Mamphela Ramphele. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Mamphela Ramphele. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

THOUGH it came as no surprise, I was nevertheless a bit saddened by the announcement this week that Mamphela Ramphele was leaving politics after being expelled from Agang SA, the political party she founded. Ramphele was among a generation of young black intellectuals who came to the fore during the political ice age that descended on South Africa in the aftermath of the Rivonia trial.

The thaw that came after they parted ways with the National Union of South African Students owed much to their youthful courage that rejected both the repressive racism of the National Party government and patronising liberalism. After establishing the South African Students Organisation, inspired by black consciousness, they mobilised students at tertiary institutions established in pursuance of Hendrik Verwoerd’s grand apartheid, turning many into bastions of the liberation movement. Ramphele’s personal contribution earned her the wrath of the apartheid authorities and a deportation order.

When launching her political platform last year, Ramphele announced that her intervention was to bring about a realignment of South African politics and to recapture the mood of optimism that animated the country in 1994. Those of us who recognised in her launch the voice of a substantial number of people who were alienated from existing political parties welcomed her initiative as enriching the healthy mix of political opinions in our institutions. The formal launch of her political campaign a few months later seemed to indicate that she was earnest.

In an act that betrayed inexplicable political folly as well as a willingness to front for others, early this year she accepted nomination as the Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) candidate for president. Within a week what had been marketed and appeared to a be an ardent political love affair ended. The “couple” parted amid bitter recriminations. Apparently Ramphele had not consulted her party and had made undertakings she could not honour to DA leader Helen Zille.

After the lacklustre election campaign it ran, it is difficult to assess the extent of the damage Ramphele inflicted on her party and her own political credibility by offering to serve as the DA’s election poster girl. The electorate was clearly unimpressed and returned only two Agang members to the National Assembly. A leader whose party fared that badly should usually step aside.

The electorate has responded rather cautiously to the new parties that came on the scene after 1996. Bantu Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement (UDM) was able to make its mark in the 1999 elections thanks to powerful regional loyalties and his charisma. Floor-crossing before the 2004 elections decimated the UDM and it came to Parliament with its numbers depleted.

The founding of the Congress of the People (COPE) by those elements of the African National Congress (ANC) leadership who were dissatisfied with the outcome of the Polokwane conference was accompanied by excitement in our media. Pundits, columnists and commentators gleefully announced that an effective challenge to the ANC had at long last arrived. At first, COPE appeared to perform much better than the UDM.

But, by the time the date of the 2009 elections was announced, it was clear that all was not well inside COPE. It emerged from the elections as the third-largest party in the National Assembly, then became embroiled in a self-destructive faction fight waged in the courts. Endless litigation prevented it holding its inaugural conference. During this year’s elections, the voters punished COPE, returning only three of its members.

This year’s elections did realign South Africa’s politics to some degree, but not in the manner Ramphele had hoped for. Opposition benches that at one time reflected the rich tapestry of political opinions in this country are today dominated by two parties, the DA and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Judged on the basis of parliamentary representation, South Africa is drifting towards a three-party system. While the ANC has maintained its dominant position, commanding more than 60% of the vote, between them, the DA and the EFF have virtually wiped out the smaller opposition parties. It is the opposition that has been realigned, in effect reduced to two parties.

The great tragedy of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) was that it was never able to gather and retain much support beyond a narrow band of African intellectuals. After initially leavening liberation politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the BCM lost momentum as many of its adherents joined the ANC after 1976.

While the radical posture it had adopted at its inception served the cause well, when radicalism per se ossified into inflexible political practice, it tempted the BCM into grave tactical errors. The BCM turned down participation in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa and boycotted the first democratic elections in 1994, marginalising itself on the fringes of politics. Is the end of Ramphele’s political career emblematic of the political demise of black consciousness?

Jordan is a former arts and culture minister.