CAMPS BAY, South Africa — If South Africans disgruntled with President Jacob Zuma and the African National Congress wanted to conjure up a credible challenger, Mamphela Ramphele would tick some of their boxes.
A businesswoman and academic as well as a former managing director of the World Bank, Ramphele also is a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle and the former partner of Steve Biko, the Black Consciousness activist who died in custody in 1977 and whose story became the film “Cry Freedom.”
In recent days, Ramphele has been at the center of media speculation that she plans to create a political party to take on the governing ANC — which has taken more than 60 percent of the vote at every poll since 1994 — as the country gears up for elections next year.
While Ramphele has never been afraid to speak her mind or take on the establishment, for now she is keeping people guessing.
In an interview with the Financial Times, she said a statement on her plans will be coming this month, but declined to comment further. But she does not disguise her belief in the need for the urgent change in Africa’s largest economy, blighted by joblessness, poverty and yawning inequality.
“We have democracy that is not working for ordinary people, and the key is for ordinary people to mobilize and demand to be treated with the dignity they correctly expect,” she said.
She avoided discussing changes in political leadership directly, saying it’s not about the ANC, “it’s about how the country is governed.” She stressed the need to amend the electoral system to foster greater accountability. At present, South Africans do not vote directly for their members of parliament, but for a party through a system of proportional representation. It is a system, she said, that has taken power from the people and given it to party bosses.
She believes there is momentum for change, citing violent strikes in the platinum-mining sector last year, during which police shot and killed 34 protesters at Marikana, as well as unrest among farmworkers in the Western Cape and bloody protests in Sasolburg, an industrial town, as expressions of popular frustration. “People want to see a different future,” she said.
Yet whether Ramphele is the person to lead a new political order is contentious.
In addition to her World Bank stint, she is a highly respected medical and academic doctor, was a vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town and is now chair of Gold Fields. Her involvement with Black Consciousness — an anti-apartheid movement that began in the 1960s after the ANC was banned, but which saw its influence wane after Biko’s death — further burnishes these credentials. The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party commonly perceived as a white party, has already courted her.
But commentators caution that while she could expect support from the middle and upper classes, both black and white, she might struggle to attract a broader grass-roots constituency.
Still, few outside the ANC would dispute that the emergence of a credible new party would bolster South Africa’s democracy.
Ramphele goes back to the transition from apartheid to outline some of the nation’s problems. The existence of a colonial economy built on mining that profited from cheap black labor was not properly addressed, she said.
As a result, “the Marikana phenomenon is a logical outcome of an extractive industry model, where people could walk past shacks of the very people who are producing the platinum that makes them so fabulously rich, without thinking something is remiss,” she said. As for her role in fostering change, Ramphele said: “My track record speaks for itself.”
“Every one of us is involved in politics, passively or actively. By acquiescing to a system that is abusive, you are involved in politics. . . . The apartheid government was sustained because people stood outside it.
“It’s when we put the long-term interests of the country first that we can make a difference,” she said.
— Financial Times