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.

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.
 
 
Mamphela Ramphele. Photo: Getty

Nana Yaa Mensah is chief sub-editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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