In February, Mamphela Ramphele, a former black consciousness activist, University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor and World Bank managing director, launched a ‘party political platform’ called Agang (Build!). According to Ramphele, South Africa, under the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) has lost its way. She argues that the country is in dire need of the restoration of the sense of idealism which engulfed us in 1994. She bemoans the loss of values and principles, the emergence of democratic deficits, corruption, lack of delivery and poor leadership. In response to queries about why she launched a party political platform instead of a political party given the fact that she will be contesting elections next year, she insists that what she launched last month is a platform for political dialogue and consultation across the political and ideological spectrum, and with regard to leadership ambitions she has intimated that she is not desirous of a leadership position but sees herself as a bridge between her generation of freedom fighters and the young generation.
What has been debated the most is whether Agang, unlike the Congress of the People and other opposition parties before it, will grow into a credible alternative to the ANC.
My starting point is that, because our constitutional dispensation is partly founded on the principle of multi-party democracy, we should celebrate every time a new political party is formed irrespective of the party one supports at the moment. This we must do because, while such political parties may falter, stumble or even become an ephemeral part of the political landscape, they are contributing towards a process that in the end will deliver a competitive party system that will benefit all of us and enhance our democratic experience as citizens.
Having said that, we must still do an honest assessment of Ramphele’s political formation.
It seems to me that Agang is part of a political project whose tentacles extend to both the civil society and party political spaces. Ramphele herself has accumulated a lot of respect and credibility in the civil society space because of the democratic values and principles she has been espousing. The question is whether she can do a successful shift from the civil society space to the party political space. Or, is she going to make an attempt to have a presence in both civil society and electoral politics? Surely, she must be as aware of the rigours and challenges of party and electoral politics as she is of the need for a strong democracy based on the imperatives of a vibrant civil society and competitive electoral politics. For me, rightly or wrongly, the idea of a political platform betrays a desire to engage in both party politics and civil society. This is understandable given how entrenched Ramphele has become in civil society politics and the fact that Agang, and the agenda behind it, have civil society as their point of origin.
Another way of looking at Agang is in terms of the politics of reaction , which is not to suggest that Ramphele is being reactionary. It is possible that Agang reflects unhappiness about the current leadership of the ruling party both in civil society and the ANC itself. While it is highly unlikely that we are going to see a significant flow of ANC luminaries to Agang, the possibility exists that the political platform will depend on actors inside and outside the ANC for ideas. This is more than likely if one is correct in characterising Agang as the structural manifestation of a broader political project that seeks to unite liberal-democrats beyond the confines of party politics. The possibility, therefore, is that Ramphele may try to position Agang as both a political party and broad-based movement, with the movement dimension appealing to conscience and consciousness, while the party-political is focusing on vote catching. If this is the plan, a tension may develop between the party-political and civil society dimensions, especially if Agang proves to be nothing but a panic response to what I call the Zuma moment – the impact the election of Jacob Zuma as ANC president in Polokwane and his re-election in Mangaung has had on democratic politics in South Africa. In this respect, Agang may be part of those political forces in civil society and party politics which regard the ascendance of Zuma to the presidency of party and country as a betrayal of liberal-democratic values whose reversal must become one of the core functions of political formations such as Agang.
Such a platform is not going to undermine the ANC because it smacks of the kind of elitism of those behind the crusade of constitutionalism and the rule of law that are supposedly under threat because of the ambivalence of the ANC and its president towards democratic values. While these values are important, in electoral politics they lag far behind issues such as poverty, unemployment and inequality.