In February this year, political activist and respected academic Dr Mamphela Ramphele announced her intention to launch a new political party, named Agang, the Sotho word for ‘Build’.

Despite the ANC’s stronghold, South Africa is entering an era when the first generation of ‘born-frees’ comes of voting age. 20 years into the country’s democracy, these leaders of tomorrow have been raised under a government that some feel is not living up to the ideals on which the Constitution are founded. Disgruntled with, and worse, disinterested in politics, South Africa’s youth are looking for a new kind of leader. And they’re not alone.

Enter the thoughtful, outspoken and quietly dignified Dr Ramphele.

In February this year, political activist and respected academic Dr Mamphela Ramphele announced her intention to launch a new political party, named Agang, the Sotho word for

Her credentials are impeccable: well-known as one of the founders of the Black Consciousness Movement together with the iconic Steve Biko (with whom she had two children), she’s a highly qualified medical doctor and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, the first South African to be appointed as a managing director of the World Bank, has been a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, has authored a number of books, and now she’s spearheading a new political party.

Afropolitan had the opportunity to interview this dynamic woman.

You describe yourself as a former student activist and you were involved in politics during apartheid. What made you leave politics and join the corporate world?

I never left; all that changed over the years was how I engaged with politics. Even though I never belonged to a political party, and had no ambition to become a politician. I still saw what was happening; the dismal state of education. During my years as a doctor I was saddened by the high number of maternal deaths due to inadequate healthcare. The large number of deaths that happen in police custody [Biko was killed in custody]... Our country is on the road to ruin 

Considering how messy politics can be, was it an easy decision for you to leave the corporate world, re-join politics and form Agang?

I’m 65 years old, I could do without this, but I cannot ignore that there are huge issues in South Africa that will eventually lead to crisis. Our country requires leadership, leadership that is currently not visible.

What were some of the things you had to consider before making this decision?

I had to consider if, at my age, I had enough energy to launch a political party. And I had to ask myself: ‘Is South Africa ready for a new opposition party?’ There has been so much erosion of key institutions already, such rampant corruption – the time is right.

Were your children supportive of the move?

Yes! My two sons are. As representatives of South Africa’s young people, as 30-somethings, they said: ‘Give us a choice.’ You know, 41% of our country’s young people did not vote in our last national elections, as there is no political party they feel represents them.

What values and principles were instilled in you, as a young woman, that you feel will hold you in good stead in the political game?

I come from a big extended family. As a child I was taught respect, and as children we had to share with other needy schoolchildren. My father was successful, and he believed in excellence. In fact, both my parents [who were teachers] were perfectionists who believed in the value of a good education.

How is Agang different to other political parties that are failing to attract voters?

I have a vision of hope for South Africa. Agang calls for change, and pledges to live by our founding democratic values: human dignity, equality and freedom. We stand for social justice and fundamental human rights, as well as freedom from poverty, crime and corruption. Our government must be held accountable for its actions, and as a nation, we need to leverage our diversity.

How far are you prepared to fight ANC in the coming elections?

We are not fighting the ANC. We are fighting for change; we are fighting for a future that reflects the aspirations of South Africa’s citizens.

What are your views on the economy and the socio-political state of the country?

We are underperforming today because we did not pay enough attention when restructuring the macro-economy after 1994. We failed to understand the macro economy as an umbrella. One such example is the Labour Relations Act. In the past, laws were in place that denied black people the right to earn – and now, decades later, we are applying the same concept to the minority in our country. Why? We also don’t focus enough on key industries like mining and agriculture. The mining sector’s business model relies on the migrant labour system and large numbers of low-cost, low-skilled labour is unsustainable. In the Eastern Cape, the very social fabric of the rural communities there being undermined thanks to missing leadership, and yet, it’s the most fertile province in the country! We need more creative thinking when it comes to South Africa’s economy.

Who do you think should be held accountable for the scourge of poverty, unemployment and failing education system in the country?

The government needs to take ownership of its mistakes. It can’t take 20 years to change these things.

What do you think has gone wrong with the ANC leadership over the years considering the fact that showed so much potential in 1994?

The political culture of a liberation movement is not suited to governing a democratic state. This style of leadership is too authoritarian; it does not tolerate being questioned. It is time for South Africa to realise that the ANC is trapped in old thinking. We need a fresh start.

In your opinion why is there such a disconnect between the older generation and the youth?

There is nothing wrong with South Africa’s young people. Simply put, the older generation has failed our children. We have failed to provide them with a good education, we have failed to set a good example when it comes to human rights.

The economic chasm between black and white is widening day by day, what are some of the ways this can be resolved?

You can’t resolve inequalities if you don’t fix the education system. Politicians send their own sons and daughters to private schools because they don’t believe in the public education system that they helped create. The difference between a child getting 3-out-of-10 (30% is the pass rate in South African schools] and getting an A+ is vast. Not enough was done post-’94 [South Africa’s first democratic elections] to narrow the gap.

As a woman entering what has always been seen as a “man’s game” do you feel any kind of pressure from your male counterparts to be a certain way?

I feel no pressure at all. As the eloquent Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: women need to raise their levels of ambition – men don’t set the standard. I want to bring more feminine qualities to leadership. We are more humane; we bring empathy. There is less competition because, as nurturers, women are more future-orientated. We are more able to stay our course and think long-term, just as raising a child is a long-term responsibility. 

Your love for science at a young age saw you beat the odds to become a doctor. Why do you think there is such a lack of interest in Science & Technology among the youth today?

It’s not for lack of interest. Look at what the average learner has to endure in the name of getting an education: a lack of teachers, having to make use of pit toilets, no science and biology laboratories, no libraries and no sports centres. In 2001 66% of students dropped out before finishing secondary school, and of those that did Matric, only 10% received university acceptance. It’s a crime! I owe my career to one dedicated teacher who helped me bridge the gaps in Science and Maths.

When you bought a house in Mowbray you faced protesting white neighbours, how does it make you feel to know that kind of racism is still rife today in SA?

It makes me feel sad. By the end, our children were even playing together [in Mowbray]. You need to understand that racism is all about fear; fear of something that is different. To release someone from that fear is to liberate them.

At the recent Women in the World Summit you spoke of the “inalienable right of dignity”.Can you share more about that statement?

At the moment it is acceptable in our country, in some cultures, for a man to marry three women in one day. These poor women… This man is nothing more than a peacock. And this type of behaviour, which is not in the best interests of women like these, is condoned because traditionalism is promoted by our politicians, only to capture the votes of our rural people.

Is Agang going to be placing special focus on empowering women and changing their mind-sets?

Absolutely! The violation of women’s rights robs South Africa of the high-energy leadership and skills of women. We can be a human rights-based democracy if we are ignoring the rights of one half of the population.

You are very passionate about “social justice” – why do you think this seems to be a foreign concept with the current leadership?

Social justice is a concept that is the very foundation of our constitutional democracy. It shouldn’t be a foreign idea: our president takes an oath to defend the values of the Constitution when taking up office.

How was your book “Conversations with my Sons and Daughters” received among the youth?

It’s still very widely read, and is in its third or fourth print run now. It was written in response to a growing sense of despair among South Africa’s young people, and has been written in a conversational style. In it, I share what I’ve learned in my own journey and challenge our young people to think for themselves, be responsible citizens and uphold our constitution. (R170, Penguin Books South Africa)

What motivates you?

I’m motivated by my passion for South Africa. I want our children and grandchildren to grow up in a country that we can all be proud of.