest that Ramphele’s initiative may not fail.
There is no crystal ball in politics. It is the principles that matter — alternative politics is a goal worth pursuing. One of the advantages of Ramphele’s project is the fact that the country is youthful, with 66% of the population younger than 35. It is a political market to focus on to build for the long term, but it is also cynical of politics.
There are two kinds of challenges Ramphele will be likely to face. The first is internal and the second is external. Internally, does she have in her team people who are strong and confident enough to let her know when she makes foolish judgments, as that moment comes in the life of any leader?
If she is the kind of leader who wallows in the cult of personality and considers herself the smartest person in the room and has no one who can differ with her views and criticise her leadership style, she is surely doomed from the beginning. All leaders need a diverse team of confident people around them, as that helps to enrich the leadership platform and sharpens their judgment.
The external challenge is mainly to do with breaking through the thick layer of cynicism about political leadership that has enveloped SA. Leadership deficiencies in the ruling party, the inability of the DA to transcend its narrow politics and the disappointment generated by the failure of the Congress of the People are all factors that have conspired to destroy trust in our politics.
Ramphele’s kind of experiment is what South Africa needs today to realign its politics and galvanise South Africans to rediscover their self-belief and see hope beyond our political stalemate, which is cast in the rusty frames of the DA and the ANC.
• Qobo teaches politics at the University of Pretoria and is a member of the Midrand Group.