Academic, businessperson and now political postulant, Mamphela Ramphele is manoeuvring to get the official endorsement of outspoken, high-profile South Africans, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki, before she launches a new political party later this month, according to social activists close to her.
The company that does Tutu's media liaison, Oryx Media, said the retired archbishop was on a ship for four months and the company's Benny Gool on Thursday said he was not sure whether Tutu could be contacted.
Mbeki refused to comment and said that he was suing the Mail & Guardian for an unrelated article published last week and, therefore, was unable to co-operate.
A political analyst, who helped to draft the new organisation's strategy, said there was space for another party in the country because of "a hunger for an alternative to the ANC". The official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, was failing to fill that space because it was perceived to be a white party, he said. "The new party has to be African-led and by people who are credible."
The campaign advisor, who asked not to be identified, foresees "a huge challenge" for Ramphele because new parties tend to be elitist. Already hers appears to be battling that perception, with Ramphele as the leader and because of the people she is working with. "If you were to go to a village and ask who Mamphela Ramphele [is], no one will know," he said. "But if you go to a northern suburb they'll know her, they can even describe [what she looks like]."
Ramphele has also been made aware that a party with a one-person profile does not work in South Africa, and she is set on recruiting leaders from the grassroots level to work with her. These include non-governmental organisations and former United Democratic Front members who have not been prominently involved in ANC politics. "Otherwise she'll appear on television and not have direct links with the people," the analyst said.
Reform and restitution
Ramphele is said to have turned down an offer to join the DA because she disagreed with it on black economic empowerment (BEE), land reform and social justice issues, according to a second person familiar with her plans.
"She's very clear that BEE needs to be retained but she wants a more grassroots-focused kind of a BEE," said the source.
"She also wants land reform and restitution speeded up because she thinks it's a ticking time bomb."
On general social justice issues, "she feels, when other political parties go to grassroots people, they don't address these issues. Things that are normally on top of opposition parties' agendas, such as respecting the Constitution, are abstract – they're understood better by the elite."
Ramphele herself did not dispute speculation about a new party in a statement released this week, saying she will speak for herself when she has made a decision about her future engagements.
The ANC has not responded to the speculation but many in the ruling party believe she is not rooted in community structures and, as an academic, would find it difficult to become so.
Tinyiko Maluleke, a political analyst from Unisa, said Ramphele had the right characteristics to form a political party. "If there's a person in this country who has the gravitas, the track record and the networking both nationally and internationally, it's her," Maluleke said. "This is a woman who was starting clinics, helping women make bricks and plant vegetables 30 years ago. She's established and raised funds for non-governmental organisations and did humanitarian work. She knows both the rural struggles and the world of power because of her experience at, among others, the World Bank."
But for Ramphele to succeed with a new political party she would have to "reinvent herself", he said.
"She must find the Mamphela of Lenyenye [in Tzaneen, where she once lived], the Mamphela of King William's Town and the Mamphela who was in prison. If she fails to do that, she might appeal to me and you because we speak English, but not to other people."
Ramphele's office requested emailed questions but had not responded to them by the time of going to print.