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Analysts, parties see Ramphele's Agang as not much to build on

Faranaaz Parker

Mamphela Ramphele says all South Africans should help create "the country of our dreams". But we are a sceptical bunch who rarely heed such calls.

Mamphela Ramphele. (Gallo)

Despite the cheers, ululating and standing ovations that echoed through the halls of the Women's Gaol at Constitution Hill on Monday, the celebrated activist and academic's announcement of her new "party political platform" was met with scepticism by political parties and analysts.

During her rousing speech outlining the five core areas that the group – known as Agang, which is Setswana for "Let's build" – hoped to make progress on, Ramphele was scathing of the ANC's accomplishments since 1994.

She singled out the party's system of assigning community representatives through the party- system, ineffective public service, an economy that has failed to bring benefits to the poor, a failing education system, and South Africa's inconsistent role on the international political scene.

She also announced her intention to contest the 2014 elections.

The ANC said in a statement issued on Monday night, together with a release on a national working committee visit to Limpopo, that it hoped "the pumping of foreign funds in South Africa will not undermine the further democratisation and transformation in our country".

The ruling party also slated the "undefined party political platform" for not clarifying its intentions.

"It is also a disservice to the people of South Africa for those who are behind such formation not to have given clarity of what it is, that is new that they want to bring to the political terrain."

The Democratic Alliance (DA) merely "noted" the announcement and expressed a willingness to engage with her in the coming months.

"Dr Ramphele shares the DA's core values of non-racialism and constitutionalism, and her move is another step in the long process of realigning South African politics around these values," it said.

But tripartite alliance partner Congress of South African Trade Unions condemned Ramphele and Agang and said that it saw no future in the party.

"Stripped of its bombastic rhetoric, Mamphela Ramphele's speech offered no solutions to the triple crisis of unemployment, poverty and inequality but was a manifesto for neoliberalism," the trade union federation said in a statement on Monday.

Disappointing announcement
Political analysts were also sceptical of Ramphele's vision and pointed out that despite the rousing speech, she had failed to give clarity on a number of key issues.

Wits University professor Susan Booysen described Ramphele's announcement as a case of "party politics meets inspirational speaking".

"She did [on Monday] what she has been doing for a few years now – denouncing government failures, preaching in favour of reinvention and asking where is the dream of 1994 South Africa," she said.

Booysen said Ramphele was "incredibly vague" on how she planned to tackle the country's challenges.

During a press conference held after the announcement, Ramphele dodged questions concerning the degree of support she had for Agang, the sources of her funding, and the role the party would play in opposition politics.

'Not in the business of opposition'
She said her support consisted of "an energetic team of all of five people" but would not name her supporters. Funding would come from South Africans both at home and abroad, she said, and Agang was "not in the business of opposition".

"We are in the business of building the South Africa of our dreams. We are going to work with everybody who shares that dream. So spending time and energy on opposing others is no the way to build a dream," she said.

When asked about her plans for the economy, she dismissed the term "neo-liberal", saying that Agang stood for "an economy that works for all South Africans".

Likewise, she shied away from the idea that the organisation would be rooted in the black consciousness movement, and said instead that it would strive towards "South African consciousness".

Booysen said that while Ramphele was well liked, particularly by young, educated women, they did not comprise a large enough part of the constituency to make a difference.

"To be a serious political party you need to win grassroots support," she said.

Cynicism to be expected
Political analyst Justice Malala said such cynicism was to be expected given the lack of impact made over the years by successive political party hopefuls including Congress of the People (Cope), the United Democratic Movement and the Independent Democrats.

"For me the disappointment with [Ramphele's] speech is that it was just a critique of ANC governance – very true, very powerful and very beautifully written and delivered. Yet a cynicism comes from the fact that this individual arrived and, [though] she is much admired, she left still basically a one-person platform," he said.

"One individual just won't cut it," said Malala. Instead, what was needed to make the organisation a success was large numbers of supporters willing to do the grassroots organisation that would be needed to encourage people to vote for them, he said.

"I don't think that there's been enough organisational work done, and party politics is about organisational work. It's about who can get people to the voting stations," he said.

From civil society to party politics
Aubrey Matshiqi, research fellow at the Helen Suzman Foundation said that Ramphele did not appear to have made the leap from civil society to party politics.

Instead, he said, it appeared Ramphele was attempting to import some of the values and principles for which she has become renowned from the civil society space into party politics.

"The question for me is whether she is going to make the transition from the civil society to the party political space successfully," he said.

"In terms of her performance [on Monday], I do not think she's going to succeed in that space."

Matshiqi said that instead of launching a platform for further discussion, Ramphele should have simply launched a political party and begun the arduous task of creating a distinct identity for herself and her party, dealing with its organisation and structures, working on positioning and policies, deciding she would reach out with voters.

"We're 14 months before an election. Part of the time she's got is going to be lost to consultation. She should have just launched a political party," he said.

"What I saw was more the idealistic leader of a movement in the civil society space and less a leader of a political party who understands the realities of electoral politics, despite what she says."

While Ramphele maintained that broad-based consultation with South Africans from all walks of life would be necessary to find Agang's direction, questions were raised about why Ramphele failed to provide solutions to the problems she highlighted.

Organising at grassroots level
But political analyst Eusebius McKaiser said it was "fair" that Ramphele failed to present solutions.

"As she's starting out on this process, she might foreclose the possibility of more people joining her if she presents it as a bunch of off-the-shelf solutions from herself," he said.

"We should give her space to not have a shopping list of solutions. She needs to wait for a leadership and constituency to tell her in dialogue what they should be," he said.

Despite her assertion that Agang would contest the 2014 elections, McKaiser said he believed Ramphele would instead take a "long term view".

"There just isn't enough time and it's just practically not feasible," he said.

McKaiser said he believed Ramphele would hope to build the party in the near term and realistically contest the election only in 2019.

He warned that the organisation should not underestimate the importance of having good organisational machinery.

"These questions can be dismissed as petty but actually you need the machinery to work," he said, pointing out that a lack of practical organisation contributed to Cope's failure to capitalise on the support it generated in its early days.


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