As both a founder of South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement and an ex-Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Mamphela Ramphele has a unique dual perspective on the success of the #RhodesMustFall campaign, writes David Thomas.
The veteran campaigner and former partner of Steve Biko, who became South Africa’s first black university VC in 1996, defended her own record on transformation while at UCT – but said that the University should have anticipated the student outcry over Cecil Rhodes’ statue.
“One should have anticipated that…What I suspect happened at UCT was that there was complacency. Post the heat of the 90s, people didn’t continue to do that work, that symbolic renaming of spaces. To have Rhodes sitting there very proudly, looking down and not balanced by anything – that was looking for trouble”.
The statue of the English-born mining magnate – a dedicated imperialist who dominated South Africa’s industrial and political life until his death in 1902 – became a focal point for student anger at the pace of racial transformation at the institution. The statue was removed by university authorities earlier this month.
Speaking on the sidelines of the LSE Africa Summit, Ramphele said that her time as VC coincided with attempts to transform contentious campus symbols – including a hall named after controversial former Prime Minister Jan Smuts.
“When I was VC of UCT, there was a male residence called Smuts Hall. You can’t get more colonial, more apartheid that than. It’s got stained glass windows…celebrating the settler heritage. We moved very quickly to have balancing images, like the golden rhino from Mapungubwe, the San and Khoi rock paintings and a peace window…and immediately everyone can own Smuts Hall”
The former member of the South African Students Association – formed to mobilise black students against apartheid – said that she was pleased to see the return of student radicalism to campuses across the country.
“I believe that students since the early 2000s have been sleeping – they haven’t been active in looking at national issues. I’m hoping that students will challenge the higher education system to say “we deserve more”.”
Ramphele is returning to civil society roles after an unsuccessful recent stint leading her Agang political party in national elections. Despite being launched with much domestic and international fanfare, the party was only able to secure two parliamentary seats in the 2014 elections with a disappointing 0.28% share of the national vote.
Musing on the failure of Agang, Ramphele concluded that her former party was “out of sync with the party politics that was being played around us”.
A disastrous failed merger with the rival opposition Democratic Alliance eroded Agang’s credibility – a collapse that Ramphele blames on competing deadlines over policy agreements.
“The breakdown…came from my assumption that we agreed to take time for me to be able to consult with the constituency of Agang. For my colleague Helen [Zille, DA leader], the pressure was immediate,” she said.
Despite her chastening time as leader of Agang – Ramphele’s first direct experience of party politics – the Nelson Mandela Foundation trustee believes that there is still space in South Africa’s political system for the emergence of a new party, and says that next year’s local elections could be a barometer of future success.
“You may see that people who have broken away from Cosatu form a workers’ party. Come 2019, the political landscape could look very different”.
Ramphele believes that her calls for political renewal and a stronger emphasis on citizen participation in democracy have only been strengthened by the xenophobic violence convulsing South Africa.
“Something happening in my country right now tells you how far we still have to go. The impunity with which people are attacking others is shocking…the government has been either in denial or not robust in defending the rights of foreign nationals. And of course we don’t have an immigration policy, we don’t have border controls – it’s a mess”.
Despite the urgent challenges facing South Africa and its political elite, Ramphele has taken the decision to retire from party politics and believes that she can best contribute in the civil society roles in which she made her name.
“I have learned the lesson that I need to operate in a space where I can in fact live out my aspirations or idealism,” she said.