My decision to leap was not a spur of the moment decision but more a gradual shift in my thinking. There were times when I said yes, and then times when I thought, no, you’re not ready.
Since my return from the World Bank, Helen Zille had been trying to persuade me to join the Democratic Alliance. In the middle of 2012 I started talking seriously to the DA but I was wary of simply slipping into the position of leader of the DA, a position they were offering.
At first I thought the prize was an agreement with the DA on a way of transforming politics in South Africa, an idea which Helen Zille had already spoken about.
We came very close to attaining this position but in the end I felt the DA people failed to understand the extent to which the country needed to change. A prime example was the situation with Cape Town.
For seven years the DA had been running the city yet there were still squatter camps. I could not understand why. I believed that we were capable of more than accepting the inevitability of squatter camps.
Why did we accept the adage that the poor would always be with us? Was this not admitting defeat? Was this not saying that we were trapped in a mind-set that reflected the worst of apartheid and colonialism?
My book Conversations with My Sons and Daughters had gone through five prints in its publication year, 2012, and another reprinting in 2013. This told me something. There were a number of people interested in exploring alternatives that were not offered by the current political parties.
As I met with young people I heard a refrain: we want to take up the challenge confronting us, we want to be more active and engaged but we do not have the platform. We will not vote for the ANC because of their corrupt, autocratic ways, nor will we vote for the DA because we know they do not understand the transformational challenges facing the country.
With these comments foremost in my mind I went back to the DA. I did not believe that the English-speaking white supporters of the DA understood the inequities visited on the majority in the country and the consequences of their perpetuation for the quality of our democracy.
Some, including Hlumelo [Biko, Ramphele's son], would argue that the political settlement of 1993 allowed white privilege to remain unchallenged. Hlumelo calls it the ‘Great Fraud’ that let white people escape redressing the socio-economic consequences of apartheid. I felt the DA was complacent, trapped in their inability to realise that poverty could be eradicated.
Eventually my discussions with the DA reached a point where we agreed on the principles: most importantly, that the economy needed to be restructured. We agreed we needed to work together.
The DA was an established machine but it needed to be repositioned. And repositioning meant more than rebranding the DA. This problem would not be solved by my presence as leader of that party. My presence would not obliterate the misgivings of the majority of black people.
Take Malusi [Magele, Ramphele's son] as an example. He grew up playing with Helen Zille’s children. He was always welcome in their household. He did not doubt for a moment that Helen Zille was committed to a better South Africa. yet he told me that he would rather die than vote DA.
How often would this sentiment not be repeated across the country? So what would be achieved by my joining the DA or even joining a rebranded DA? Nothing.
Clearly what was needed was a new platform. If the DA were to be part of that platform they had to agree to undertaking a complete re-alignment of South African politics. It would involve the smaller parties, but it was more than simply a matter of absorbing them.
The DA were dismissive of the smaller parties – for good reason, as many of them were dying parties – but the element they did not understand was the power of symbolism. Just because a voter was disillusioned with Cope, for example, it did not mean that this person would believe in the DA.
A new initiative
I suggested that if we were to launch a new initiative that included the DA then I should do it alone. This way the DA would be seen as part of the initiative rather than the manipulating power behind a black figurehead.
If Helen Zille and I did it in tandem people would see the new initiative as the DA in drag and that would not solve the fundamental issue of a people’s psyche that had long been wounded by white racism.
They were afraid of white racism. Polling statistics showed that 60% of black people believed that if the DA won an election they would reinstitute apartheid. The DA dismissed this as nonsense but my experience was that this was what most people believed.
Either you denied those beliefs or you created an initiative that made those beliefs irrelevant.
We moved from this position to one where I would launch Agang and woo the smaller parties until they felt comfortable in the new party. After that the DA would join and we would then announce this powerful new party.
That was the theory, but there is a wide gap between theory and practice, especially in politics. It was not to be. However, Agang went ahead and approached the other parties.
While this strategy was important we realised our biggest opportunity lay in the disenchanted and the young. As I’ve mentioned, thirteen million did not vote in the 2009 election and since then a further five million young people had reached voting age.
The disenchanted and the disillusioned were everywhere. I had talked with them in areas around Cape Town, in Kwazulu-Natal, in Gauteng, in Limpopo. Wherever we had gone, we had sought out – and found many – who had been further marginalised over the last two decades.
Perhaps one of the most telling meetings I had was with a group of women living in the bush beside a squatter settlement in KZN. They had nothing, the told me. They had no hope. They were waiting for death. But you have children, I replied. What about your children?
They told me that they had to hire a taxi to get their children to a school many kilometres away. Often they did not have the taxi fare which meant the children missed school. They said their children’s safety when travelling was in the hands of God.
This conversation haunted me. I sensed that the mood among most poor people was despairing. There were some who still had hope but they were the minority.
When I launched Agang in February 2013, I said that I saw a great future for our country. One in which we finally realised true freedom for all. Freedom from poverty, crime and corruption. A job, a home, a life of dignity. I said that I was inspired by a passion for freedom and a burning ambition to aim higher.
To expect excellence in education, in healthcare, and in policing. To restore integrity to public life and pride to public service. To restore the trust between citizens and their leaders. When I said this I was many months away from meeting those women in the bush but I was talking about them, about returning them to the life of our nation.
What was most rewarding in the months that I toured the country talking about Agang and our vision was how groups of people that we had not even thought to approach came to us. We met with leaders of the Greek community, of the Chinese community, of the Indian community where, in Chatsworth, there was so much anger and despair.
We met with groups of farmers, groups of business people who called us to meetings they had arranged. I recall one such breakfast meeting in Kloof where some seventy business people had gathered.
These were middle-class people whose children were all in local private schools. Many of those children had been brought along to the breakfast. They were traditional DA voters but they no longer believed that the DA was equal to the tasks facing the country.
At the end of the meeting they told me that this was the first time that they had been given any hope that the country could change. The term they used was a flicker of hope. I realised it was Agang’s challenge to turn that flicker into a flame.
Extracted from A Passion for Freedom by Mamphela Ramphele (Tafelberg), available this month from kalahari.com.