During the course of her career, South Africa’s Mamphela Ramphele has assumed many roles — anti-apartheid activist, medical doctor, academic and businesswoman, just to name a few.
After the bloody uprising in Johannesburg’s Soweto township in 1976, Ramphele was detained without trial. She was released after five months but was soon subjected to internal exile.
The indignity did not quell her spirit of activism or her professional success.
She helped found the Black Consciousness Movement with fellow activists Steve Biko and Barney Pityana. She went on to study medicine, was appointed vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town and in later years served as a managing director of the World Bank — among other achievements.
Today at age 65, Ramphele has taken on yet another role — that of leader of the recently launched Agang South Africa political party.
On a recent visit to the United States, Ramphele shared her views on the political and economic status of South Africa and what she hopes for the future of her country.
Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Tell us briefly about the vision of your party.
Agang … is focused on restoring the promise of freedom.
How do you propose to restore the promise of freedom?
We believe that our freedom ideals have been betrayed and at the heart of that betrayal is corruption. So [the] DNA of Agang is clean government because we believe with clean government South Africa can leverage its huge natural, mineral and human resources to build the country of our dreams.
Your political party launched this year and it’s one of more than 130 political parties in South Africa. Many of these parties are small and they’re dwarfed in the shadow of the powerful (ruling) ANC (African National Union). So why was it necessary to create your party and what kind of impact do you expect to have, given the ANC’s power base?
I have never been a member of a political party in my life. I’ve always been an active citizen. I’ve supported each and every one of the governments that we’ve had since the beginning of our democracy. The decision to found this party was the toughest decision I’ve had to make. It comes out of a sense of sadness on the one hand but also a sense of the possibility ... of achieving this ideal that so many people lived and died for. That ideal is characterized by the founding principals of our democracy which [are] quality, dignity and freedom for all citizens. In my view, none of the political parties that are there now … has its focus on this. Agang is focused on mobilizing South Africans to again reimagine the country that they felt so passionate about in 1994 when they were standing in those long queues to vote for the first time.
What segment of society do you draw your support from?
Our support base is broad. We are a real South African party. We can’t be characterized as either black or white. We are a home for all South Africans who are committed to the ideals of our democracy. The majority of our supporters are young people …. and a large segment of South Africans who were with me in the trenches. Then we have support from business people who are worried about the future of South Africa and their own investments. But we’re also drawing a lot of support from ... young and old women in urban and rural areas. Because of the failure of my country to live up to the ideal of gender equality, we have an epidemic of gender-based violence, so more and more women are feeling that something has to be done to change the environment in which they live.
South Africa has a model constitution and the largest and most developed economy in Sub-Saharan Africa, yet you have said the country has lost its direction. How do you justify that comment?
We have to acknowledge that in terms of the foundation of our democracy we have a truly wonderful constitution. The reality is that the gap between the ideals that are in that constitution -- human dignity, equality and freedom -- and the lived reality of ordinary people is big and is growing. And the reason for that is our failure to have a government that is able to manage our economy, manage to bring together the business sector, the workers and civil society to work together to achieve the ideals of our democracy. That failure is largely because the government has assumed an attitude that they are entitled to govern whatever their performance. And that is the basic reason why we are saying we have lost our way. We have the foundation but we lack the leadership with the vision that drives them to do the right thing and to do so in a way that is inclusive of all of South Africans.
How would you go about empowering the people of South Africa since you have been quoted as saying that empowerment has not worked in South Africa and should actually be abandoned?
Well, if we’re talking about empowerment in the general sense, the most important source of power for an individual is mind-set change. What’s happened in South Africa is we achieved our democracy but we did not follow through with educating for democracy. So people still feel that they don’t have the power to challenge those in authority, just like in the good old apartheid days. So that mind-set change which ought to have accompanied our journey into the democratic dispensation did not happen because we did not invest in civic education. The policies and implementation of the black economic empowerment have not had the required outcome for the majority of people. So a few black South Africans have become extraordinarily wealthy but the majority of South Africans have remained poor. And some may argue in some areas poverty has deepened and inequality has certainly increased since the dawn of our democracy. So what I am arguing is not that we don’t need empowerment, it’s that we need more effective empowerment and that effective empowerment will have to address the root causes of poverty, inequality and inequity in our society. And that starts with clean government, a government that listens to people, that is accountable to people, that makes real [the] struggle slogan that the people shall govern.
Some critics say your party is a Western-backed initiative aimed at destabilizing South Africa?
People who say that are afraid of being challenged because our party is supported by South Africans, from the small person who gives 100 Rand to the high net worth individual. When people are authoritarian, they would like to tarnish anybody who challenges them. Agang is a South African party supported by South Africans largely, but we obviously welcome support from the international community. The struggle for freedom in South Africa would never have been won without international community support.
What do you envision your role to be five years from now?
I am fighting for restoration of the promise of freedom so I can pave the way for the next generation to play its rightful role. We need a South Africa led by competent, non-corrupt and forward-looking people so we can be the great society that South Africa has the potential to become.