Can a new party in South Africa really woo voters?
June 25, 2013
“They steal from us so how can we vote for them,” complains Kaiser Kangwana of the African National Congress (ANC), whose leaders in the Eastern Cape province have been mired by allegations of corruption.
Mr Kangwana, who sweated it out working in the mines for many years, is now among the disillusioned voters which Dr Mamphela Ramphele’s new party hopes to woo.
Mr Kangwana’s well-worn ANC hat belies the fact that he is a disappointed man.
“People don’t have jobs, they’re still poor around here,” he shrugs.
The new party, which the charismatic Dr Ramphele leads, is called Agang. It means “to build” in the Sepedi language.
The party’s stated aim is to galvanise South Africans to build on the democratic foundations left by former President Nelson Mandela and other icons of the struggle.
It is a legacy which some believe is now being squandered by the ANC – a party regularly accused of poor governance and failing to deliver basic services such as housing, water and jobs.
Broadly pro-business and anti-corruption Agang has yet to set out clear policies, but it seeks to make politicians more accountable, public servants more efficient, and put education at the top of the political agenda.
Its supporters believe that black economic empowerment programmes have simply enriched the few, and believes that the 30bn rand ($2.9bn, £1.9bn) that is estimated to be “lost” each year from the public purse, could be ploughed back into essential services.
But political analysts believe Agang could turn out to be a one-woman show.
Dr Ramphele is an impressive figure with impeccable “struggle credentials” – factors which still influence the way some South Africans vote.
As a community doctor who worked in the Eastern Cape alongside her partner, the late Steve Biko, Dr Ramphele led grassroots resistance against white minority rule in the 1970s.
Twenty years later saw the death of the apartheid government.
Dr Ramphele has been a director of the World Bank, a vice chancellor at the University of Cape Town, and until recently sat on the board of a major mining company.
But the fact that she has such an impressive CV may well count against her.
“The only person with a profile, the only person with credibility is the party leader,” says Aubrey Matshiqi, a political analyst with the Helen Suzman Foundation.
“We have been here before and such parties have not done well.”
In 2008, a new party called Congress of the People (Cope) was born.
Capitalising on disillusionment with the ANC and appealing to a growing black middle class, it secured 7% of the vote in the last elections.
But since then it has virtually imploded, wracked by infighting amongst its leaders.
Dr Ramphele insists that Agang is different because it is not the product of a breakaway group.
“I voted from 1994, but I have never carried a membership card.”
Commentators like Mr Matshiqi say that if successful, Agang could win around a million votes – many of them from Cope – when South Africa goes to the polls next year.
Yet for the party to have a real impact, it needs to win over the masses and make a dent in the ANC’s whopping two-thirds majority in parliament.
Dr Ramphele has spoken about the possibility of forging coalitions with other smaller parties to win over young black urban voters.
In her mid-60s, she may struggle to appeal to the younger generation.
But she boasts a bevy of young party staffers who are driven by a vision that “looks to the future not the past”.
As for a political partner, Dr Ramphele will have to make her selection carefully.
The most obvious candidate is the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s official opposition, which courted Dr Ramphele before she formed Agang.
But the DA is still considered by some South Africans to be “too white” – an image that the party is working hard to repair and which Dr Ramphele knows could repel potential voters.
Dr Ramphele, is keeping her cards close to her chest.
She told the BBC that her party was still “in conversation [with the DA], we just happen to have a different focus”.
“We can reach much further than where the DA can reach, because we are not bringing any baggage to the party,” she said.
The ANC does not regard Dr Ramphele as a threat, and said when she first proposed creating Agang in February that she was “goading” South Africans to be on the political periphery.
A new political party which puts corruption and inefficiency in the spotlight is bound to have some appeal, at a time when some South Africans fear the ANC has lost its moral edge.
But Sibusisu Segwane, a young graduate in Johannesburg, is still likely to reserve his vote for the ANC.
Although he is impressed with Dr Ramphele herself, he seems afraid to “waste” his vote.
“The ANC is the only party with experience of government,” he sighs.
It is a sentiment shared by many in South Africa, who may protest on the streets about poor service delivery and jobs but who give their vote to the ANC on election day despite their misgivings.
Dr Ramphele and her party may not pose a massive electoral challenge to the ANC, but she is exposing a wider sense of disenchantment in the post-Mandela era.
Critics say the ruling party achieved huge strides back in the 1990s but now risks courting a culture of patronage, threatening the “democratic space”.
The high-profile murder of an anti-corruption investigator this week has led friends to warn Dr Ramphele to tread carefully in the months ahead.
Yet her experience of protesting over threats to press freedom and the “stalling” over the Dalai Lama’s trip to South Africa two years ago, suggests that she has no fear of controversy.
“I am doing this for my grandchildren, for my children, and I am doing his because South Africans have an enormous unbreakable spirit that when mobilised, makes them say enough is enough,” she said.
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