New alliance in South Africa could shake nation's politics

Mamphela Ramphele, former companion of Steve Biko, is the first serious face of opposition against a liberation party that has ruled since 1994. National elections will be held this year.

By , Correspondent

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    Anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele listens to questions at a news conference in Cape Town, South Africa, Jan. 28, 2014.
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Mamphela Ramphele, a popular face in South Africa whom Nelson Mandela once called his “daughter,” has allied her party with the largest opposition party here in a move expected to energize upcoming elections – and to pose the first real challenge to President Jacob Zuma and the dominant African National Congress (ANC).

Dr. Ramphele, a physician and former World Bank director, is also a former companion of liberation icon Steve Biko, with whom she cofounded the Black Consciousness Movement. She formed the party Agang last summer to be a “catalytic voice in Parliament” and a clean-hands party that could form an ANC-busting coalition. Today, Ramphele joined with a former “white” party, the Democratic Alliance, in what the new coalition calls a “game changer.”

Since 1994 and the advent of full democratic rights, the ANC, the liberation party of Mr. Mandela, has been routinely reelected to head the South African government, even though it is now considered riddled with patronage and corruption. The coalition announced today, however, may offer a new kind of politics attractive to the nation’s mainstream, analysts say, fusing two powerful symbols of white and black in what is now a “post-Mandela” South Africa. 

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The Democratic Alliance has a multicultural identity after shedding its brief flirtation with hard-line Afrikaner views. It is led by another powerful female figure here, Helen Zille, who stressed today that coming elections will be the “most contested of our democratic dispensation.”

The two women have been close since Ms. Zille, then a reporter, exposed the killing of Mr. Biko by police torture in 1977.

Zille today described Ms. Ramphele as a “principled, fiercely determined person who loves her country deeply and devotes her life to the cause of making democracy work.”

Ramphele told reporters in Cape Town this morning that Mandela's death in December has brought a reappraisal among ANC supporters, who make up two-thirds of the electorate.

“It has caused us to reflect on our journey over the last 20 years, on the progress we have made, and on the opportunities utilized and lost,” said Ramphele, who last summer founded a small party, Agang (the name in Sotho means “build”), with the support of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Mr. Zuma, the current president, was widely booed at Mandela's rainy Soweto memorial service in December; there is evidence that he used nearly $20 million in public funds for "security upgrades" on his private home that included a swimming pool and movie theater.

Struggle credentials

Indeed, the ANC and Zuma have seldom faced an independent politician with as many “struggle credentials” against apartheid as Ramphele – though until today her six-month-old party was widely brushed off as having too little structure, experience, and clout.

During the years of apartheid, Ramphele lost not just her home by being forced into exile, but also her companion and the father of her children, Biko.

Biko was arrested in 1977, and beaten to death in police custody. His death made his already well-known name famous around the world. Singer Peter Gabriel produced his anthem "Biko," and Denzel Washington, the Hollywood actor, played him in the film "Cry Freedom."

Today Ramphele, who is 66, is known as a respected doctor, academic, and civil rights activist. 

After visiting Mandela in prison, she became such a close friend that he referred to her as his "daughter." He tried to persuade her to enter politics over the years but to no avail. 

Despite that, she has never stopped speaking what she calls truth to power, and said in a recent interview that her voice is needed more than ever.

“The ground has shifted since Mandela’s death. His death marked a departure from the public respect for the ANC, which was in a sense a respect for Mandela’s organization.”

She called the booing of Zuma at Mandela’s funeral “a signal that people are now distinguishing between the ANC of Mandela and [former ANC leader Oliver] Tambo, and Zuma’s ANC…. They don’t believe they are the same. They believe that Zuma is betraying Mandela’s legacy.”

As she formed Agang, her party, she identified a widening wealth gap and the failure of the ANC to improve the lives of many citizens, even as members of its upper echelon have grown rich on the fruits of office.

“We are a party for the poor and marginalized, for young people, for women, for all those who are desperate to see a functional government,” she says.

In 2008, the ANC won 65 percent of the nation’s vote, while the Democratic Alliance scored 16 percent. But with anger growing in South Africa, Ramphele feels the landscape has changed.

“We believe the window is open much wider,” she said.  “We believe Agang, with our zero baggage from the past, our credibility, and our history as freedom fighters, can claim to be a party for all South Africans."

In coming days, a new joint coalition party platform is likely to appear. But in the interview earlier this month, Ramphele said her central promise is to cut corruption by stopping public officials and their families from doing business with government – something so prevalent now – and by punishing those who engage in graft with a minimum of 15 years in prison.

More education, less corruption

She wants to turn around the struggling education system, judged by the recent World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report as among the worst in the world despite being allocated a generous chunk of South African funding.

Ramphele said the system is blighted by “incompetent teachers” who allow children to pass exams with as few as 30 percent of the right answers, and is presided over by a government minister who allowed millions of children to attend schools without desks, chairs, or textbooks.

Her prescription is teacher training and to take up offers of help by the private sector. “The behavior of the ANC with regard to education will go down in history as a real violation of the rights of poor South African children,” she said. “The system they have created is not redeemable except by having a complete change of leadership from the minister down.”

She called Zuma “Mr. Corruption” and said his promises to tackle corruption and create more jobs are “joke.”

“To talk about being tough on corruption and for that voice to come from Mr. Corruption, it just doesn’t make sense,”  she said.

“As the leader of Agang, I am an advocate for accountability and transparency in public office because I believe in these values. You must model what you preach to be credible.”

Ramphele doesn’t believe it is inevitable that South Africans will continue to vote for the ANC simply because it was the party that delivered the nation from apartheid.

“We have to hit the ANC when they are weakest,” she says. “If they win 2014 comfortably, they will really batten down the hatches.

“My advice to my fellow citizens is we have got to go for broke now and have got to put the pressure on them. The surveys say they are below 55 percent. Our own research says 53 percent.

“The ANC could lose power this election if South Africans believe in themselves and have the confidence to be bold. Where else in the world have you seen a democratic country reelecting a government that’s failed in all the indicators?”

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