Sue Segar
3 minute read
4 Jun 2008

Citizens must ‘take their power back’

Sue Segar

Dr Mamphela Ramphele’s hard-hitting address calls the South African government to account

Former University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Dr Mamphela Ramphele has called on all members of society to “take their power back” by calling the government to account.

Addressing the Cape Town Press Club, Ramphele said a failure of governance leadership and citizenship is infecting the whole country.

“At citizen level we should all be owners and guardians of democracy,” she said.

Ramphele said the South African government is weak because it has seriously under-estimated the importance of the expertise needed for governance.

She said the necessary expertise is missing in South Africa to run a government, which in the 21st century is like managing a “modern machine”.

Ramphele used her speech to call on all members of society to “take their power back” by calling the government to account. She also expressed shock at the recent xenophobic attacks, saying they are a wake-up call for the country.

Ramphele, a former World Bank director, who now serves on various company boards, was speaking about her book Laying Ghosts to Rest, a penetrating look at the South African transition and where it has gone wrong.

In a hard-hitting address, Ramphele said the time has come for South Africa to hold a “difficult conversation” within the country. She said the country still has “furious ghosts” that need to be laid to rest, but which have been denied for the past 14 years. “They won’t go away until we call each one by name and make peace with them,” Ramphele said, adding that these ghosts include racism, sexism, ethnic chauvinism and authoritarianism.

Turning to the current difficulties within government, Ramphele said many problems would have been solved if the apartheid civil service had been “better harnessed”. “Only a few ministers managed to tame those who had served a different master and made them believe that it was better to bring their expertise to the new environment.”

She said the government should also have made better use of the “inciles” — those activists who remained in the country during the struggle against apartheid. “Instead, we put so many exiles into positions way beyond their competence.”

Ramphele said South Africa has “grossly” underestimated the challenges of transformation. “We thought we could just walk into democracy. But in the 21st century it is extremely complex to negotiate. We thought we could survive on miracles as Desmond Tutu said. We thought the Madiba Magic would do it for us,” she said.

“Transformation in the form and substance of society involves a lot more than what we commonly thought would be the case. We thought democracy would be simply a rule by the majority. We forgot that rule by majority can be tyranny.

“We have followed the dictum of ‘the people shall govern’, but we did not recognise that, to govern in the competitive environment of the 21st century, we must harness all the resources we have — the inciles and the exiles. If we look at our record since 1994, we will see that we have remained an authoritarian government, despite the rhetoric of citizenship and respect.”

Ramphele said at the heart of redefining relations in South Africa is a redefinition of power as a control device to power as an enabling process.

“The issue of addressing inequality is key,” she said. She added that the government’s failure to provide quality access to social services has seriously undermined the country’s ability to be competitive as a democracy in the 21st century.

Ramphele said the xenophobic violence should make South Africa wake up and look at how other countries handle migration. “Countries like Canada and Australia put their best ministers on to it. By mismanaging migration we are having the worst of both worlds by losing expertise and not using the expertise coming into our country.”

On a more positive note, Ramphele said South Africa has a good chance of making the country the greatest democracy in Africa.

“’But that can only happen if each of us put our penny’s worth on the table in terms of action.”