The Ramphele Factor

2013-02-08 09:37

The new political year is still finding its feet, yet it has already seen die post-Mangaung consolidation of Zuma leadership and obliteration of anyone resembling a Motlanthe or Malema protagonist. Moreover, the general election in 2014 is already a defining element in most parties’ thinking.

One of the most discussed developments so far is Dr Mamphela Ramphele’s indication that she intends to evolve from a public intellectual and commentator to a political entrepreneur. The nature of her initiative is still unclear but it has been greeted with much interest and speculation.

Why is she considered by some as a new factor in South African politics? In the absence of any party political track-record, one has to look at other factors often raised in her favour in order to answer the question. She is often described as “independent”, suggesting that she maintains a critical distance away from the ANC. Associated with it is the fact that she has been outspoken in the media about important issues, especially social issues and the moral dilemmas of society.

For many of her supporters she developed a moral authority which arguably can make an impact on society. Yet one should note that the same expectations existed also when Rev. Mvume Dandala joined COPE but without the anticipated results.

Also in her favour is that Dr Ramphele is regarded as an experienced public figure with a national profile. Her experience in business, in the World Bank and at the University of Cape Town is used as examples of her exposure to the public sphere. It is indeed worth keeping in mind that South African political culture requires any new political movement to be led by a high-profile public figure. Most of the smaller political parties were still-born because of this factor.

Dr Ramphele’s public image is also inextricably linked to her historical association with Steve Biko. She is not currently involved in any of the Black Consciousness parties but Biko’s iconic value is important for her contestation with the ANC for the historical space of liberation. However, at the same time it is not self-evident at the moment where she stands on the ideological/political spectrum – a predicament applicable to several, including Moeletsi Mbeki and her former colleague Barney Pityana. Even former Archbishop Tutu concentrates nowadays more on general moral positions than assuming specific party political stances. The challenge for Dr Ramphele will be to translate her moral stances into political policy positions.

Some of these factors do not only count in her favour but are also held against her. Her association with the World Bank is seriously challenged by the Left and the post-coloniality intellectuals. Moreover, her lack of party political experience is arguably also a drawback in her political composition. Certainly a factor to incorporate in her current calculations about her options is the danger of too much emphasis on her as the “Leader”.

Though South African politics depend on prominent leaders they should not become a personification of their parties. Take for example the PAC’s over-dependence on Robert Sobukwe over the years. The IFP runs the same risk. Dr Ramphele’s future will accordingly depend on strong leadership alongside her. Who that will be, is still very much unclear.

Many may ask why did Dr Ramphele decided to enter into politics at this stage? What does she have in mind with her intervention? A comprehensive explanation by her is still pending and therefore the only option is to consider and analyse the current political context as a means of improvising an answer.

Only the first election in 1994 produced a sizeable distribution of political power across a number of parties, when the NNP and IFP received a total of 30% electoral support. Thereafter the ANC increased its support and the opposition started to fragment, especially in 1999 and 2004. In the last general election in 2009 a new pattern has emerged: the ANC as a single-dominant party but in steady decline, the DA as uncontested opposition party and COPE and the National Freedom Party (NFP) as newcomers with substantial support but an uncertain future. The IPF is still in decline while all the other opposition parties together received 5% support. It means therefore that some form of consolidation has emerged amongst the opposition. COPE’s hosting of a National Convention of opposition parties in November 2008 also reinforced such a notion.

Despite such a conclusion the view is still held that the ANC is essentially unchallenged, arguably because no viable alternative exists. COPE’s emergence was initially seen as such an alternative but in the meantime the leadership infighting sabotaged it. The experience of the past 18 years is that recycling of supporters and realignments of parties are taking place – but mainly amongst the opposition parties. For example, most of the NNP supporters went to the DP in 1999 and many of the COPE supporters voted for the DA in 2011. The ANC is mostly unaffected by this tendency. One therefore assumes that Dr Ramphele aligns herself with the idea that the ANC’s dominance should be addressed.

A second contextual consideration is the current tendency of two alliances emerging amongst opposition parties, one around the DA and another including COPE, UDM, IFP, AZAPO, ACDP, PAC and others. The DA have already incorporated the Independent Democrats and established coalition governments with COPE at local level in 2011. The second group met jointly a few times in 2012 to consolidate their opposition against the protection of state information bill and together with the DA also insisted on a motion of no confidence in Pres. Zuma.

The place of a Ramphele platform within a three bloc dispensation (i.e. the ANC, DA? and COPE?) is unclear. Her options are to align herself with one of the two opposition blocs, or to be a bridge-builder between the two, or to introduce her own bloc and hope that realignment within all the blocs in favour of her can occur. For the existing opposition parties it has the following two implications:

1) the Ramphele group can replace COPE as a transitional option for ANC defectors who first voted for COPE in 2009 before they joined the DA in 2011, or

2) she can attract DA supporters and some of the supporters of declining parties in the COPE? alliance, thereby weakening the DA but justified by the belief that the DA has reached a ceiling of support and does not have more potential.

A third contextual consideration deals with how to establishing a party political infrastructure and galvanising confidence and credibility in its popular support. A critical number of prominent South Africans and senior politicians have to declare publicly their support for the Ramphele initiative to make it viable at all. Few prominent, elected politicians will be willing to “defect” to her so long before the election in April 2014. In the absence of floor-crossing legislation they will forfeit their seats in the legislatures and very few will be willing to sacrifice it. Dr Ramphele’s predicament therefore is that she cannot wait much longer to announce her initiative, because otherwise there will not be enough time to prepare for the election.

Significantly, the Ramphele initiative turns the focus to an aspect of South African party politics that is not yet well understood. It is about what determines a voter’s choice in an election and what will motivate them to change their party choice? External observers and researchers conventionally apply the rational choice theory that assumes that voters are motivated by an objective assessment of parties’ policy proposals and the government’s delivery record.

Disenchantment in the form of local demonstrations or strikes is then linked to a predicted decline in government support. It is, however, clear that the theory does not apply in its conventional sense to South African voters. Arguably politics – like in most developing countries – is not seen as a form of public participation. It is rather seen as making a judgement about which party might provide the best opportunities for the individual voter. It does not suggest unethical behaviour but rather how a party can provide benefits to supporters in the form of public office opportunities, policy related opportunities like employment equity, land reform or BEE, or social status and business opportunities.

The question is: how will the Ramphele initiative compete with the ANC (and DA where it governs) in this regard?

Finally, it can be argued that voters are also influenced in their choice by the identities that parties assume. Most South African parties share more or less the same policy ideas regarding the main issues and therefore electoral choices cannot really depend on policy considerations – hence the emphasis on identities.

Given the previous point, arguably (it is not yet proven by research) most voters are averse to a purely oppositional identity, because of its lack of opportunities. The ANC maintains the identity of government and liberation movement; the DA is since 2008 the “party of government” and not anymore a critical opposition, while most of the smaller parties have regional, ethnic or religious identities. The question is therefore: how will Dr Ramphele present the identity of her initiative?

Opposition cannot be an end in itself. As a means towards an end, both the means and the end must be clearly spelt out to the electorate. Though it is unrealistic to expect that Dr Ramphele will be able to clarify everything at once, the South African public will be more cautious about newcomers after the COPE experience and will demand much more from her.

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