Mamphela Ramphele: ‘‘Mandela said: never accept anyone telling you one sole organisation is the author of this freedom’’

The politician and anti-apartheid activist talks to Nana Yaa Mensah.

Mamphela Ramphele. Photo: Getty
You’ve had a hugely varied career. Which bits have given you most political insight?
Each part brought a different strand to what’s needed. Leadership is not about technical knowledge. It’s about understanding your environment, the human condition – understanding what is possible and what is not, and learning to make decisions. Now, I’m at the age where I’ve got nothing to prove to anybody, so I can take the risks that younger people find difficult to take. Because I think the country of our dreams is still possible.
 
What barriers does South Africa have to cross?
The most important barrier is self-imposed. We fought a struggle which was mass-based. Instead of us building on that, we handed over our agency, saying: “We were liberated by the ANC.” Hello? Mr Mandela said please, never accept anybody telling you that one sole organisation is the author of this freedom: it was fought for by all of South Africa’s people. Did anybody listen? No, because even the most retrogressive people saw it as a way of making up for the sins of the past. That opened the door for the kind of passive citizen that has replaced those brave people.
 
So I founded Agang. We have launched not as a party, but as a platform. That has enabled us to go from village to township to corporate office and say: “South Africa, you fought for it. We are betraying the promise of this freedom. Let’s get together to shape a vehicle that will extricate us from this.”
 
You intend to stand in the 2014 elections?
Absolutely.
 
Why did you choose Pretoria for your launch?
It’s symbolic. [Laughs] We’re marching to Pretoria for the second time, for the second liberation of South Africa.
 
There’s a groundswell of dissent against the ANC. But other than opposition to the status quo what does Agang stand for?
Agang does not stand for opposition to the status quo. It stands for restoring the promise of freedom. We laid the foundations for a democracy where the citizen was meant to govern. But we have an electoral system that has created distance between the voter and the public representative. So we’ve launched a petition to reform the electoral system.
 
What do you see as the opportunities for South Africa in Africa in the next 20 years?
When I was vice-chancellor [at Cape Town], we attracted lots of Africans in the diaspora, because we knew it was going to take too long to attract and to train and prepare black South Africans. That process worked. South Africa has to have a migration policy aligned to our interests and our human rights principles. If we do that, we’ll go back to being the country people used to admire. And it will be an example not just outside, but inside.
 
I believe that we need to take a leaf out of what Helmut Kohl did after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He told West Germans: “If you want to buy the peace that comes with unity you’ve got to pay for it.” In 1996, after the Truth and Reconciliation report, there was a suggestion that all South Africans earning above half a million rand should be asked to contribute to a development fund. Thabo Mbeki said: “We don’t need that.” We will need to think carefully of appealing to highnet- worth South Africans, to say: “You know what? The best insurance policy you can buy for your children is to contribute X so that for the next five years we can tackle the backlog.” 
 
Would you describe your approach to the economy as liberal, or redistributionist?
Neither of those. We’re going to use a nonideological approach. We’re going to be governed by social justice outcomes. People who today are willing to work hard to support their families can’t. Those people could be building our roads. We’ve got a massive waste-removal problem. Yet we’ve got people walking around in the streets? It’s nuts! It’s a management, a leadership problem.
 
At the recent launch in London of Zamyn’s forums on global citizenship, you seemed to say that identity politics is more important.
My argument is: you have to know who you are. Having cut my teeth in the Black Consciousness Movement, I know that the day we named ourselves – from being nonwhites to being black – that was the radical moment for me: not only black and proud, but black woman who was proud. You’ve got to have a strong sense of what you can uniquely contribute to human history in order to be an effective global citizen.
 
When you were setting out as a young woman did you have a plan?
It wasn’t a detailed plan, but the one thing I wanted to do – and what I’ve achieved – is to be my own woman.
 
Do you have any regrets?
We all make mistakes. The biggest mistake I ever made was to marry someone while I was in love with another man. [Laughs] And losing my daughter, that was very painful. [She died as an infant.] Because if we’d been living in a country with a health system that was responsive she wouldn’t be dead.
 
Are we all doomed?
There’s no possibility of us being doomed unless we choose to be doomed. We have huge potential in knowledge that wasn’t there even 50 years ago. So, I am very optimistic. And I think that Africa will at some stage get its act together and give the world a human face.