‘The Soil Has Been Stolen’

Ramphele talks

Dr Mamphela Ramphele giving the 2013 Smuts Hall Lecture on 2 May. She told the story of how an old man in a rural village nervously approached her to tell her that ‘the soil has been stolen’, an anecdote that also appears in her book ‘Conversations with my Sons and Daughters’

Words and images by Garrreth Bird

On 22 June Dr Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang became an official South African political party. She wants to use it to send a jolt through our society, and then ride the current right into the presidency. Considering the increasingly worrying tendencies of our government, should we become her conduit? Garrreth Bird attended last month’s second Annual Smuts Hall Lecture, delivered this year by Dr Ramphele, to try and find out if she is worth the risk.  

“…I hope this brief account…will assist the public to realise how great an advance is possible today as a direct result of the immeasurable sacrifices of this war. If that advance is not made, this war will, from the most essential point of view, have been fought in vain. And greater calamities will follow.” –  Jan. C. Smuts, the titular host of this lecture, in the foreword to his ‘The League of Nations: A Practical Suggestion’ (1918) , which outlined the framework for a potential League of Nations.

In the regimented functionality of its ‘Oxbridge’ design, the University of Cape Town’s Smuts Hall men’s residence buildings are beautifully resolute – ramparts, stern hallways, luscious quads, all wreathed in stuttering runs of vine – but it is not until one looks past the stuffy pictures of learned white men, and upwards inside the dinning room hall where the lecture was taking place, that a decidedly feminine note is revealed.

Abutting the ceiling is a series of stained glass windows that relate the history of our country. Their narratives generally hew to the white perspective of the episodes they dramatise, until the ‘civilising conquerors’ finally give way to ‘the struggling masses’, and the frieze culminates in the glory of our pained democratic birth. It is remarkably pertinent that the pane representing the suffering of our country’s majority during apartheid uses the word ‘Biko’ as a shorthand for all those fighting against oppression, considering that Ramphele was Biko’s partner when he was killed in prison, and bore him two children before he died.

Ithemba-Zwelethu Methetwa-Pic1of7

One of the panes.
Pic from smutshall.com

What, we all wondered, might a future pane in the sequence describe? The slow moral and economic decay of a nation strangled by entitled leaders and apathetic voters? Or a reinvigoration, led by those who felt that the promise of our rebirth was being squandered before our very eyes? And more than that, can Dr Ramphele possibly attract the votes of those South Africans who thought they would either always support the African National Congress (ANC), or otherwise no party at all?


At the start of proceedings, McNeal Poni, the student who had instigated the lecture series, stepped towards the mic. Poni is of Zulu and Italian heritage, hails from Paarl, and identifies as Cape Coloured. As a symbol of the riotous diversity of ‘South African-ness’ amongst the approximately 250 people present, he could not have been more appropriate. And there was another metaphor that those attending hoped he might represent, both regarding the speaker of the evening as well as her ultimate political quest:

It took just a few words to discover that Poni suffers from a serious stutter. Sometimes he went well, but often he got stuck, at times totally breaking rhythm. Things went very quiet. People wrinkled their eyebrows, leaned in a little closer. The content of what Poni was saying became embellished with thoughts of how brave one must be to speak so very publicly with such an affliction. Poni’s quiet courage in the face of adversity drew us even closer and his intelligent, empathetic, no-bullshit style soon had the whole audience in the palm of his hand.

Up there in front of everyone, in a room attuned to his struggle, Poni must have exulted at the precedent being set – after all, the venerable Justice Albie Sacks gave the inaugural Smuts Hall lecture last year­­­. He must also have felt the crackle of electricity amidst the applause that followed his words. Considering Ramphele’s unique place in our current political firmament, and her journey from humble beginnings, through this university, into the medical, corporate and finance worlds,  the Smuts Hall Lecture felt like a place where important things might happen. Poni must have been just digging how his idea was turning out.


For the main act, Poni introduced a petite, sprightly older woman, who took the podium. Dr Mamphela Ramphele has a friendly face, and looked elegant, yet quite ready to grapple with anything testy that came her way. She is the head of Agang (a Sotho term, meaning ‘To build’), a party aiming to take on the dominant ANC in South Africa’s 2014 elections.

She will need to be ready for a fight: the task she faces in becoming a force to be reckoned with in South African politics is immense. The ANC she faces is a behemoth, quite willing to play rough; not only that, but it’s an increasingly corrupt money making machine, with the weight of history in its pocket.


There was a buzz of excitement before things kicked off, but also a note of tension. People here felt strongly about what was good for their country. They were just as indignant about the status quo as Ramphele was.


Whilst it is true that  Jan Christiaan Smuts also rose from humble origins into positions of great influence, it may seem strange for Ramphele to be so comfortable with the baggage of Smuts’s name. She decries how we “are under-leveraging our country’s diversity”, yet Smuts was an open advocate for the segregation of the races, at one stage going head to head with Ghandi regarding the second class status of Indians in SA. (The often glossed-over fact that Ghandi in turn suggested keeping whites and Indians segregated from blacks, describing Indians as “undoubtedly infinitely superior to the Kaffirs” in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, takes a little shine off his legacy and gives us an indication of how entrenched these ideas were at that time.)

