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?

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage