Calland: Ramphele is an unlikely party animal

Mamphela Ramphele. (Gallo)

Mamphela Ramphele. (Gallo)

Dr Mamphela ­Ramphele is very hard to say no to. She is a force of nature, a compelling and utterly persuasive character. When she sets her mind on something, she is all but irresistible. She has now set her mind on leading a new political party, a news story that has caused not inconsiderable excitement and interest.

But – and this is not easy to say, because I can hear her voice in my ear, berating me for my lack of imagination, perhaps even my lack of loyalty – I think she is making a very big mistake if she thinks that she can break the mould of South African politics by striking out on her own.

When, a few weeks ago, I first heard that she had spent the latter part of last year working her contacts in the United States and elsewhere and had even hired a professional fundraiser to continue the effort this year, my first reaction was to scratch my head, puzzled.

I am still scratching. I just don't get it. Because all the available evidence suggests that South Africa is heading towards a two-party system, a tussle between the ANC and the Democratic Alliance and that there is no room for any new entrant to the electoral marketplace, even one as well  endowed in terms of resources and resolve as Ramphele's would be.

The other, smaller parties are either on the slippery slope towards oblivion – Bantu Holomisa's United Democratic Movement, for example, or the ill-fated Congress of the People –

or have conceded that the only plausible future is to be acquired by the DA, the route taken by Patricia de Lille's Independent Democrats.

All that will be left at the next election will be a few tiny regional or narrow-interest parties: in KwaZulu-Natal, the Inkatha Freedom Party, whose own health is declining as fast as its leader, Mangosutho Buthelezi, ages, as well as being squeezed by Jacob Zuma's popularity in his home province; the Freedom Front Plus, for Afrikaner die-hards; and, for fanatical Christians, the African Christian Democratic Party.

If those three parties achieve double figures between them at the 2014 national elections, I will eat my hat (an Arsenal baseball cap or a straw Panama, as it happens). It is now entirely possible that the two big parties will share more or less 90% of the popular vote  cut, roughly, 60-30.

Where does Ramphele see her slice of the action? Right now, she is saying nothing, plainly irritated, understandably, by Tony Leon's premature leak of her intentions. Because I doubt the former DA leader has agreed to play the role of "stalking horse", to test the reaction to the notion in the press and public domain. His motives in doing so are probably more mischievous.

Ramphele usually gets what she wants, so why the scepticism? On an organisational level, it will take money and people – good people. All the political "start-ups" since 1994 have failed on one or other count. Cope had a fair amount of money and some good people, but not enough of either and had too many dodgy people who were up to no good.

Because she is so hard to say no to and because she has such an extraordinary network of people around the world, many of them rich and influential, raising the bucks will not be Ramphele's problem. Finding the people will be. No doubt there are plenty of individuals, with talent and time on their hands, or salaries to make, who would be all too happy to work close to such a dynamic person. Ramphele may be able to recruit a very skilled group of political organisers, but they will need something to organise, which, in turn, means boots on the ground.

A political party, especially one that is taking on a large, diverse, complex electoral market crowded with two big players, needs organisational heft, which is not something that can be built overnight. And it cannot be built on the back of one strong, charismatic personality alone – ask De Lille.

So, where will Ramphele get her votes? There will be great excitement among the "chattering classes", especially among those who are chronically ill-disposed towards either the DA or Zuma's ANC. But the numbers are small. You are competing with the DA for ... what? One percent or 2% of the electorate?

New bridgehead
And what of the so-called born-frees? Might they not like the look of a dynamic black woman who is courageous enough to speak out against the ANC and to do so with all the authority and credibility that comes from her near half-century of political activism? Some of them might. But, just as the ANC's own history means less to them than to their elders, so, too, will Ramphele's own track record and CV.

A few years ago, DA leader Helen Zille courted Ramphele to be the next DA leader, as if one could actually parachute someone into such a position in a real political organisation. Zille told me that was the plan and, not realising that she had not yet told her colleagues in the federal council of the DA, I inadvertently rather shocked them when I mentioned it in passing in this column.

The idea was shelved for a one of a number of possible reasons: perhaps because Zille and Ramphele came to realise that there would be opposition from within the more conservative parts of the DA to the idea of parachuting her in as successor; or that Zille's colleagues persuaded her that it would be a terrible mistake to vacate the leadership too early; or that Ramphele herself cannot quite bring herself to join the DA and do what any normal political animal would do, namely work herself up through the ranks, building loyal support along the way.

But Ramphele is not a normal political animal (indeed, I am not even sure she is a political animal, in the party-political sense).

Because she cannot be risking so much merely to be a new 3% voice in Parliament, the only way Ramphele's move makes sense is if the game plan is to build a new bridgehead in 2014, having perhaps garnered a decent number of young, black, independent, first-time voters (even though that is a key part of the DA's own political strategy) and then to merge with the DA in a deal in which Ramphele can bring something to the table and thus can take on the leadership of a new political conglomerate.

Otherwise, I am left still ­scratching my head.

A life in politics

  • Mamphela Atta Ramphele was born on December 28 1947 in what was then the Northern Transvaal and is now the Northern Province.
  • In 1966, she matriculated from Selotolwane High School, one of only two girls in her class.
  • She took pre-medical courses at the University of the North and, in 1968, was accepted into the medical school of the University of Natal, winning the South African Jewish Women's Association Scholarship and the Sir Earnest Oppenheimer Bursary.
  • She joined the South African Students' Association (Saso), founded by Steve Biko in 1969, later becoming chairperson of her local branch.
  • She qualified as a doctor in 1972 and took up internships in Durban and later Port Elizabeth.
  • In 1974, she was charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for possession of banned literature. A year later, she founded the Zanempilo Community Health Centre in Zinyoka village near King William's Town and became director of the Black Community Programmes in the Eastern Cape when Biko was banned.
  • In 1976, she was detained under the Terrorism Act and, in 1977, was banned and banished to Tzaneen in Limpopo. Biko was murdered by the apartheid security forces in late 1977. The following year, Ramphele gave birth to Biko's son, Hlumelo.
  • Between 1984 and 1988, she worked at the South African Development Research Unit in Cape Town, writing two books with Francis Wilson, Children on the Frontline and Uprooting Poverty.
  •  In 1988, she went to Harvard as the Carnegie Distinguished Fellow for the year. A book based on her work there, A Bed Called Home: Life in the Migrant Labour Hostels of Cape Town, was published in 1993.
  • Ramphele became deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town in 1991 and ­vice-chancellor in 1996.
  • She joined the World Bank as a director in 2000.
  • In 2004 and 2005, she was a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, later serving as chair of the Independent Development Trust, a director of the Institute for a Democratic South Africa and on the boards of Anglo American and Transnet.
  • In 2005, Ramphele launched an investment firm, Circle Capital. &ndash; Source: <a href="//" target="_blank">South African History Online</a>

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