Debate: How to fix South Africa?

By Gregory Mthembu-Salter in Cape Town

Posted on April 24, 2012 12:32

South Africa embodied so much hope in 1994. Nearly 20 years later, day-to-day politics are dominated by stories of crony capitalism, an increasingly…

South Africa embodied so much hope in 1994. Nearly 20 years later, day-to-day politics are dominated by stories of crony capitalism, an increasingly assertive executive and a lack of policy clarity at the highest levels. Six eminent thinkers share with The Africa Report their recommendations on how to improve the country’s economics and politics – from educational quality to equity in economic growth – in order to give new direction to the continent’s leading economic power.

As one would expect from one of the leading activists against the apartheid regime, Mamphela Ramphele is equally forthright today about the state of the nation. But such straight talking is rarer as national political debate has become more constrained in recent years.

A compelling speaker, Ramphele argues that South Africa’s constitutional democracy is under threat. And that threat comes from the South African government, she insists. When President Jacob Zuma promised last year that his government would assess the judgements of the Constitutional Court and their contribution to ‘transformation’, Ramphele swiftly issued a sharply worded rebuke: Cabinet’s decision on the judiciary…seemed like a sweet offering…but all this was sugar coating because at its heart there was poison for our democracy.”

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Ramphele knows the consequences of political interference with the judiciary. In a written statement issued in response to Zuma’s promise she recalled the inquest 34 years ago into the death in custody of Steve Biko, Black Consciousness activist and father of her children. Then, Pretoria’s chief magistrate absolved the police security branch of responsibility despite an autopsy that found evidence of blows to the head that contradicted police claims he had died due to a hunger strike.

Signs of the past

Had the apartheid-era judiciary not been cowed by the executive, the magistrate might well have delivered a fair verdict, Ramphela argued. Today the government’s intention, she charged, is also to intimidate the courts, leading South Africa away from the promise of its constitution and increasing the risk that the crimes of the executive would again be exonerated by the judiciary.

Public trust in corporations is low, which has eroded trust in free markets

In November 2010 Ramphele was appointed to chair the board of directors of Gold Fields, one of the world’s largest gold producers. In this capacity, she attended Cape Town’s African Mining Indaba in February to deliver a speech on how mining can contribute to sustainable development.

In characteristically feisty form, Ramphele warned that resource nationalism in Africa was turning “from a trickle into a tidal wave”, threatening the very survival of the mining industry.

At the same time, Ramphele added, it was clear that “public trust in corporations is low, which has eroded trust in free markets.” Business could only win back that trust if it “added value beyond the bottom line,” she argued. Ramphele accused South African mine bosses of failing to recognise the wounds created by the industry’s brutal policies under apartheid. “There is so much unacknowledged pain out there, and we have to begin the journey of healing. Our TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] gave us an opportunity, but corporate leaders kept away. But even now, it’s not too late to get into conversations… to address legacy issues.”

Also Read: South Africa: The many headaches of Zuma

Ramphele has a great deal of experience of the country’s bitter past. She was born in Kranspoort, in what is now Limpopo Province, in 1947, where she had her political awakening. That happened, she said, in 1955 when Kranspoort residents protested against the exclusion of a recently deceased woman from the church graveyard. The apartheid authorities evicted the protestors, who lost their homes forever.

In 1968, Ramphele began studying at the medical school at the University of Natal. She was quickly drawn into militant opposition politics and then the Black Consciousness Movement led by Steve Biko. In 1974, Ramphele was charged under the Suppression of Communism Act. Then in April 1977, she was ‘banned’ and sent to live in remote Tzaneen, in northern Limpopo. Five months later, Biko was arrested at a road block and murdered by police.

Ramphele lived in Tzaneen, under close surveillance from the authorities, for eight years. She moved to Cape Town in the mid-1980s as mass opposition to apartheid entered a decisive phase. She started work at the University of Cape Town, researching the lives of vulnerable children and hostel dwellers.

