JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — To get ahead in the knotty world of South African politics, you need what are known here as “struggle credentials,” a code of honor borne from this country’s apartheid past.
Mamphela Ramphele has got them. Banished by the white minority government to a remote town for her anti-apartheid activism, she was also a founder of the Black Consciousness Movement alongside her lover Steve Biko, who was murdered in 1977 by the apartheid regime.
Ramphele, a medical doctor by training, went on to become a successful businesswoman and academic. But now at the age of 65 she is embarking on a heady new mission: taking on the African National Congress, the liberation party that has ruled since Nelson Mandela won the first democratic vote in 1994.
“This country is once more at a crossroads,” Ramphele told foreign journalists Thursday in Johannesburg, speaking about problems facing the country from police brutality to the troubled mining industry to failures in education.
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"There is no doubt that looking at where South Africa stands, nearly 20 years after that beautiful day in our history, we are a country which has not lived up to the promise of that dream."
The ANC has overwhelming support among South Africans, winning about 66 percent of the vote in the 2009 election. But there is growing frustration and disillusionment with the party, which under President Jacob Zuma has been mired in corruption scandals and is criticized for a continuing high unemployment rate and failure to deliver basic services to the poor.
Ramphele, until recently the chair of mining firm Gold Fields, and a former World Bank managing director, said her new political party, Agang (“To build,” in the Sesotho language) will officially launch June 22 in time to stand in elections next year.
“Right now citizens feel powerless because there is no connection between those in parliament and the people who put them there,” Ramphele said. “We have this lack of transparency and accountability in terms of people’s conduct.”
At the top of her agenda is the South African public education system, which she said is failing the country’s children.
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“What we have now is worse than what those kids died for in 1976,” she said, referring to the uprising of youth in Soweto township over forced Afrikaans-language instruction in black schools.
"Health care has collapsed. Women and newborns are dying in numbers I didn't think possible even during apartheid."
Ramphele and her team have undertaken a three-month “listening tour,” visiting communities around South Africa. But despite the efforts to bolster grassroots appeal, the party faces a tough road to convincing South Africans to abandon the ANC and vote for Agang.
Political analyst Susan Booysen, a professor at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, said that Ramphele comes across as a solo figure, rather than a movement — and so far the ANC isn’t worried.
“I don’t think they really see her as a threat,” Booysen said.
Rather, votes might be siphoned from the Democratic Alliance (DA), a liberal party led by Helen Zille — a Xhosa-speaking white woman and former journalist who, as it happens, as a young reporter uncovered the story of Steve Biko’s death.
The DA is the main opposition party, with a strong base in Cape Town, but is seen by some South Africans as being “too white,” despite its efforts to appeal to diverse voters.
“She could scoop up support that would go to the DA,” Booysen said.
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The ANC has described Ramphele’s political party as being “grievance driven,” and said she is “rehash[ing] the known challenges facing our country” without bringing anything new to the table.
“The initiative by Dr. Ramphela [sic] is goading South Africans to participate at the periphery of our political dispensation,” an ANC statement said.
Ramphele said that President Zuma has an adversarial attitude toward opposition parties — a legacy of liberation culture, with its mentality of “you’re either with us or against us.”
Regardless of the challenges, she believes Agang has a chance of getting enough votes “to form an alternative government” in elections next year.
"I have no doubt this country is destined for greatness. We have everything needed: minerals, natural resources, human resources," she said.
“I have no need to be doing what I'm doing other than my passion for South Africa.”