SHE is a respected anti-apartheid activist who defied all the odds to become a doctor during the apartheid era and later a managing director of the World Bank.
But now Mamphela Ramphele is to challenge the post-apartheid dominance of the ruling African National Congress, by launching a new party.
Dr Ramphele is expected to make a statement about her political plans on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on Monday, a public relations consultancy working on her behalf announced yesterday.
Adding to the speculation, Gold Fields, one of South Africa’s biggest mining companies, yesterday said Dr Ramphele had decided to retire from its board “to further her socio-economic and political work”.
Dr Ramphele, 65, commands considerable respect among South Africa’s black majority as a former partner of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, who died after being beaten in an apartheid-era prison in 1977.
She was also placed under house arrest for seven years by the apartheid government because of her political work. Even after the advent of democracy in 1994, she has seldom shied from challenging authority and questioning the ANC leadership.
At a business breakfast this week she described the ANC as “authoritarian, intolerant of criticism and unaccountable”, according to the Daily Maverick newspaper. Last year, she accused president Jacob Zuma of leading an assault on the post-apartheid constitution.
“There is enough concern about the utterances by ANC leaders and government officials to suggest not all is well in our constitutional democracy,” she told a meeting in East London.
Dr Ramphele, also a noted author, health activist and academic, is entering the political arena without a grassroots’ network, meaning her party may not garner significant support in presidential elections next year.
But she would not be taking on the might of Nelson Mandela’s 101-year-old liberation movement without having a solid plan in place, political analyst Nic Borain said. “She is an amazingly powerful woman,” he added. “She would have done her homework.”
The ANC is expected to win the 2014 polls but its support has waned as corruption has eaten into welfare programmes aimed at helping the nearly 40 per cent of the population mired in poverty.
Election results show those dissatisfied with the ANC have mostly stayed away from the polls instead of turning out for the main opposition Democratic Alliance, seen as representing white privilege.
Mr Zuma, 70, a Zulu traditionalist who has called for young ANC members to obey their elders, has looked to older voters in rural areas for support instead of young blacks flocking to the cities. Last year, he told parliament he was worried about black people “who become too clever” because they could become the sharpest critics of African tradition and culture.
His righthand man took a pre-emptive shot at Dr Ramphele last month, saying her proposed party would be a voice in the wilderness.
“It remains to be seen if what she will create changes anything. We will contest elections against anyone and are confident we will succeed,” said ANC general-secretary Gwede Mantashe.
The ANC fended off a major challenge when some party heavyweights broke off to form the Congress of the People (Cope) in 2008. Cope is now a marginal player, riven by in-fighting and starved of cash.
Dr Ramphele, whose parents were teachers, grew up among the rural poor and was one of the few blacks to earn a medical degree in the apartheid state.
She has criticised the ANC for crushing the dreams of liberation and letting cronyism undermine the ideals of “the struggle”.
“We need to shift the frame of reference from the politics of fear and patronage, to assert ourselves as sovereigns and defend our constitutional democracy,” she wrote in her 2012 book.