In 1991, a year after the African National Congress (ANC) was unbanned and Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Ramphele was appointed deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town. Five years later she became vice-chancellor.

Ramphele’s future in the country seemed assured despite her open opposition to some policies pursued by the ANC. But in 2000, she abruptly left South Africa to become managing director of the World Bank in Washington DC. On her return four years later, Ramphele took an increasingly active and prominent role in public life. She was particularly incensed by President Thabo Mbeki’s policy on HIV/AIDS and antiretroviral drugs. Ramphele, along with officials such as current head of UNAIDS Michel Sidibé, worked hard to get the government to change its policy.

Also Read: The politics of Nostalgia: South Africa’s new struggle

As well as chairing the Gold Fields board, Ramphele currently sits on the board of Anglo American, Transnet and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa. She also is chair of Circle Capital Ventures, which she founded and which aims to finance small start-up enterprises. Ramphele also founded the Letsema Circle, a non-profit organisation working to reform the health service in the Eastern Cape.

Genteelly sipping rooibos tea after her speech to the Mining Indaba, Ramphele returned to her concerns about threats to South Africa’s constitutional democracy. She questioned why the ANC Youth League should demand the nationalisation of the country’s mines in the name of the 1955 Freedom Charter and why the government should use the same document to argue against nationalisation.

“It makes zero sense for any society in 2012 to be so hung up on a document drawn up by a small minority back in the 1950s,” Ramphele argued bluntly. “Those were the days when people believed in central control, but now we know better. So let’s talk about what we agreed on in 1994 – a constitution that captures all the ideals expressed in the Freedom Charter, only better.”

A firm believer in an activist citizenry, Ramphele warned that too many South Africans are complacent about defending their hard-won constitution. “We as citizens have become spectators. We have to exercise our stewardship of the constitution.” Ramphele said she has, however, taken heart from the Right 2 Know campaign created last year to oppose the government’s controversial Protection of Information Bill, widely known – to the ANC’s irritation – as the ‘Secrecy Bill’.

The ANC, Ramphele maintains, can no longer be trusted to defend the constitution, despite its insistence to the contrary. “There is a corruption … Black economic empowerment was intended to broaden economic participation, but instead it has been used as an instrument by the well-connected for the capture of the state,” she said.

State institutions offer evidence of worsening conflict of interests. “The latest Auditor General’s report shows that public officials are involved in business with their own departments…and these private interests have started to drive public policy. There are still some very committed people in government … but they are being draggeddown,” she argued. The net result is “a political culture that is tending towards undermining the value of our constitution.”

Constitutional Fatal Flaw

The opposition is fragmented and does not have a big enough voice

Ramphele accepts that it is up to opposition parties to keep the government in check. “The opposition is fragmented and does not have a big enough voice,” she said. Some argue she has the moral authority to galvanise it.

But Ramphele would make an unlikely party politician. If she joined the ANC, it could mean abandoning her critical stance against many of the party’s policies. If she were to join the opposition, her voice might be shouted down by the ANC’s shriller ideologues.

For now there is a certain restraint from the ANC when Ramphele takes on the government, perhaps because its members know she has a wide and influential following, many of whom would be sympathetic to the ANC.

Also Read: South Africans protest against exploitative labour

Despite her admiration for the constitution, Ramphele believes it has a “fatal flaw”. This flaw, she said, is that the votes of the country’s citizens do not properly count under the form of proportional representation adopted in 1994. When the old constituency system was abolished an important link between local people and their representativeswas broken. Instead, each party has lists of candidates, from which a certain proportion and in a certain order become National Assembly representatives, according to their party’s share of the national vote. This system encourages MPs to toe the political line of the party hierarchy.

It seems likely that Ramphele will continue to eschew the messy business of party politics and government but will remain an active and original thinker at the highest level in business and public service. From that position she will continue to say uncomfortable things to whomever she thinks needs to hear them. And more often than not, she will be heard, loud and clear.

This article was first published in the 2012 February edition of The Africa Report, on sale at newsstands, via our print subscription or our digital edition.

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