Comment and Analysis

Ramphele more Mazibuko than Biko on questions of race

Eusebius McKaiser

What does Dr Mamphela Ramphele stand for? Black consciousness? The answer is no. It turns out that Ramphele has become colour-blind.

Mamphela Ramphele. (Gallo)

Intellectual and activist Dr Mamphela Ramphele has come out of the political closet by announcing the creation of Agang, a "party-political platform" that will contest the 2014 national elections.

The question that immediately raises itself is: What does she stand for? Black consciousness? The answer is no. It turns out that Ramphele has become colour-blind.

On Talk Radio 702 this past Monday evening, I asked Ramphele whether she identified primarily with being a black South African or simply a South African. I also queried her view on race-based admissions policies at institutions such as the University of Cape Town (UCT), where she was vice-chancellor.

She insisted that we "must transcend racial categories" and that she was first and foremost "a South African". She implied that the older generation was obsessed about race, in particular, saying: "We cannot expect young South Africans to identify as black and white."

As for UCT's admissions policy, she told me that a top institution that should lead us out of our racist past, intellectually and otherwise, should not be flirting with race-based criteria. Rather, admissions should be based on making sure that all who have not had opportunities get a chance now, regardless of skin colour.

She cited her own child as an example of someone who has had plenty of life opportunities and whose skin colour, by implication, should not make it easier to get into UCT.

All of this was consistent with an answer to a journalist's question at a press briefing earlier that day, who asked whether Agang would be based on black consciousness. After searching for words, she eventually settled on "South African consciousness".

Transcending race
Whether or not you smile at this colour-blind language, it is obvious that the convictions about race that come through in these answers are not compatible with black consciousness as we know it from the work of Steve Biko. Biko identified as a black man and did not try to "transcend" race. He located the fight for self-actualisation and freedom in the historic and present reality of how race is a tool for defining structural exclusion. The victims of structural injustice are mostly black. They are not raceless "South Africans".

So there is a philosophical incompatibility here between the basic tenets of black consciousness and Ramphele's 2013 vision of a society beyond racial categories.

She has, quite frankly, abandoned her black consciousness roots. Those excited about her entry into politics should, therefore, take a nuanced position when they cite her political origins. They cannot continue to pretend she is building a party to the left of the ANC, a party rooted primarily in a race-realist and historic, structural analysis of our current challenges.

Bluntly put, Ramphele's engagement on the race questions I put to her show that, on race, she is closer to the Democratic Alliance's Lindiwe Mazibuko than she is to Biko, her former romantic and political partner.

It is important to note here that I single out Mazibuko, not DA chief Helen Zille. I leave for another occasion a full exposition of the differences between these two DA leaders. Suffice for now to observe that Zille's grasp of race-realism is, in fact, even as a white woman, a step closer to black consciousness than the Mazibukoesque views Ramphele expressed in her interview with me. This is so despite Zille's being driven by pragmatism – nurturing black colleagues is good for the DA – rather than principled racial politics.

The message is simple: one cannot assume that any political leader who is phenotypically black is an advocate of black identity politics. Zille might be a better advocate for affirmative action than Mazibuko and Ramphele, who may be keen to chuck the black baby out with the dirty ANC bath water. Clearly, who you were in the 1970s does not tell us who you are in 2013.

Furthermore, I accept that this language of "transcending" race has some advantages. It will warm the hearts of many white voters. And, yes, it will warm the hearts of some black voters, especially those who do not get the moral justification for racial redress. Tactically, it also still leaves room for Ramphele to merge with the DA eventually by not creating too much of an ideological rift between them.

But it is ultimately a mistake. Most black South Africans, rich and poor, deeply identify as black and a failure to acknowledge, accept and affirm their lived racial reality will leave Ramphele many votes short of her aspiration at the polls. The DA already exists. A Ramphele-style replica of the DA will be cold comfort to those black voters not coping with the Congress of the People or with the ANC. Ramphele should quickly rethink how she positions herself – if it is not already too late.

Eusebius McKaiser is the author of the bestselling A Bantu in My Bathroom and hosts Talk at Nine on 702

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