WHEN THE MAVERICK SOUTH African academic turned business woman, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, launched her political party at the end of February, she could have done so at one of Johannesburg's posh hotels befitting her stature; or, at a football stadium as is the tradition; or, better still, at one of the country's world-renowned conference centres.
But Ramphele launched the party at Women's Gaol--a tiny venue that used to be a real prison for women in apartheid South Africa. Remarkably, the venue is located within the same precinct that houses the country's Constitutional Court, a proud reminder that South Africa is one of the world's most successful constitutional democracies. It is the kind of venue that speaks eloquently to the former World Bank managing director's oft-repeated mantra: "We must unlock our country's potential, while we try not to forget where we come from."
At the launch of the parry, Ramphele, who is from the Pedi ethnic group, was resplendent in Xhosa traditional garb. The name of her party is Agang, let s build in the Setswana language.
Ramphele is all about symbols and messages of a nuanced South African consciousness. Some have found this at odds with her past: with Steve Biko, Barney Pityana and others, she was one of the founders of the Black Consciousness Movement which made an impact not only on South Africa, but on a larger part of the Southern African regions and whose rallying cry was: "Black Man You're On Your Own." In the many interactions that I have had with her, she has argued that Black Consciousness is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. We served together on the Dinokeng Scenarios four years ago--a project that was meant to imagine various scenarios for the future South Africa, from best to worst, and systematically brainstorm possible solutions and remedies for them.
The 65-year-old has consistently argued that Black Consciousness was a necessary phase in the country's march towards a completely non-racial society. She might not exactly be singing from the same hymn book as Archbishop Desrnond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, who embody the somewhat elusive Rainbow Nation concept, but she believes the time for ideologically-inspired sloganeering is now over.
"The era of left, right, this-ism or that-ism, is over," she says. "What we need are economic, social, political and foreign policies that best meet the needs of the majority of citizens ... What we need to be looking at is what are the best economic policies that produce the greatest competitiveness and sustainability?"
In a country with more than 100 registered political parties--even though the lion's share of voters are still divided between the governing ANC and the Democratic Alliance opposition--one wonders if the addition of a new party is not a complete waste of time, or a weakening of the existing opposition.
The governing ANC, which won the 1004 election with a two-thirds majority under the stewardship of Thabo Mbeki, is still a force to be reckoned with, despite numerous demonstrations by ordinary citizens against its failure to deliver essential services such as water, sanitation (some places still use long-drop toilets, or the bucket system as it's called) and jobs.
Being the oldest liberation movement on the continent, the ANC still has the moral high ground as the organisation which brought the majority of the South African populace to the plains of political liberation. In South Africa, race matters. The ANC does nor even have to raise the race issue as a campaigning ticket--the legacy of apartheid social engineering is there for all to see.
Even though the lot of black people has improved radically since 1994 when apartheid collapsed, the gap between rich and poor is still largely informed by race. For the record, the latest census results show that black people's average annual household income improved between 2001 and 2011 from R22,522 (US$2,450) to R60,613 (US$6,600), which amounts to around a 35% increase in real terms. …