Interview: South Africa's 'candidate of conscience' speaks on eve of elections

Mamphela Ramphele talks with the Monitor about a freedom struggle interrupted, distortions of history by the African National Congress, the upstart candidacy of Julius Malema, and why an authentic 'revolution of the spirit' is needed.

Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty Images
Mamphela Ramphele spoke last June at the launch of the opposition party Agang ('let's build') in Pretoria, South Africa. The well-known anti-apartheid activist is now running for president.

For 20 years, South Africa has been ruled by the ANC, Nelson Mandela's party of liberation. Yet ahead of a May 7 election, the ANC is awash in scandals and corruption charges. It is expected to win, but the public is disillusioned. The Monitor spoke with Mamphela Ramphele, a former protegee of Nelson Mandela and a presidential candidate with revolutionary credentials.

 In the 1970s, Ms. Ramphele helped found the "black consciousness" movement with her boyfriend, Steve Biko, a black activist-intellectual and popular leader. He was killed in police custody while Ms. Ramphele was pregnant with their son. She went on to be a scholar, doctor, World Bank managing director, and entrepreneur.

Now, she says, the freedom struggle is in such trouble that she is running for the top job, having founded the Agang ("to build") party. 


Question: Apartheid is defeated. But you say the spirit that helped bring liberation is being reversed and undermined.

Answer: In the 1970s, we were a people of dignity and worth, fighting the incredible edifice of apartheid. It was a just struggle, and we undertook it without regard for personal interest. We faced death, detention, blunted aspirations; we lived lives not our own. And our joy was unconstrained in 1994 when Mandela became president.

But today our decline as a nation is so clear. We are in the grip of a ruling party that is greedy, arrogant, and acts with impunity. I fear for my grandchildren's future. This is a seminal moment. The 2014 election can be a restoration of ideals that have become lost and blurred.

Q: You say South Africa isn't facing up to its problems. How so?

Our ANC government has failed all key indicators: the economy is not growing. There is huge unemployment. The health system is a mess. Infrastructure is crumbling. There is mass dissatisfaction. We have 3,000 public protests a month, and many of them are actually uprisings.

Yet not only the ANC but our citizens and media expect this government will return to power. That is the biggest indicator we are not facing up. We, the citizens of a country that liberated itself from apartheid, have lost our sense of power. Instead of creating a vibrant economy we have created an army of people dependent on social rights and benefits. This is the worst aspect of the ANC record. Challenges aren’t faced but camouflaged. Huge unemployment is camouflaged by a pseudo-welfare state. The ANC is undermining the values we fought for, of equality, dignity, and freedom.

Q: You were present at the creation of the "black consciousness" movement that helped end apartheid.

As students we were segregated in what was called the “non-European” section of college. Please. This is Africa. We Africans were called non-Europeans, or “non-whites.” And we accepted that. Even heroes like Mandela used the term.

In this “non-European” unity movement we learned from American black power, civil rights, [intellectual and revolutionary] Frantz Fanon, and others. We began to think. It was about liberating the mind. The notion of mental liberation dawned like a gradual revelation: We realized that if you think of yourself in the negative depiction of the group opposing you, you will never be free.

Biko put it succinctly: "The biggest weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." So we woke up and said we are proud and will not accept the negative of anybody. That unleashed an amazing energy, pride and determination. We learned not to underestimate the power of individuals.  

I am fortunate to have seen freedom dawn. I do not wish to see the flame of freedom extinguished by thieves and corrupt people who have commandeered the freedom we fought for so hard.

Q: Commandeered?

We are being seduced. The ANC has cleverly distorted the liberation narrative. They argue against all evidence that the ANC alone liberated us. So people feel a sense of debt. The ruling party uses that: A top ANC official recently told voters that if you receive welfare and you don’t vote ANC, you are a thief! The normal channels to challenge this distorted narrative – books, reading, education – isn’t working. Young people don’t read.

Q. Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters has been the story of this election season in South Africa. 

Malema is a product of what the ANC does to young people. He totally models a leadership that is unaccountable. He is a young man who is super smart and who should have been encouraged, as the Tambos and Mandelas were, to get an education, to be balanced, to show the polish that a true education gives.

Instead he became a law unto himself in the ANC culture. He set up a lucrative company that dominated the building of infrastructure in his province but whose roads and bridges are now crumbling. He has tasted power and is willing to wield it, and he is feeding off the disaster of our failure of education, training, and the despair of millions of young people and the neglect in this country.

Q. Malema calls for the immediate nationalization of 60 percent of the mining industry. 

Unfortunately, Malema is stepping into an opportunity waiting to be taken. In nation building, we can reasonably talk about medium and long- term solutions. Instant gratification is Malema’s approach. Nationalization, confiscation of people’s property, confiscation of banks and handing over money, doubling of social grants -- he knows that will bankrupt the country. But he knows he is dealing with people who are not analytical.

The [South African] Institute of Race Relations published a clear paper on how Malema's policy is un-implementable; it is impossible in a constitutional democracy like ours. 

Q: Education is your main issue. You've said apartheid-era schools often did better than public schools today.

During apartheid white people got the best education, best facilities, best teachers. Blacks got Bantu education, which was education for servitude. But ... there were unintended consequences. My parents, like many parents, had a love of schooling; we were taught far beyond the boundaries of any ordinary schooling. This was repeated in many places; thousands of teachers were committed to using education as a step out of poverty and servitude. Many excellent boarding schools and missionary schools were shut after 1994, however. A lot of damage was done in the name of transformation.

Q: What happened?

The biggest driver of disastrous choices was a view that the ANC knew better than local education activists. They imposed a curriculum that didn't work. They allowed voluntary retirement, then discovered more teachers were needed after experienced teachers left. Cozy relations were created with the teachers union at the expense of children. A teacher needs only a 30 to 40 percent passing grade in college to qualify for the classroom. That is ridiculous. 

Q: Aung San Suu Kyi spoke of a "revolution of the spirit" needed in Myanmar (Burma). Is there a corollary for South Africa?

Absolutely. When we talk empowerment we are talking about mind-set change. With greater mind and spirit we are refusing to be bought with food parcels or made to bend to a party line or a political explanation that you feel you are not allowed to question.

The revolution of the spirit, or as Mandela used to call it, the “RDP of the soul,” the reconstruction and development of the soul, this is not just a problem of black people for too long accepting an unaccountable government. It is also a problem of white people who have been free riders. Black people allowed the truth and reconciliation commission; they gave up the desire for retribution to enable a sacramental process towards political settlement. Whites must acknowledge that as real generosity, they must in return share their expertise, knowledge and their wealth, to build.

Q: More mutuality is needed?

Yes, most whites still feel no obligation. Many are dripping in jewelry and talk about how appalling the corruption is. When you ask what they are doing about it, they say, "What can I do?"

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