On Ramphele: The voice of truth must rule

2013-02-17 10:00

There has been much speculation lately about whether Mamphela Ramphele will enter the political fray. Isn’t it time we had a leader who has no fear?

Soon after my book Biko: A Biography came out, I received a call from Dr Mamphela Ramphele asking me to pay a visit.

I was terrified that she was going to blow the book to smithereens.

So with a mix of trepidation and excitement, I drove over to her place, where I found her poised on her chair with spectacles lowered and resting on the tip of her nose as my mother used to do before she delivered an English grammar lesson.

I noticed she had the book on her lap and a pen between the pages. I was delighted or, even better, relieved to hear that she had actually enjoyed reading it.

However, as you know with these things, there is always a but at the end. She proceeded to point out to me a few factual errors in the book – what she memorably called the imponderables, or is that my wording?

I’m not sure.

In any event, what I found most instructive was that she had actually read the book from cover to cover, which cannot be said for many of the people who have commented on it.

She gave her copy back to me with all the notes, just in case I needed them for a second edition.

And then she walked out of the living room into her kitchen and came back with a bottle of champagne.

In that moment, she proposed a toast to the book, before she bade me goodbye, just as I was about to relax. She had things to do.

This story matters in at least two ways in the greater scheme of analysis about the prospects of her forming a political party.

First, not only did Ramphele remind me of my teacher mother, but this was also a “teachable moment”.

In that private moment, she could have elected to tell me about her intentions to form a political party.

Indeed, many analysts have been complaining that she has not taken black intellectuals into her confidence.

Ironically, the people who complain about Ramphele’s failure to consult with black intellectuals are the same people who argue that she’s too much of an academic.

You can’t have it both ways, colleagues.

Or could the real complaint be really that she has not consulted you/us – the usual suspects?

Could it be that she is, in fact, going about this the other way round, asking the intellectuals to take their place in the queue?

Could it be that, like Kgalema Motlanthe, she is wary of being beholden to certain individuals and interest groups?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. My public advice would be that if she is indeed going to form a political party, then it must be on a volunteer basis – in pretty much the same way Barack Obama did.

To Ramphele I would say, surround yourself with people who want nothing from you.

The moment they want something from you, then you will have immense power over them, and the moment you depend on them they will have immense power over you.

The former dynamic was all too evident in Thabo Mbeki’s presidency.

He was treated with such awe by his sycophants, who cheered him on even as he was making the deadliest mistake of his presidency over HIV/Aids.

That’s because he had immense power over them – the power of attraction and adulation.

The latter dynamic of dependence on others can be seen in Jacob Zuma’s presidency.

The reported number of his benefactors – Schabir Shaik, Vivian Reddy, the Guptas – makes one wonder what hold they have over him.

That’s equally dangerous for any leader.

I know forming a party without providing incentives may not be entirely realistic, but I am sure Ramphele gets my drift.

The point is that membership should be driven by commitment to a larger strategy, which of course she must still unveil if her initiative is to extend beyond herself to younger generations over time.

These are the questions that serious critics should be asking, not whether she qualifies for leadership.

Surely she qualifies, far more than many of the people who occupy leadership positions in our land today.

The second reason I think concerns about Ramphele’s party are misplaced has to do with a point that has been expressed in so many different ways, all of which boil down to the fact that she has a sharp tongue.

Well, maybe it’s about time we had a leader who could give us a tongue-lashing from time to time.

Let me hasten to say why.

I was hanging out with my friends in the township the other day when one of them said something searingly painful: “Ek se, X-man, do you really think we have a future as black people? Just look at the time now.

It’s going for 9 o’clock on a Sunday and these kids are running up and down the street.

“These are five- and six-year-olds, and it’s school tomorrow. Where and what are the parents saying, sbari?”

For the past 20 years we have had leaders – and a political party – who have concerned themselves only with the numbers – economic growth rates, the number of houses built, the number of billions spent on infrastructure.

We have not had a leader willing to step up to the “bully pulpit” and speak of the values we should hold as a society, and by which we should raise our children.

Without the language of values, responsibility and self-reliant development, we may as well kiss educational reform, as well as this democracy thing, goodbye.

These values were uppermost in the politics of the black consciousness movement from which Ramphele comes.

If she were to form a party, I hope she would put those values at the centre of our national life.

This country needs leaders who can speak truthfully and honestly to our collective conscience about the political morality of our times.

Whether it is Ramphele or somebody else who does it, whether it is a political party or a cultural movement that does it, the challenge remains – like at no other time since Steve Biko.

»Mangcu is a South African commentator mainly based at the University of Cape Town

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