Ramphele’s willingness to associate with Smuts’s name becomes more understandable when considering the unifying nature of his statesmanship. Smuts described his philosophy as one of Holism, where, in union, the combination of a system’s parts are seen to evolve to create a whole greater than their sum. According to F. S. Crafford’s biography of him, this motivated Smuts to persue  “the unification of the four provinces in the Union of South Africa, the idea of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and, finally, the great whole resulting from the combination of the peoples of the earth in a great league of nations…”, a mammoth contribution by any standard. He continued to be deeply involved in the creation of the United Nations, writing the preamble to its Charter, and becoming the only person to sign the charters of both the League of Nations and the United Nations.


“Some black students here are uncomfortable being surrounded by symbols of our past” said Ramphele, absolutely comfortable in the spotlight, “But you cannot choose your parents. This history belongs to all of us.” Here she raised her hand towards the stained glass above. “It is up to us to make our own symbols, so that we can provide a balance to that past.”

Ramphele has previously described her present philosophy as ‘South African Consciousness.’ She has said that far too few people identify as South Africans first, before anything else, and that “we cannot expect young South Africans to identify as black and white”.

She did not hold back in attacking the current state of governance by the ANC, decrying the state of fear and apathy that prevents us from making a change.  “The present state of our nation is a betrayal of what so many died for… The constitution says ‘The people shall govern’, but I don’t think they have yet tasted what that means. Where are the protesting youths of today?! It is time for all of us to overcome our fear… We need to restore the promise of South Africa, and if we don’t stand up we are complicit.”

As she outlines her inspirational program  clearly and concisely you can’t but help compare her pedigree to the public-speaking catastrophe that is Jacob Zuma, our current president. She seems to come from a completely different universe. A thought begins to form in one’s mind: how amazing would it be to once again be proud of our president?

I began to feel a little dizzy. In 2008, as we watched the United States make history in its elections, we asked ourselves: ‘Where is our Obama?’  Something warm was rubbing against my heart, and when I pulled it a little closer I realised it was Hope.

I had better catch myself. Who is this woman and why is she flirting with us?


Well, Ramphele is an activist, doctor, academic, educator and businesswoman. She was one of the directors of the World Bank. She has been the chair of the board at Gold Fields, held directorships at Anglo American, Medi-Clinic, Remgro and education finance specialists EduLoan…the list goes on and on…

But what happens when we take the golden-girl filters off? Hope is an endangered species in the South African political landscape these days, and so we must ask: what do those who don’t like her say about her?

The National Union of Mineworkers describes her career as “warming seats and collecting cheques” while “sipping on cocktails”. RW Johnson on Politicsweb says:  “…like so many beneficiaries of affirmative action, she may have come to believe that her acquisition of so many leading posts and positions has nothing to do with the symbolic importance of her being a black woman and everything to do with her own prodigious talents.”

He and others go on to illustrate this point by arguing that that the results she has achieved at the institutions she has led are decidedly mixed. They point to her time at UCT, where as Vice Chancellor she moved to meld the departments of the sciences and the humanities, creating an unwieldy amalgam which was “a complete disaster”, and where her initiative to privatise many of the blue-collar positions left behind fewer jobs at lower wages.

Many comment on how her time at the World Bank saw no appreciable benefits accrue to the Africans she claims to stand behind, and how her time at Goldfields saw no new gains accrue to its workers, or to those negatively affected by the company. Jarred Sacks, writing for the Mail and Guardian, calls her approach “essentially Thatcherite” and says that “her philosophy represents: making South Africa safe for capitalism, quelling the masses through false promises of ‘equal opportunity’ and proving to the world that blacks can be just as astute (and ruthless) as whites when managing others.”


Others who have worked with her criticize her style, pointing to an unwillingness to incorporate dissenting views, leading to an autocratic style of management. One might point out that she has never stuck around for very long in any particular position, and that politics requires one to be in it for the long haul; despite her emphasis on how she ‘isn’t one to give up”, will she have the staying power to see things through?


These are telling enough observations to give one pause.

But if she can get the wind of public opinion behind her “Ramphele commands respect, and has the capacity to effect the improbable.” as journalist Mandy De Waal notes. Are we to bet against her?

Regardless, in the piranha pool of South African politics, it won’t be long before Ramphele can’t float above it all anymore. She will need to marshal all the help she can get.

Why did Ramphele not just join the DA?

It is well known thatshe has been courted by DA leader Hellen Zille for years. (Zille was one of the journalists who broke the Biko murder story in the press.)  It would have given her some battle-hardened soldiers at her flanks, and she could have worked to transform its powerbase. After all, you can only effect systemic change if you have the power to pull it off.

But Ramphele points out how only 56% of eligible voters actually voted in the 2009 general election. And how, in the 2011 municipal elections, only 28% of those between 20 and 29 participated (according to the HSRC’s ‘South African Status of Youth Report’). She asks why she should join a system that so many voters have already rejected? She likes that her movement is thus far untainted and has none of the baggage of those currently in power. Her model seems to combine Obama’s 2008 campaign strategy with the muscle memory of her years as an activist. “I am not here to convince you to vote Agang, but to motivate you to use your specific skills to make a change in the world that you believe in. Agang is in the future business, in the hope business…dare to imagine what would be possible if things began to work!”

She seems to have decided that this is what everything before was leading her towards. Is she an idea whose time has come?



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