Can Mamphela Ramphele crack South Africa’s political mould?

Coming in from the political cold will be no easy task.

Today, Mamphela Ramphele will launch a new political party – Agang SA. The launch, to be held at the Pretoria showground – now renamed the ‘Tshwane Events Centre’ - promises to be a glittering event. It will feature some of South Africa’s top musicians including Mi Casa, G Force and the Soweto String Quartet.

Dr Ramphele (she holds a medical degree) issued a press release promising: “This is a momentous week for Agang SA as we prepare for the launch of our party on Saturday. Agang offers the prospect of restoring the promise of freedom and a hope for the future that is striking a chord with people across the country.”

But this is the middle of the South African winter; appropriately enough the supporters of the new party have been asked to bring blankets. Perhaps it is a warning Dr Ramphele should take to heart herself; coming in from the political cold will be no easy task.

Agang (the word means ‘build’ in Sotho) will join a very long list of registered political parties. South Africa may have been a true democracy for just 20 years, but it has spawned a vast number of parties; 137 nationally and even more if local parties are included.

Many are tiny, with the African National Congress of President Jacob Zuma towering over them all. In the last election in 2009 the ANC won 65.9% of the vote and took 264 of the 400 seats in parliament.

So what hope for Dr Ramphele?

On the plus side, she had a long history of fighting apartheid. Some portray her as no more than a partner of the legendary Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko, but her activism was much more than that. She led the movement’s community development programmes. The apartheid government banished her to a small town between 1977 to 1984. When apartheid ended Dr Ramphele took a success of key jobs, including Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town. She later became one of four Managing Directors of the World Bank. So Dr Ramphele enters politics with credibility and experience.

All of which makes it a little difficult to understand why she is regarded with such scepticism by much of the South African media and the wider chattering classes. Her critics point to a number of weaknesses in her position.

In a searing attack on her, the commentator R W Johnson suggested that Dr Ramphele is something of a dilettante, flitting between jobs. More damagingly, he quoted several of her former colleagues as accusing her of having a dictatorial managerial style and poor judgement. “Bank insiders said that ‘within weeks’ it was clear that the Bank's President, James Wolfensohn, had made a mistake - and that he knew it. The problem was that Ramphele was too senior in the Bank ‘for anyone to cover for her’.” Johnson suggests that the World Bank was only too pleased to see the back of her, when her term was up.

Returning to South Africa from Washington, Dr Ramphele took a series of high-paid directorships and began to consider moving back into politics. Lengthy talks with Helen Zille, leader of the official opposition and her old friend from the University of Cape Town, finally collapsed in 2012. Her talks with the Democratic Alliance had made progress and Zille had even offered to stand down as party leader in favour of Dr Ramphele. But at this point Ramphele upped the ante. She insisted that the DA should be ‘dissolved’ and a new party formed. This was impossible for Zille to accept, since it would have meant all the DA’s elected representatives would have lost their seats.

Speaking in London this week, Helen Zille insisted the two women were still on good terms, but that further talks on any re-alignment of South African politics would have to wait until after the next election, due in the middle of next year.

The ANC is watching the launch of Agang with some nervousness. The new party is likely to erode its hitherto impregnable electoral position. So too could the launch of a new party by the former leader of the ANC youth league, Julius Malema. It is rumoured that Dr Ramphele has raised as much as $20 million from American backers and the ANC had already used this against her. Gwede Mantashe, ANC Secretary General, not too subtly questioned Dr Ramphele’s patriotism: “We are hoping against hope that it is not an American initiative aimed at destabilising our country. Our worry is that when this initiative was announced, the foundation was in the US. We are very much alive to concerns by Western powers that liberation movements in Africa are too powerful.”

Damaging as these jibes may be, they do not go to the heart of Agang’s potential weakness – which is Dr Ramphele herself. Despite her obvious qualities, even her supporters wonder whether she really has the stamina for the long, tortuous road ahead.  She admits this will be a novel experience. “I'm not a street fighter,” Dr Ramphele said recently. “I've always played by the rules. I'm still going to play by the rules.”

These are admirable sentiments, but South African politics can be crude, dirty and – at times – violent. Will Dr Ramphele really have the stomach for the fight?

Mamphela Ramphele. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser