by Hussein Solomon
The launch of Mamphele Ramphele’s political party Agang – Sesotho for “Let us Build” – reflects once again the dissatisfaction that ever larger numbers of South Africans feel about the ruling ANC, 19 years after the ending of apartheid.
Let us be clear though: at present Agang does not really challenge the ANC but would most likely take votes from the opposition DA. Whilst the ANC’s political support may be dwindling it still retains an almost two-thirds majority in parliament and still boasts an enviable political machine. Moreover the ruling party still retains the decisive advantage of incumbency and with it the power to dole out patronage with which to buy key voting blocs.
Agang together with the DA are essentially fighting for the same voting bloc – that of the dwindling urban middle class. This, in turn, raises the issue of how different Agang is from other opposition parties. At the face of it, Ramphele has not clearly articulated these differences. Her talking about self-interested and corrupt leaders is little different from the discourse of that of the DA or COPE leadership. In this, perhaps she should have waited a bit longer and come out with a more substantial political manifesto at the launch of Agang.
At a personal level, Ramphele is clearly the kind of leader South Africa needs – anti-apartheid activist, medical doctor, academic, business woman and a Managing Director of the World Bank. Unfortunately for her, political parties that are built on personalities are doomed to failure. Examples of Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party and Bantu Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement illustrate the point well. Moving from personality to effective party machinery on the ground is the challenge for Agang over the next year. From this perspective, I really cannot see how Agang would be able to develop the necessary grassroots networks in time for the 2014 elections.
2014 however may be merely her getting a foot in the door and taking her party into parliament. If this is the strategy, it raises the question of leadership of the party in 2019 when the then 75-year-old Ramphele will have to run against an ever younger crop of political leaders.
All the same, the launch of Agang remains an important development in the history of opposition politics for South Africa.