Political mind of steel

2013-02-24 10:00

Mamphela Ramphele won’t accept money from arms dealers or the Guptas. And, no, the Americans are not funding her new platform, Agang. Adriaan Basson and Sabelo Ndlangisa spoke to her

Her mission: to beat the ANC in next year’s national election.

Mission Impossible? Not if you are Mamphela Ramphele.

The medical doctor, academic, banker, businesswoman and activist this week officially added another title to her long list of careers: professional politician.

Agang – Setswana for “let’s build” – was officially launched on Monday after months of speculation that Ramphele would formally enter politics.

She couldn’t make a deal with the DA and decided to go it alone – for the time being at least.

Others are now free to join her platform, an unofficial invitation to other parties, non-profit organisations and community groups to fight the ANC under the Agang umbrella in next year’s election.

“It is exciting because it feels like there is a lot of momentum developing behind this,” says Ramphele, stylish as always, coffee and fruit sticks in reaching distance.

We interview her the morning after she made her big announcement at the Women’s Gaol on Constitution Hill.

“People are very relieved to have something coming on to the scene. And for me, it is an opportunity to really get the country to engage in a turnaround strategy, away from the disaster … We are on a path to disaster right now and we need a turnaround strategy.”

What did she think would be different 20 years after democracy?

“Most of us knew that it wouldn’t be plain sailing. There were things that would go wrong and there were things that would go right, but I didn’t imagine things would go so wrong, as they are right now!

“I didn’t imagine we would be in 2013, where the government itself says 80% of schools are dysfunctional. I didn’t think we would be in a space where the whole of the Eastern Cape health system is on the brink of collapse, if not collapsed. I didn’t imagine that we would have so much corruption and nepotism.”

She says the struggle was not about “replacing the old elite with a new elite”.

And it is in “poor taste” to say she cannot criticise corruption because it has always been there.

“We signed up for a transparent, clean, accountable government. We signed up for a system that will enable the people to govern. We signed for a system that will respect the rights of people. The apartheid government didn’t pretend to be interested in the human rights of every South African.”

Ramphele laughs off ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe’s concerns that Agang was a US-funded attempt to undermine the governing party.

“I wish Mr Mantashe would engage with issues we are putting on the table rather than use unfounded allegations to discredit what we are doing.”

The story started when Ramphele attended a function hosted by Maggie Marshall, the former chief justice of Massachusetts, and attended by other South Africans.

So is she funded by the Yanks?

“There is no American funding,” Ramphele says, irritated. Her view is that the public purse must fund political parties “provided they have demonstrated support”.

Party funding and reforming the electoral system to become far more constituency based is the “first order of business” after the 2014 elections.

Ramphele thinks big. She wants to win.

Are there any funders whose cash she won’t take?

“Obviously, we are not going to accept money that was accumulated corruptly, or from drugs or from arms deals … You can’t do that if you are funded by people who have dubious business deals. Before you know it, you are blackmailed.”

And would she take donations from the Gupta family?

“I think that’s an insult to even consider it. I wouldn’t. Why would I? Who are they? Why are they here in the manner that they have suddenly occupied the centre of South Africa? There are enough South Africans of goodwill here who will support something that is good. Why should I think about people whose backgrounds I know nothing about?”

In Bochum, Limpopo, where Ramphele comes from, 90% of the vote goes to the ANC. How will she turn this around, particularly in poor, rural areas with entrenched ANC support?

“These figures show you the lack of choices people have. What they know is the ANC. They don’t know what the others stand for … People are fed up with being used as voting fodder.”

Ramphele’s brother lives in Bochum.

“My sister who is in Johannesburg has to get drugs for him. He’s a diabetic, he’s got high blood pressure. He can’t get treatment in that area. Now do you think rational people being given an alternative will continue to vote for a party that treats them like that? No.”

But isn’t the emotional and sentimental bond with the ANC unbreakably strong?

“The interesting thing is that I grew up in that area. Nobody talked about the ANC during the time we grew up. So the emotional bond was only generated in the 1990s going towards the first elections. It isn’t as if people are addicted, or have some kind of disease called loyalty to X or Y.

“They are like any normal people in any democracy. They might like this party, but if this party does not deliver on the promises that it made, normal people who are empowered, who are educated in terms of democracy, will vote for an alternative.”

Agang’s main target will be young people, women and rural areas.

She points out that between seven and 10 million eligible voters didn’t vote in the 2009 election.

That’s why she believes Agang will not only target existing opposition voters.

“We have the advantage of social media that enables one to reach across … But I am not shy of travelling to rural areas. I go there regularly and I will be going back there because I feel very rejuvenated by smelling the fresh air of the rural areas.”

The real Ramphele

Would you change the affirmative action and BEE policies?

Yes, we need to now deal with the fundamental restructuring of the economy.

We need to look at why our economic system is excluding people.

Or what is it that makes it less competitive.

What can we do to make it more production focused, rather than consumption focused … In that kind of environment, you will be creating more benefits than the narrow affirmative action and BEE, which are trapping us in the same racial categories that we wanted to put behind us.

Do you own companies that have government contracts?

I don’t. My son’s business, which is where I have been involved, has equity deals in Mediclinic.

I’m no longer on the board of Mediclinic.

We are selling out of Edu-Loan. Those are the two main ones for my son’s company.

I am resigning from all of the other companies that I was involved in, either as a director or whatever, because I don’t want to end up with conflicts of interest.

What’s your take on homophobic violence and the rights of gay people in our society?

That we have homophobia today is a disgrace.

We have a formal system that protects everybody to be able to express themselves.

But again we haven’t educated people to understand that being orientated sexually in a particular way is not a crime, is not a disease; it’s not something you can cure. It is how God created us.

Who designs your dresses?

(Laughs). They come from different places.

The dress I had yesterday (at the launch), I bought from the Steve Biko centre in King William’s Town.

It’s a ceremonial Xhosa outfit. So I buy from that area when I’m there.

When I go to my home in Limpopo, I buy baPedi outfits.

This one I bought in Cape Town. I don’t spend too much money on clothes because I believe in elegant simplicity.

What do you and your girlfriends do for fun?

Eat wonderfully and drink stunning wine, go for walks on the promenade, or when I have time, walk on the mountain.

How many hours do you sleep per night?

I have a body that requires eight hours. And God knows where I will find that.

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