On the face of it, Mamphela Ramphele’s long political Calvary has not seemed so strange. It has been clear ever since she returned to South Africa, flushed with neoliberal propaganda and plugging effortlessly into the right-wing smear campaign against President Mbeki, that she was being groomed for some kind of stardom. The only question was what vehicle was going to be used to loft this political star to greatness.
Yet it has been very slow, and very ineffectual. It has been nearly a decade since she stopped tormenting Third World economies through the World Bank and returned to plot her path towards tormenting the South African public. It would seem that she did not quite anticipate that a man like Zuma would displace her in the affections of the white ruling class. More probably, she returned without fully understanding what was going on, and was instructed to mark time while the ruling class waited to see how things turned out. A real tool of the ruling class should have the capacity to wait and build up her value to her masters. So she wrote her books, none of them worth the writing much less reading, and recited the usual right-wing talking points provided by white journalists, and made friends with black journalists who pretended in articles written for white people that she was popular in the black community. And nothing happened. No call came for her. It must have been wearisome.
It has been even more wearisome for those of us who had to wade through the journalistic nonsense around Ramphele. She is undeniably the most overrated South African public figure apart from Cyril Ramaphosa himself. Seemingly every week her banal opinions flooded the media, her obnoxious judgements were available from every source, and whenever she eructated, crowds of obviously fraudulent commentators swarmed out to tell us that the sound was an indication of extraordinary wisdom and unprecedented perceptiveness.
Eventually, last year, it was revealed that Ramphele was thinking about forming a political party. It was far from clear what kind of party she was likely to form. Or, rather, it was clear what her political views were, but it was difficult to see how her opinions differed from a crass blending of the most odious elements of the Democratic Alliance and the Freedom Front Plus, perhaps with a slight touch of the most corrupt aspects of the Congress of the People. She had expressed cloudily racist and plutocratic opinions, but apart from these she had said almost nothing which was not an unreflective repetition of banal and ignorant opinions expressed by white journalists. Why would anyone want to follow such a leader?
The obvious answer was that nobody would. The barrage of pro-Ramphele propaganda does not seem to have had much effect on the general public — and why should it, given that most people don’t read the newspapers? Moreover, the headlines telling everybody about how wonderful someone named Ramphele is supposed to be seen as, merely assured everybody that someone in a position of power wanted them to believe this. It was hardly likely to convince anybody — indeed, it mostly doesn’t seem to have been intended as such, but was rather intended as a form of whistling in the dark.
The problem seems to have been that the white establishment believed that a new saviour was needed. The old saviours — Zuma and Zille — were no longer taken seriously by anybody. It was possible to market them to their traditional constituencies and prop them up as if they were real saviours, but the general public was not fooled. Since the white elite thinks in entirely corporate terms, it was obvious that a new product was needed — but not a wholly new product. Rather, a familiar, but superficially remastered, product, one upon which a new sales campaign could be based without in any way seeking to change the market or indeed change the principles on which campaigning, marketing and electoral sales strategies were based. There were two obvious figures available — Ramaphosa and Ramphele.
Ramaphosa, however, could only be deployed within the ANC brand. That might be useful, given that the ANC brand had turned out to be profitable for Jacob Zuma’s handlers, but it means strengthening the ANC, which meant having to live with the ANC in power for a long time to come. It also meant that it would be difficult to base a large part of the elite’s election campaign on attacking Zuma, because without the support of Zuma Ramaphosa could not gain power, and even once he was in a position of power it was likely that he would need Zuma. This all ran against the propaganda line which the elite wished to pursue, and the long-term object — the destruction of the ANC — which the elite sought to attain.
That left Ramphele as the only figure outside the ANC who could be made use of in this way. It was also significant that she was a woman — because the DA’s leadership was dominated by women, partly because its leader Helen Zille was suspicious of the male-dominated leadership which she had displaced and therefore installed females, partly because the party was still highly patriarchal and therefore Zille’s male competitors would not arrange themselves behind a powerful female challenger to her authority.
There was, however, a problem with Ramphele. She was so thoroughly hyped that she might actually pose a threat to Zille. She might be seen as the black alternative to Zille, especially because her right-wing political stance made her, more or less, the “black Norman Tebbitt” that the party had long been looking for. This meant that Zille would have to watch Ramphele carefully, lest she use all this potential authority to undermine the party Leader. Precisely because Ramphele had not come up through traditional political party structures and had therefore never learned the merits of subservience and obedience as De Lille had been obliged to learn in the PAC (and which Mazibuko had learned from her years of apprenticeship and internship under Zille) she could not be trusted to be obedient and docile.
