Mamphela Ramphele

‘Blinded by idealism’

2017-04-08 23:34
Mamphela Ramphele

Mamphela Ramphele

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Dreams, Betrayal and Hope by Mamphela Ramphele

Penguin Random House

R220

AgangSA was an experiment with a fresh start in party politics way ahead of its time.

It was to be a demonstration of what transformative politics could look like, where the citizen was at the centre of the political engagement.

Instead of members calling one another “comrades”, AgangSA members referred to one another as “citizens”.

We also adopted a code of conduct based on core values derived from the South African Constitution: human dignity, equality, excellence, innovation and creativity.

Young members of AgangSA, who were volunteers within the office in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, drove this Values Project.

The idea was to build AgangSA into a party strong enough to engage in discussions about collaboration with others, rather than just focusing on my being entombed in the DA political machine without a constituency.

The campaign approach was to mobilise citizens to recognise that they had the power to choose their leaders and to hold them accountable for the promises they made.

We invested the first six months of 2013 in “listening tours” to the poorest areas of the country to show recognition and to honour the voices of those feeling powerless.

There appeared to be overwhelming support for AgangSA as a new approach to politics.

Young people were particularly excited about their voices being heard and the open invitation to them to shape AgangSA into a political party with which they could identify.

The novelty factor was also a big pull to many people who were keen on engaging as citizens in determining their country’s approach to politics.

The focus on rural and poor areas attracted many poor people who had the opportunity to have their voices heard and their suggestions fed into the process of change.

I was energised by the positive responses we got across the spectrum.

I felt that there was a chance to shift to transformative politics. Young and old, men and women, including those in the public sector, were enthusiastic about the chance for a new beginning.

For example, a visit to my own natal village, Uitkyk, in the Bochum area of Limpopo, drew a large crowd of residents who became excited about the message of hope that their voices mattered.

They spoke of their fatigue with the many unfulfilled promises that had been made during election campaigns by local representatives of the governing party.

They were still waiting for a tarred road (long promised) linking them to the hospital in Bochum, the local administrative complex.

Their water supply and electricity remained unreliable.

We listened, and discussed how change needed to be brought by the power of the vote. We sang and broke bread together.

Many other villages and townships in other provinces were visited during the six months leading up to the launch of AgangSA in June 2013.

The enthusiasm was intoxicating.

There were also wonderful moments in the run-up to the May 2014 national election campaign.

The contribution of ordinary people in Soweto in Johannesburg, Mamelodi in Tshwane, Edenvale in Ekurhuleni, Khayelitsha in Cape Town and Phoenix in north Durban was heart-warming.

Citizens across the country were eager to challenge the apparent impunity of those in public office.

They were ready to overcome their fear of the retribution they might suffer from the dominant governing party for breaking ranks.

They were ready for a new approach.

AgangSA was a successful experiment in a number of ways. Firstly, it awakened the nation to the possibility of truly democratic participatory politics.

Many ordinary people wanted a new beginning. (Even today, many of these fellow citizens continue to urge me to make another bid.)

Secondly, many were sufficiently moved to contribute a total of R50 million in cash and R30 million in kind to the AgangSA effort.

A large number of these contributions were small amounts from ordinary folks. Many more would have contributed, but feared being seen contributing to a “counter-revolutionary” effort.

Thirdly, and most importantly, was the mobilisation of young people.

Young people at all levels of society volunteered their time and energy to the AgangSA campaign.

Many of these young men and women learnt new skills that helped them prepare for their future careers.

For example, Rorisang Tshabalala, a young entrepreneur, put his own business on hold to devote his time to the AgangSA project.

He brought his innovative mind to the campaign.

Nyameka Mguzulo resigned her job in Parliament to be part of the campaign, bringing with her valuable experience from the bowels of politics.

Finally, there were also supporters from the older generation. This surprised me.

I had anticipated that they might be hidebound by their loyalties to the old ANC, but many joined in the early stages of the campaign.

As did a successful global consultancy group that provided volunteer logistical services during the listening campaign, as well as strategic advice in the difficult end stages.

We had businesspeople devoting their knowledge, skills and resources to strengthen our drive for support.

It was also a campaign that spoke to idealists such as George Lindeque, who had grown up in the National Party and had been part of the leadership of its most successful state-owned enterprise, Eskom.

He sought me out at the height of the campaign and I found his strategic thinking invaluable.

He became a partner I could trust when we campaigned in Soweto and other areas of Gauteng.

One Saturday we tackled Maponya Mall in Soweto. I wore a tracksuit and running shoes, and he wore khakis and veldskoene.

George and I handed out pamphlets, spoke to voters and sat down for a fast food meal. He looked at me with tearful eyes and said: “My ouma sit regop in haar graf...” (My grandmother is turning in her grave).

Here we were, a former anti-apartheid struggle activist and an ex-bureaucrat in the apartheid system collaborating to change the political culture in the post-apartheid era.

The outcome of the election was a great disappointment.

To win two seats after all that effort was a blow to many of the people who had given so much of themselves to the campaign. So, what went wrong?

We will never know the full facts. But it is clear that many of the enthusiasts did not register to vote, and those who were registered did not vote.

Our party machinery was not strong enough to ensure a high voter turnout among those who supported us.

It is also now clear that AgangSA was unable to convert the enthusiasm at public meetings into voter support.

We did not have the capacity in most of the areas we visited to register, recommit and enthuse people to vote.

With notable exceptions, the team was inexperienced at national, provincial and local levels.

Youthful enthusiasm could not make up for the lack of organisational and campaign experience. And without that we were unable to initiate and build an organisation in the short space of 14 months.

I also overestimated my power to attract, commit and mobilise people.

I assumed that my powers of persuasion could out-argue the traditional deep-seated loyalty to the ANC as a party of liberation.

The ANC brand was much stronger than I thought.

The inextricable link the ANC leadership had created between the party and heroic leaders such as Mandela, Tambo and Walter Sisulu trumped any attack on the weaknesses of the current leadership.

What people voted for were the heroic leaders of yesteryear, regardless of the poor performance of those in government today.

The strong resistance from the ANC to any other party attempting to co-own the Mandela brand was not surprising.

They feared this would weaken the link to the ANC.

Many of my friends and colleagues approved of what I stood for, but they were not ready to convert that into support for AgangSA.

I did not understand the deep psychic attachment to a political party, or the difficulties of changing attitudes that have been shaped by decades of solidarity and family networks tied to party loyalties.

I was clearly a novice blinded by idealism to the realities of the strong ties voters have to their traditional parties.

I also had to come to terms with the hard reality that fear remained a determinant of our politics.

Many citizens complained about bad governance, corruption eating away at the soul of the nation from the highest office in the land to the local level, without necessarily being willing to challenge the system.

The ANC had successfully captured the state to make those opposing them feel the “cold outside”, as its secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, reminded anyone who left or was asked to leave the ANC’s fold.

Citizens lived in fear of being excluded from the means of livelihoods and social networks.

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