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

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era