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Can Mamphela Ramphele crack South Africa’s political mould?

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

Mamphela Ramphele. Photograph: Getty Images

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?