Mamphela Ramphele: A Fool In Her Own Words?

2013-11-20 12:41

Zoe Williams, the Guardian journalist, once wrote to ‘‘not to choke on his rhetoric is, de facto, to swallow it.’’ She was, in that case, writing of the conflict people face when they encounter, what can only be described as, bullshit. The challenge is, then, does one respond to and refute such nonsense or does one allow it to exist unchallenged. Williams emphatically argued in the affirmative and I agree. If one does not, then no matter how outlandish, inaccurate or fallacious the argument may be, the lack of criticism and silence of opposition veils it, falsely, with credibility. At worst, if left unscrutinised, it can go on to start forming the genesis of misconceived ‘truths.’

It is in that vein that Mamphela Ramphele’s new book, A Passion for Freedom, or extracts of it, must be received and engaged with. No matter how irrelevant or out-of-touch she has proven to be, this book must receive a critical reading both to test its veracity and to ensure that those she reflects on have the right of reply: too often when political memoires are written, they afford society generally the benefit of neither.

There can be no doubt that this book, like any of the others she has written, will be interesting, to some. That this book will, in all likelihood, be consumed, only, by the middle-class and political ‘elite’ of the country shows, however, that she, and Agang, is even more far-removed from the South Africa she writes so passionately about.

And this diagnosis isn’t even my own. Ranjeni Munsamy, writing earlier this year for the DailyMaverick, quoted the party’s Head of Communications to this effect: “The media does not find our events terribly exciting. In order to get attention, we must be like Julius and say ridiculous things to get in the papers. We are not that kind of party.”

Whether the media find Agang boring, or not, is something I cannot answer. But even if Thabo Leshilo is correct on that score, his accusation that Agang is ignored because it does not say ‘‘ridiculous things like Julius (Malema)’’ begs serious interrogation. After all, at its launch, it was heralded by certain sections of the commentariat as being the greatest threat to the ANC and, importantly, the DA too. (We’ll ignore, of course, the disasters that were COPE, the ID and the UDM before that)

Why then, with all this sympathy, are Ramphele and Agang so irrelevant?

The news24 extract of Ramphele’s book is instructive. It shows, in her own words, that her political project was motivated, in turn, by an interwoven web of naivety, vainglory and, perhaps surprisingly, a naked opportunism which, despite the eloquence in which it is cloaked, is rankly evident from the way superficial way in which she engages with the DA and issues of its racial history.

Consider the fact that she says one of her previous books, Conversations with My Sons and Daughters, had undergone six reprints since it was originally published. This, she suggests, was indicative of the implicit agreement with her thesis and the wider support of the need for a new politics in South Africa. That a serious person of her stature can actually argue the success of her book motivated her to start Agang is breathtaking.

It assumes that sales numbers necessarily imply agreement. Or, alternatively, that her (limited) sales numbers represent a wider trend. Either Ramphele is not being completely honest or she is attempting to justify her launch of Agang by any means necessary. In any respect, a critical look at this claim proves how shallow it is: books can be consumed, even in large numbers, but consumption alone does not prove consent. This is especially the case when the book is thought of, specifically, as a political treatise. Indeed, that is one of the joys of publishing: your sales numbers go up irrespective of whether the reader agrees with you. Further still, the gall with which this claim is made is even more apparent when one considers that books, by-and large, are a luxury in South Africa and their consumption is limited to the socio-economic minority in South Africa that can afford them (blame high publishing costs).

The claim, by any measure, is still worrisome. It shows that she misinterpreted the data (i.e. made a gross miscalculation that middle class consumption illustrated a wider trend) or she ignored it. In either scenario, it does not bode well for political leadership.

Even if one is generous to Ramphele and treats the vainglorious self-appraisal as a throwaway, the other claims she makes, upon examination, also do not mark her out as a political leader of substance or acumen.

Ramphele claims that ‘‘the DA people failed to understand the need to change.’’ She argues, without evidence, or logic, that despite the party’s ability to work well as a political machine, it somehow fails to connect and resonate with ordinary black South Africans. Some of her accusations even seems to suggest that the party was resistant to change.

How wrong she has proven to be! In the last few days, the DA has been openly and brutally battling for its ‘liberal’ soul. Various factions of the party, and many outside of it, have watched, and contributed to, the ferocious debate on redress and what the party will do, practically, to support it. Whereas the DA has come out in support of broad-based access and opportunity creation, the great irony is that Ramphele and her ilk have staked their political ground rebuking it. Cronyism, and a narrow politically-connected elite benefitting financially from empowerment deals, is one of the root causes of all that is wrong with South Africa. That Ramphele herself has benefitted from it and, given her politics, is unlikely to do so anymore, it is curious that she should now argue for its abolition. The farcical nature of her position is made even more patent now that she is arguing for its abolition, along with the very elements of the DA that she identifies as being an opponent to transformation. It is laughable that the term her son Hlumelo supposedly coined, a ‘great fraud,’ could apply to her. Agang continues to remain silent.

But, more worryingly, Ramphele’s seeming acceptance of her son Malusi’s opinion that ‘‘(he) would rather die than vote for the DA’’ shows the true betrayal of her non-racial credentials. Rather than accept the DA leadership and have the ability to truly transform a party she has characterised as being white and out of touch, and in so doing the narrative of South Africa’s political discourse, she chose to start Agang. And why? Not because transformation is impossible (the rise of Lindiwe Mazibuko, Mmusi Maimane, Mbali Ntuli and others illustrates internal and external organic change for the DA). But because it is easier. Rather than face the difficult tasks that would have come with real challenged, Ramphele essentially bunked.

And therein lies the final condemnation of Agang. It is not, necessarily, because Mr Malema and the EFF are more ridiculous than she and Agang are. It is not because their faux-communism is more attractive to a generally capital-representative media. It is because the thinking, or lack thereof, behind the creation of Agang translates into nothing but platitudes, soundbites and inaction. The EFF, which started a little after Agang did, came out with their guns blazing. They have policies, structures and a coherent message. Agang and its leader, on the other hand, have ill-thought-through, nebulous and overwhelmingly vague ideas on what is wrong with South Africa and how we should fix it. No matter how contradictory, incoherent, far-fetched or ill-willed the Gucci Communists in the EFF may be, at least, by their own standard, they have an agenda and they are coherent on it. If that is the lowest standard to which political parties must be held accountable and the EFF passes but Agang fails, it is an abomination that Ramphele should dare to contest next year’s elections.

Ultimately, if this extract is representative of the rest of the book, the more one reads the more one should ask: has Ramphele inadvertently let on that she was foolish in this middle-class miasma? The answer, for me at least, must undoubtedly be yes. I am sure that many in the DA, including those who thought of her leading it would be a good idea, are now breathing a sigh of relief. I certainly am.

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