Nelson Mandela protégé and figure of conscience bows out of S. Africa politics

Mamphela Ramphele's departure from party politics is a sad end to a brilliant career – one that may be so again.

Mike Hutchings/Reuters/File
Anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele listens to questions at a news conference in Cape Town, January 28, 2014.

A version of this post appeared on Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

Mamphela Ramphele, the founder of the political party AgangSA (Agang is the northern Sotho word for ‘build’) in 2013, announced days ago that she is leaving politics.

Agang did poorly in the May 7 general elections, receiving only 52,350 votes, or 0.28 percent of the 18,654,771 votes cast.

Under proportional representation, Agang has two seats in parliament. Even before the elections, there was nasty infighting within the party that may have contributed to its decline, culminating in recent dueling accusations of fraud.

Ms. Ramphele’s departure is a sad end to what has been a brilliant career – although it still may be so again.

She has impeccable “liberation” and other credentials. She was a founder of the Black Consciousness Movement and the mother of two children by Steve Biko, a liberation icon and martyr. She is a medical doctor, a business woman, and an academic. Among other high positions, she has been a managing director at the World Bank and a vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

[See April Monitor interview with candidate Ramphele here.

Along with others, she looked ready and able to break South African politics out of a racial mold and to provide a genuine alternative to the African National Congress (ANC). In February 2014, it looked like she was joining forces with the formal opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA). She and the DA both emphasize the constitution and the rule of law and accuse the ANC of cronyism and corruption.

But the DA’s electoral support comes mostly from whites, Coloureds, and South Asians. DA party leader Helen Zille is seeking to attract black voters, essential if it is to become a genuine alternative party of government. Ramphele, a black woman running on the DA’s presidential ticket, looked like a natural fit. But the effort collapsed after a week, in part because of internal opposition in both parties.

Apparently, the racial issues could not be overcome. After the alliance fell apart, Ramphele said, “Some cannot or will not transcend party politics. We see people still trapped in old-style, race-based politics.” So, Agang contested the May 7 general elections on its own.

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