It was thus obvious that Zille would not view Ramphele as someone who could just steam into the DA and take office. If Ramphele had been weaker and less hyped, this might have been possible; Zille could have overpromoted her, spread the word that she was incompetent, and thus ensure that she would never progress further than Zille desired. But Ramphele would have wanted a position commensurate with her talents and her powers.
Only, what kind of record did Ramphele have to provide a basis for such talents and powers? She had been Steve Biko’s mistress (albeit, by all reports, remarkably promiscuous — but then, that was the 1970s and she had been in her late twenties and few in the struggle at that time paid much attention to bourgeois morality). Even before he was murdered, she had been placed under a banning order — whether on her own account or as a blow at Biko is difficult to gauge today. In any case, she remained under a banning order, like Winnie Mandela, until 1984, and like Winnie she did what she could to pursue whatever political scraps she could assemble on her doorstep during that time.
The difference was that after Winnie’s unbanning she went into serious national politics, for good or ill. Ramphele did not. This was, no doubt, partly because the organisation which succeeded Biko’s SA Students Organisation, AZAPO, was in terminal decline by the time Ramphele emerged from internal exile, and thus unlike Winnie she had no easy home to go to. All the same, it was significant that she ran off to the University of Cape Town and to the Americans, putting her name to several books (though most of these appear to have been written chiefly by Francis Wilson) working under the Carnegie Commission — that is, working with a right-wing American NGO before running off to the United States to complete a doctorate in social anthropology, then returning to work at UCT during the transition period.
In other words, she abandoned serious politics in favour of using academic politics to leverage her way into a position of authority within the global white power-structure. Presently she was kicked upstairs into UCT management, where she pursued a career of self-aggrandizement which ultimately raised her to the Vice-Chancellorship. Supposedly her agenda was transformation; actually, during her term of office, her objective was to maintain UCT as a bastion of white privilege while dismantling the two main threats to UCT’s stability — democracy in the form of unionised workers (who were crushed by Ramphele’s aide and friend Helen Zille) and democracy in the form of intellectual ferment (the academics were trampled by Ramphele’s aide and friend Wilmot James). Ramphele successfully bureaucratised the institution and empowered management at the expense of everyone else (including students, needless to say) and did so with such efficacy that she was a shoo-in at the World Bank, an organisation ever ready to employ academic hatchet-people with properly right-wing credentials.
But all that this meant was that Ramphele, like Ramaphosa, had docilely followed other people’s orders. Like Ramaphosa she had even slipped into mining corporate directorships when she returned, although these had never been so central to her life as they had been for Ramaphosa (and as a result, crucially, she lacked the considerable wealth which could create an illusion of power and gravitas).
It’s mildly amusing. Ramphele had always preached the value of hard work and personal responsibility to others. However, she seems to have assumed that political preferment would fall out of the sky thanks to a relentless process of persuading journalists to hype her and of self-promotion. In the end, she had no cards in her hand; her political authority amounted to nothing. So what was she to do? Only what she was not at all prepared to do — to build up some political authority, and by doing so gain a ticket of entrance to the DA, even if on a junior level as compared to the level she anticipated.
It is surely the fact that she was so unprepared which explains her bizarre behaviour, stumbling desperately around seeking political support from her friends in the political journalism community, especially in the Midrand Group, that gang of hopelessly corrupt corporate propagandists largely trained up through the Mail and Guardian and docilely repeating whatever their rich white masters tell them to repeat. But none of these political journalists had any political authority or property. All they could do was write articles full of empty praise for Ramphele, and nobody who read these took them seriously. A tiny handful of old SASO warriors might have been willing to support her as well — but nobody knows or respects them any more. Worse still, because Ramphele was relying upon empty vessels whose allegiance is to rich whites, she was incapable of finding any intellectually consistent or ideologically meritorious political position. Her political “platform” was bankrupt. She delayed her launch more than once, and when she eventually launched, it was an empty, disappointing event. So much had been promised, so little delivered.
Hence she resembled Zuma, and this is surely the kiss of death. Zille may be a little disappointed that Ramphele is not going to deliver any significant black constituency to the DA. However, Zille can be confident that Ramphele is not going to pose any challenge to her leadership.