Goodbye Mamphela. And Good Riddance

2014-05-25 16:40

It is with no small amount of joy that I learnt of Mamphela Ramphele’s self-induced sabbatical from politics. She was, and is, one of the most self-important politicians that has graced our political stage. No doubt there will be more to come – and indeed, some came close to challenging her for that title – but Ramphele’s case bears particular lessons worth reflecting on. That she exited as quickly and as humiliatingly as she did, in such stark contrast to the fanfare of her arrival, offers us a moment to pause and reflect on some political realities we must all face.

Ramphele herself is mostly to blame for this debacle. Her entry into politics was as misdirected as the party she came to lead. Notwithstanding the ‘advice’ and ‘support’ that she was receiving behind the scenes, Ramphele’s fatal mistake seems to have believed all the hype that existed about herself. While one cannot fault the good doctor’s academic and struggle credentials, although some like RW Johnson have, that she thought she could smoothly transition into politics and, in her mind, the Presidency is instructive. It either indicates that her sense of self-confidence is so attenuated that she can overlook obvious pitfalls to her plans and believes that her star-power can carry her through; or, it shows that she is so naïve that she believed entering politics would be as easy she pretended it was. In either respect, it indicates the kind of poor leadership she would have offered. And Agang’s meltdown is proof of that.

Even in defeat, her sense of hubris prevents her from taking any accountability whatsoever for the decimation of her political party. Considering that it was treated in some quarters as the second coming but all it managed was narrowly avoiding coming second last, it is incredible that she has yet to offer Agang and South Africa any personal apology for what has happened. Take these quotations for example:

‘‘… the people of South Africa spoke loudly and clearly, and showed a preference for the status quo.’’

The truth is that while the ANC did achieve a majority – and thus showed a preference for the status quo – its majority declined. The DA and EFF together grew by over 12%. What Ramphele should say here – but fails to, given the reflection it is on her – is that voters preferred other parties to hers.

‘‘For an idealist like me, the national choice is disappointing, but I have to accept and respect it.’’

What a relief. The good doctor is going to accept and respect something she find disappointing. I suppose that means we should do the same. After all, she does speak on behalf of 0.28% of voting South Africans.

‘‘I have always said that I was the bridge and would make sure that the reins are handed over at an appropriate time to a new generation of leaders.’’

This needs no explanation at all. The arrogant self-image of the benevolent leader who (a) deserves to have leadership thrust upon her because of her self-proclaimed munificence; and (b) has the capacity to both identify future leaders and relinquish power to them is nothing short of hilarious puffery. (And if the dispute over seats in Agang is anything to go by, the good doctor’s self-diagnosis is also terribly mistaken)

‘‘In the next short while I will take time to reflect on the Agang SA journey and will then return to contribute to building Agang SA and a winning South Africa together with all of you. This is where I believe I can make the most valuable contribution to the party and my beloved country. I will remain available to provide counsel and advice to the Parliamentary team and help them enrich the national debate. Let us continue to build the party for 2016.’’

That one is undoubtedly my favourite. Not only does it perfectly encapsulate Ramphele’s naivety, it also demonstrates how weak she actually is. Being decisively rejected by the voters, rather than going to ground and reflecting on why that is the case, and looking at how to better Agang’s future, she effectively taps out to take ‘personal’ leave. No doubt she will have several conversations with herself as to why the image of who she was and who she actually is resulted in her being rejected. Who knows, we may even get another book as a result of this.

Had the DP under Tony Leon in 1994 done the same, the DA under Helen Zille would have not grown by 6% twenty years later. Politics is about the short- and the long-term. Ramphele expected an easy ride and didn’t get it. That her immediate reaction is to retreat into her comfortable personal world – away from the scrutiny she was unused to being subjected to in public and no doubt in a private world where she is exalted beyond measure – shows how she cannot succeed at either. That she presumes that anyone will want her advice in the future – considering how poorly she did in this election – shows how wonderfully imperious she actually is. All of which is without merit.

But that quotation reveals even more than Ramphele probably hoped for. Not only is she incapable of taking personal responsibility for what has gone wrong, she also has the incapacity to resign. Considering how often she has called upon Jacob Zuma, Pansy Tlakula and others to stop, what she calls, ‘the culture of impunity’ – namely the tendency for South Africans in positions of leadership to not take accountability for their actions – it is deeply ironic that she cannot do the same. Admittedly, her calls for their resignation related to maladministration and alleged financial impropriety. But it is clear that she was asking those in positions of leadership to do was to be brave and honest enough to take responsibility for when things went wrong on their watch. Her refusal to do the same – and her disturbing intention to continue as a sort of back-seat driver in Agang’s future – is saddening to say the least.

In fairness, Ramphele is not solely to blame. In desperation for real leadership, especially since the ascendancy of Zuma, South Africans have a tendency to turn to anyone who makes the right kind of noises. The story of Mosiuoa Lekota and COPE – and possibly Julius Malema and the EFF – prove as much. But, others in positions of political leadership and influence, like DA Leader Helen Zille and political commentators Richard Calland, are also to blame. In as much as both have recanted on their Mamphela-mania, they were proponents of it early on. In part, it is arguable that their obsession with her – and that of the white middle class generally – is that South Africans have allowed themselves to be hijacked by race reductionism. The predominant narrative is that South Africa can only have a black leader and of the present crop of black leaders available – of which there are many – she was the best bet.

As I have written elsewhere, that kind of thinking is as dangerous as it is erroneous. Not only does it open up the DA, and others, to charges of ‘renting’ a black, it also simplifies complex issues of leadership into a crude race game. In that kind of environment – where race more than qualification – seems to matter, it is only too likely that leadership problems will arise.

I once accused Ramphele of being a fool in her own words. Little did I know how she would prove me right time and time again. South Africa needs real leadership for the difficult times that we face. Our leaders must show a commitment to principle and have the mettle to see it through. Sadly, for Ramphele, not only has she damaged the legacy she stood to bequeath South Africa prior to her entry into politics, she has also confirmed the worst stereotypes of politicians: they are self-serving, self-interested , power-hungry manipulators that say one thing and do another. The good doctor has bowed out into a form of early retirement. For her sake, Agang’s, and South Africa’s, it’s best if she stays there. Goodbye good doctor. And good riddance.

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