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Mamphela Ramphele, the Budget & food security

1st March 2013

By: Denis Worrall


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We will come back to the 2013 Budget in a moment but there are a couple of items that deserve priority.  First of all, Mamphela Ramphele and her decision to establish a political party.  For weeks she’s had South Africa guessing.  Is she or is she not going to establish a party?  Who would her leading supporters be?  How would it relate to other political parties? e.g. the Democratic Alliance.  And how would it be funded?  Ten days ago she established a political party called Agang (meaning “to build” in Sesotho) and the questions have continued but from a mostly negative or pessimistic point of view.

In a way this is understandable.  Ramphele is not a practical political leader in the sense of getting into the trenches and organising constituencies, etc.  The fact is that she is a captive of her past and her career.  She is an intellectual with an enormous ability to articulate values and ambitions.  She has demonstrated this in her contribution to public life over the past ten years or so.  And she has an extraordinarily important role to play which should not be compromised by ‘party politics’.


I see Ramphele in the context of Hannah Arendt’s Men in Dark Times, which was first published in 1968.  The title is less a description of situations than of the role of men and women in “dark times”.  Arendt writes:  “Dark times, in the broader sense I propose here are not such as to be identical with the monstrosities of this century (20th) which indeed are of a horrible novelty.”  [Obviously, she would be referring to the Holocaust of which she had first-hand knowledge.]  She goes on to say: “Dark times, in contrast are not only not new, they are no rarity in history.”

South Africa, in this context, is hardly in “dark times”.  But that we face very serious crises and a lack of vision, empowerment, a sense of direction and therefore of hope, is certain.  And so, as Arendt says: “Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that is given them on earth – this conviction is the inarticulate background against which these profiles [the historical figures she discusses] were drawn.  Eyes so used to darkness as ours will hardly be able to tell whether their light was the light of a candle or that of a blazing sun.”   She wrote that in 1968 and it has a universal application.  And I’m saying that it applies in South Africa to certain rare people – including Mamphela Ramphele.  I’m suggesting that this can be illustrated in terms of the Budget.


As regular readers of Insight will know, we have championed the National Development Plan from its first publication.  And we are therefore very pleased that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan put it at the centre of his Budget Speech.  But he went on to say that the National Development Plan is a vision.  Minister, it is nothing of the kind.  It is a dry as dust document.  For it to be a vision it needs somebody to spell out what this country will look like if the National Development Plan is implemented.  Who can do this?  President Zuma?  We don’t think so.  A cabinet minister?  None of them have the charisma to project something like this.  Trevor Manuel?  Trevor is the logical person but has been self-effacing for the last eight months.  Cyril Ramaphosa, who is Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission that produced the plan?  Cyril right now is in the political wilderness, losing some of his undoubted magic by the week, and he is being held there by Zulu tribalism and a lack of political savvy on the part of the government.  That leaves Mamphela Ramphele.  She is completely capable intellectually of taking this plan and formulating it into something almost tangible, real, and therefore inspiring to the job creators and the youth of our society and foreign investors.

When the Budget was being presented this week, I was participating in a conference on food security and agribusiness – and the challenges which face Africa.  And they are staggering.  In the decade 2010 to 2020 food production will increase slightly everywhere in the world, except in Africa.  Yet Africa, although facing massive challenges, has the potential to solve the world food crisis.

African governments and private institutions sense the seriousness of the situation.   Nigeria, from being food sufficient as a result of oil is now a massive food importing country.  Yet Ethiopia, Africa’s fastest developing country (a GDP of 9.2%) has achieved this as a result of a huge improvement in agriculture.  Tanzania, Zambia, Ghana and Mozambique are becoming equally impressive food producers.  South Africa?  The number of commercial farmers has declined from 80,000 in the early 90s to 37,000 today; most of the senior commercial farmers have an average age of 58 years; South Africa from being a net exporter of food has become a net importer.  We know that over the next two years the government, in a sector where “Big is Beautiful” should prevail, will prevent any farmer from owning more than two farms and where the size of land holdings is likely to be controlled by the state, and where foreigners will be prohibited from acquiring agricultural land.  And you ask what is the relevance of this?  Close to 30% of working South Africans are employed in agriculture and agro-business.  Yet, the 2013 Budget Speech doesn’t have a single word about agriculture.  It’s not even mentioned.  How’s that for priorities?


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