I will explain.
Firstly, I read her book Conversations with My Sons and Daughters, published by Penguin Books SA in 2012, furiously in one sitting. It was read one balmy Autumn evening when the rain poured from the heavens and did not stop until late into the night.
Whether you are a reporter, journalist, commentator, or social media activist, I have often desired to read essays which are balanced and fair and approaches its subject with a solid reservoir of concise facts, fluid arguments with enough background information on which these arguments can be grounded. While it meets my expectations on most counts, Conversations with My Sons and Daughters and Dr Ramphele as a politician falls short elsewhere.
Entering into a debate via the social media networks and with reference to the medical doctor, academician and businesswoman’s late entry into politics earlier last year, I left a contentious query in her inbox.
Indeed, Ramphele reminds the ANC government subtly of the consequences of such social actions in the form of the Arab Spring which has engulfed Northern Africa and the Middle East.
To date my query has gone unanswered.
I left the same query with her party officials via their user-friendly website. It was answered, but it was an incoherent push-me-pull-you reply which left me livid. Livid, mainly because her newly founded political party, AgangSA, refused to, or could not answer the question directly.
In seeking to interact and engage further with this new party whose brand literally and positively means Let Us Build South Africa, I enlisted some of its members and supporters on my social media pages. In the event, I took it upon myself to reprimand one official in the Western Cape for both his ignorance and derogatory remarks of Cape cultural matters. He has wasted little time in ridiculing the movements of his opposition members, or members of the public who seem to have different views on culture than his own, but with great ignorance does not check his own misbehaviour.
I leave that matter as it stands for another day.
Before I venture completely off the subject, ie. my impression of Dr Ramphele’s forceful book of essays on how South Africa can progress as a nation after nearly twenty years of misrule by the ruling party’s incompetent and corrupt administration, let me return thus.
In Conversations with My Sons and Daughters, Dr Ramphele, the common-in-law widow of the late Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, clearly targets her readers as young, up and coming professionals, whether still at university or entering the professional job market, or in the market already, roughly between the ages of 20 and 40. My age and position is thus given away when I state that I do not fall into these categories.
I think Dr Ramphele has committed a grave error by excluding other South Africans from her conversations. Indeed, her conversations border on exclusivity rather than inclusiveness as she refers condescendingly and pityingly to other South Africans, particularly the poor and marginalised. She has, to my mind, missed a golden opportunity in capturing a market of voters who could very well swing votes if they are properly educated, registered, encouraged to vote and, indeed, do vote.
From the point of view of the reader and a potential voter I can state that Conversations with My Sons and Daughters is essentially a very good book, but with little or no new original arguments for positive political and sociological change. Ramphele engages her targeted readers forcefully and in an active voice throughout her argumentative narrative. It is mainly for this manner, or style of fluid writing, that I am both impressed with her narrative voice and can recommend it highly as a reader.
Conversations with My Sons Daughters is a fresh look at the decline of South African politics since its christening as a constitutional democracy back in 1994. The blame for South Africa’s decline is clearly laid at both the current regime and the apartheid regime that it replaced. That is not a new argument. Nevertheless, much emphasis is placed on the African National Congress‘s party patronage system of deployment to the detriment of the nation.
The case for appointing skilled and knowledgeable officials in government and all of its parastatals, rather than its current crop of party cadres with nothing more than “struggle credentials” to show for qualifications in office-bearing and ultimately responsible positions, is a good argument, well presented throughout the narrative, but, again, it has been mentioned before. It does not address adequately enough the private sector’s role and responsibilities, particularly those of the larger corporations, in addressing this issue which was borne out of the Sunset Clause, a political compromise between the ANC and the National Party prior to the country’s first democratic elections and from which Dr Ramphele has benefited enormously.
The manner in which Ramphele has reminded her targeted readers of the crass corruption and racism of Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, in the book’s early pages is impressive and timely in light of the fact that Malema’s EFF has begun to show an alarming base of support amongst young (black) professionals, alongside the poor, marginalised and disenfranchised. She mentions, at length, the corrupt malpractices of Malema’s On-Point company, but does not shed any light on how she came to accumulate her own wealth which is vastly superior, let us be honest, than Malema’s.
With a vested material interest in South African mining and as a leader of a young political movement, it is necessary for Ramphele to lambast Malema whose party may be hindering her own party in its efforts to gain political support, laying the foundations as a party of choice for the poorly paid miners in the name of nationalisation and appropriation of mining assets.
Both Conversations with My Sons and Daughers and Ramphele’s political movement place great emphasis on entrepreneurship, particularly amongst the rural poor, and innovative and practical ways to transform both municipal governance and the crippled health and welfare systems. She discusses the Dinokeng and the Walk Apart Scenario’s in some (convoluted) detail and, one senses, with great pride. Other bodies, such as the Khulumani (speak up) non-governmental organisation and Letsema Circle, are discussed and offered as meaningful starting points from which to build up and empower impoverished and abused communities. It is well worth a try in light of other political parties offering little or no practical and workable solutions.
Earlier, I mentioned that statistically I do not qualify as a son, based on Ramphele’s Introduction to Conversations. There are two more reasons why I wish to disassociate myself from Dr Ramphele.
The highly controversial and so-called “poo wars” in the townships surrounding Cape Town leads Dr Ramphele to accuse the ruling Democratic Alliance of racism without substantiating, documenting or proving her accusation.
In an effort to enlarge the presence of political parties (other than the ruling ANC) in parliament and bolstering it with a little more representability, credibility and power, Ramphele and the DA’s Helen Zille were unable to come to any consensual arrangement in forming a political alliance against Jacob Zuma‘s ANC. It appeared to be a heated affair, and I am intrigued by this.
