On February 18th, the anti-apartheid activist Dr Mamphela Ramphele launched a political party to challenge the African National Congress, which she described as riven with “corruption, nepotism and patronage.”
Ramphele, 65, announced the creation of Agang to stand against the increasingly criticised ANC in elections in 2014. Ramphele said Agang — meaning “Let’s Build” in the Sepedi language — will “declare war on corruption” and focus on rekindling the hopes that poor South Africans held when apartheid crumbled 19 years ago.
“Our country is at risk because self-interest has become the driver of many of those in positions of authority who should be focused on serving the public,” said Ramphele, a former World Bank managing director and trained medical doctor.
“Corruption, nepotism and patronage have become the hallmarks of the conduct of many in public service,” she said.
The former University of Cape Town vice-chancellor also called for a turn-around in education.
“It is woeful, shameful that we should have such low expectations of young South Africans that we are prepared to accept 30% as a pass mark for school leavers,” she said.
Ramphele, who resigned as chairwoman of leading gold miner Gold Fields in mid-February to prepare to enter politics, called for profound economic restructuring following months of deadly wage strikes in the mining and agriculture sectors.
Her announcement ended weeks of speculation in Africa’s largest economy.
As a highly educated black woman who played a prominent role in the anti-apartheid struggle, including a one-time relationship with slain Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, Ramphele has a formidable profile in a nation obsessed with identity politics.
She dismissed talk that her party would appeal mostly to the educated elite, given her academic background and business connections.
“I am no elite. I refuse to allow people to define me as such. I can identify with people from all backgrounds,” she said.
The ANC immediately went on the attack, accusing Ramphele of fund-raising “in foreign countries” and describing her move as “grievance driven”, without elaborating.
The powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), an ANC ally, asked: “How seriously can we take someone who has just stepped down as head of a big, ruthless exploitative mine employer… which undermines our present and future economic prospects?”
While Ramphele’s announcement garnered significant attention in South Africa, it remains to be seen whether the party go beyond snapping at the ANC’s heels.
The ANC won 65.9% in 2009 polls, with the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) taking 16.7%.
Media reported that talks between Ramphele and the DA about joining forces to take on the ANC had failed, though Ramphele played down any hint of friction.
“We are having conversations, there is no talk of a broken deal, we continue to be in talks with various South Africans,” she said, adding: “I am not a joiner.”
Agang aims to change South Africa’s election system, under which parties nominate their members of parliament, Ramphele said.
Lawmakers should be elected directly by constituencies “so we can hold them accountable for the electoral promises they make,” she said.
Business Day (Johannesburg) noted that reaction to Ramphele’s move was varied, from those who pooh-poohed her on social media networks, to politicians who welcomed her move, some doing so cautiously.
Cynicism was dominant on social media platforms as critics chided her for bringing nothing new or appearing too soft and structured for someone about to enter the muddy world of electoral politics. Others took to her announcement, pledging their support.
But the paper commented that if her Agang initiative is handled well, it may threaten to upset South Africa’s political landscape. In the current setup, political parties are easily identified by the colour of their leaders, or by the ethnic or economic interests they hold.
Ms Ramphele’s platform creates an opportunity to break from that slumber of parliamentary politics. It may also have an orientation much broader than regional parties such as the United Democratic Movement or the Inkatha Freedom Party. If it takes off, it may have better legitimacy than most of the smaller parties in Parliament. And if it manages to stay on the intellectual path, it may further expose the ANC as a party battling with intellectualism.