Where is Mamphela Ramphele?

2013-10-02 23:14

A couple of weeks ago, the Democratic Alliance (DA) launched a cheeky social media blitz asking a similar question. Where is Parks Tau was the question asked after a Johannesburg Mayor who was sometimes seen, rarely heard and probably altogether unknown. It even had a clever picture modelled on the 'wanted' posters epitomized in B-grade American Western films. While it may not suit the DA's agenda to ask a similar question of Dr Mamphela Ramphele, the academic-turned-politician, it needs to be asked all the same. Where is Mamphela Ramphele?

Now before her supporters seek to drown me out in shouts of protestation to the contrary, let me say this: Agang, and Ramphele's entrance onto the political stage, was heralded as a watershed moment for our body politic. Her supporters, and otherwise 'objective' observers, all seemed to proclaim in unison that change was a-coming and she would be its protagonist.

But the truth is this: neither the change we were promised or the trail-blazing role she was supposed to have in it has been delivered.

Her supporters will be quick to defend her, as is their right and their role. But any arguments about the political establishment, the difficulty of gaining traction, or any other objection they may raise, are not real defences for her, and her party's, less than lacklustre performance, it is a condemnation of their collective efforts, and its failure.

The truth is simple: Ramphele made a gross miscalculation of the political climate which presently exists. Perhaps she thought that, like COPE, with her struggle credentials, her race and her gender making her a media and elite darling, her ascendancy would be smooth sailing. Ironically, in defiance of the facts, she is still considered in some leafy suburbs as being a real political force. Her, and Agang's, being eclipsed by the EFF should make those people think otherwise. No matter the star quality of the leader, if you are inclined to be so generous in the case of Ramphele, in order to gain true traction, the party needs a machine and a platform. The credibility of the former does not equate to the latter. COPE was a brilliant example of how stars burn bright and then fade into nothingness. The UDM and the ID were good examples before that.

Ramphele has neither the resources, the manpower, the institutional capacity nor the policy uniqueness that gives her the ability to carve out a niche in the political market. The support she will be likely to attract are  disaffected 'liberal' ANC voters, some people who never voted before, a few voters from other opposition parties (but not enough to be considered a real threat) and not much else. Of course, all this punditry may be proven wrong. But if South African politics is anything to go by, it is that these upstart parties come and, eventually, go.

My irritation with Ramphele is definitely partisan. At worst she is a side-show distraction, at best she will split the opposition vote and possibly allow a weakened ANC to capitalise on an opposition turf war. However, my sense of irritation is somewhat muted when I think of the damage that she has done to her legacy. The attractiveness of political insight, blistering as it is, was the fact that she was removed from the political game. That she stood to gain no direct benefit gave her the moral authority she no longer lacks. For all her good work in civil society means nothing when she is viewed as a political leader. Now she can be looked at as just another politico trying to climb the greasy pole. That she has no track-record, in this arena, nor anything which distinguishes her as the hope her supporters present her as, is not only politically damaging, it is ruinous to a legacy that prior to her entry into politics, was second to none.

The 2014 elections are but a few months away and Agang is nowhere. They may occasionally grab a headline or two, like when some EFF Members crossed to their ranks (firstly, that's not voter attraction, that's political horse-trading which isn't necessarily reflective of wider trends; secondly, does she really want that kind of attention, that she, the beneficiary of wondrous capitalism is supported by a bunch of personality worshipping pseudo-revolutionaries). But it is not enough. Sure, they may be writing letters and holding meetings and doing other things that may make them feel good, but is it having any impact? One is hardly left with the impression that that is the case. In the run up to the election, there is bound to be a hive of activity. But I think you'd be right in thinking it a case of being everywhere and going nowhere.

They may win a few seats, or more than a few, but the point is that it will be too late and she, and Agang, and possibly any hope for meaningful realignment, will be finished.

Where is Mamphela Ramphele I asked at the beginning of this? Let me know when you find out I say at the end.

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