Perhaps Ramphele’s argument for disassociating herself from the DA will be better understood in her authorised biography, A Passion for Freedom, which I look forward to reading later. Her argument for not joining the Democratic Alliance and indeed leading it, does not lie in Conversations with My Sons and Daughters.
Next to her accusation of racism lies an unfortunate error in the naming of the radical leader of the “poo” movement, the ANC’s Andile Lili who was suspended from the Cape Town City Council for disciplinary reasons and is facing criminal charges for his controversial actions. I could not decide whether this was a proofing error, or an error on Ramphele’s part. Given her credentials, it is hard to believe the latter.
Ramphele’s accusatory tone is troubling, to say the least, and I think it is necessary to quote these lines from chapter 5 in full;
“Related to the housing issue is the provision of basic services including water, electricity and sanitation. The ANC made much of the inequity of the Makhaza open toilet saga in Khayelitsha as an example of the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) racist allocation of resources in Cape Town.”
Before one makes an accusation of racism, I believe it is of extreme importance to prove this entirely, perhaps even taking legal action against the alleged guilty party. While the basis of these accusations are creditable, they need to be proved. These are very serious accusations indeed.
I mentioned earlier that clues as to why Dr Mamphela Ramphele chose not to lead the DA do not lie in Conversations with My Sons and Daughters. Below, in her own words, Dr Ramphele explains to the media:
“Since my return from the World Bank, Helen Zille had been trying to persuade me to join the Democratic Alliance. In the middle of 2012 I started talking seriously to the DA but I was wary of simply slipping into the position of leader of the DA, a position they were offering.
At first I thought the prize was an agreement with the DA on a way of transforming politics in South Africa, an idea which Helen Zille had already spoken about.
We came very close to attaining this position but in the end I felt the DA people failed to understand the extent to which the country needed to change. A prime example was the situation with Cape Town.
For seven years the DA had been running the city yet there were still squatter camps. I could not understand why. I believed that we were capable of more than accepting the inevitability of squatter camps.
Why did we accept the adage that the poor would always be with us? Was this not admitting defeat? Was this not saying that we were trapped in a mind-set that reflected the worst of apartheid and colonialism?”
Ramphele mentions too that it is Andile Lindi (not Lili) who was the consultant of Kula Development, “the company responsible for executing the Cape Town project”. She stops short of mentioning Lili’s own publicised racist outbursts and actions which I may add are before the courts. Let us leave this very unhappy debate for another time, because there is much that is positive about Dr Mamphela Ramphele’s conversations and suggestions for taking the country’s people, particularly those who are still treated unfairly and unequally, in the right direction towards freedom and empowerment.
I took umbrage with the condescending and insensitive manner in which she appears to regard Johannesburg’s inner city and ultimately destitute street hawkers who try very hard to eke out a living under oppressive circumstances. This manifests itself in chapter seven. Rather than re-emphasising the bright alternatives towards empowerment and addressing the ignorance of those who both seek or need assistance expressed and described elsewhere in the book, Ramphele prefers to voice her disgust “for the irresponsible use of public spaces” and the “lack of civic pride”. Recent constitutional court rulings favoured the hawkers who have been brutally hounded from their spots of trade by the city’s “law enforcement officials”, ultimately a result of the corrupt and incompetent management of the police services by the ANC government on which Ramphele does elaborate upon at length in her book .
On the issue of race, I see, too, that Ramphele chooses not to acknowledge the presence of the Coloured communities of South Africa in which whites and Africans are mentioned, but Coloured communities who are in essence racially mixed are referred to as “those classified as Coloured”.
In closing, the question I asked of Dr Ramphele was whether or not both she and her AgangSA endorsed BBBEE – Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment – which I believe to be yet another form of racism and inequality in South Africa’s young democracy. I asked this question against the backdrop of the DA leader’s decision to reverse the “error” of her parliamentary representatives who voted in favour of new revisions to the bill pertaining to this contentious matter of business practices and supposed employment equity. I asked this question in light of Ramphele’s much earlier call to scrap BBBEE altogether.
It would appear that in an effort to capture the targeted professional youth vote, like the DA, she has reneged on her earlier call. It would be encouraging if she and her party could shed some light on this by replying to the electorate both timeously, coherently and with courtesy.
There is, to my mind, a degree of acknowledgement that ultimately Affirmative Action, as both Americans and South Africans, in particular, have come to understand it, is not a workable solution for addressing the inequalities still prevalent in the work force. There are also enough arguments in favour of properly educating South Africans to enable them to acquire favourable opportunities in the increasingly challenging job markets which, Dr Ramphele also acknowledges, is not unique to South Africans alone.
Indeed, she meticulously outlines and compares the efficient and progressive systems of education in both China and its South East Asian neighbours with that of both the USA and South Africa. She should also acknowledge that all of the social ills mentioned and discussed in her book, women and child abuse, lack of adequate housing, proper health care and educational facilities, et al, cannot all be blamed squarely on both the ruling parties, namely the ANC and the DA. Both political parties are broad-based and broad churches representing, one would like to believe, a diverse South African society.
It is not enough to simply criticise both government and society for its shortcomings. Alternative, credible and workable solutions must be presented. Dr Mamphela Ramphela’s forceful critique of all of our shortcomings and some useful solutions notwithstanding, I am unconvinced that her party, AgangSA, will be a credible alternative to both the ANC and the DA. Both she and her party officials will have to work much harder to win over the support of the electorate and crush the looming dangers which lie within the personality cult of Julius Malema and the militant nature of his Economic Freedom Fighters.
Nevertheless, Conversations with My Sons and Daughters is an invaluable addition to the literary debate on South African politics and all its inadequacies and does stand head and shoulders above the rest.