Dr Mamphela Ramphele first came into contact with the media in 1969 as part of a group of black student activists who, she says, the press painted as “a ragtag band of activists opposing Nusas [the National Union of South African Students – the then liberal white student organisation]”.
Ramphele reminisces about the beginnings of her understanding of the need for the media and the importance of having a good relationship with it.
At the time, she, Steve Biko and a group of other students were formulating the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) through the formation of the South African Students Organisation (Saso).
“We realised we needed to understand the liberation of naming ourselves as black people and black students and finding our pride in this. We had the non-European sections of the university renamed black. This process is what launched the column ‘I write what I like’ by Steve Biko in the Saso newsletter.”
Ramphele was his co-writer and clearly the person who made sure it happened. “Steve would leave it to the last minute and type it out with one finger on an ancient typewriter,” she says.
The press, or parts of it, eventually started taking notice of Saso. “Bokwe Mafuna of the Rand Daily Mail started attending our conferences and he put us on the map.”
She recalls that when Biko was banned and restricted to King Williams Town in 1973, the newspaper there – the Daily Dispatch – totally disregarded him and the BCM.
“I think the editor, Donald Woods, was very pro-Nusas. He may even have been their patron and he also gave a lot of coverage to Inkatha.”
In 1975, Ramphele and Biko were tired of being ignored or denigrated, and she confronted Woods. She chuckles at the “dramatisation” of this first “engagement” over the years in the media and by Woods.
“I never stood there with my hands on my hips. I was this tiny young woman and was hardly threatening. But it was the first time Donald had had a conversation with a black woman on this intellectual level and it caught him off guard.”
Nevertheless, she insisted Woods meet Biko, which he did, cementing a lifelong friendship among the trio. And, for Ramphele, it created a healthy relationship with the media that continues today as she embarks on her new road as leader of the political party, Agang.
Woods put black consciousness on the world map and “kept fighting the good fight” when Biko was murdered in police cells in 1977.
“The press was always good to me even when I was banished [to Tzaneen between 1977 and 1984] and the Rand Daily Mail did regular features on me and what I was doing,” says Ramphele.
Decades later, from 1997 to 2000, when she was vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT), she and UCT communications director, Helen Zille (now Democratic Alliance leader), worked their relationship with the media. “Helen taught me all the tricks of communication. She conducted a great media strategy and had the media eating out of our hands… not without good reason, mind.”
At the time university workers were striking for more pay and as students so often do, they initially took the underdog side. “But once we showed that they were earning more than people with far more experience and skill than them, the students chose to pelt them with oranges when they were striking during exam time.”
Together, Zille and Ramphele introduced a new lexicon: “No equity without excellence”. Ramphele explains that there was no point in having an equal education that was bad – it had to be excellent and open to all. “We changed the way Africa was seen, particularly through tertiary education, showing the enormous potential here.”
Over the years, Ramphele moved from activism to medicine and academia (attaining a PhD in Social Anthropology and a B.Comm, among other achievements) and then to business. She was the World Bank managing director, chairperson of Goldfields, and a director of the Standard Bank Group, Mediclinic International and the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa. She was the chair of Circle Capital Ventures and a social development and community services foundation called Ifa Lethu.
She has also always been involved in civic organisations.
And all along she has been one of the media’s darlings, someone who could do no wrong. While she is still held in high regard, nobody is unscathed by the political bunfight that is politics. And just as the mud is thrown by her at the ruling party, it is flying right back to her in the media. Does it hurt?
Ramphele recently felt the heat of criticism in the media when she declared her wealth…
“I am long in the tooth now, having been an activist, an active citizen, and I have always been outspoken and often taken an unpopular stand. I can handle it,” she says. “But I feel strongly about crossing the line and becoming libelous. I have never abused anyone’s money and I didn’t have to go into politics. I have worked hard all my life and could have happily sat back and played with my grandchildren.
“I started Agang because I believe I really needed to. Our country is at a crossroads and if we don’t make the right decisions fast, we will be in serious trouble.
“Our political leadership believe they know everything there is to know and we are meant to follow blindly. Think about Nkandla: did the president really think it was okay to just take these millions, our tax money, and then claim what he has done with this money was a top secret?
“I have explored all avenues of supporting this government but have come to the conclusion that they do not have the political will to do the right thing and the citizens are too afraid or don’t know how to choose something else. The whole leadership has proved to be totally disrespectful of the Constitution and moral values.”
She says she is so grateful that at least South Africa still has a media that exposes corruption and the wrongs that are being perpetrated, despite government not really wanting them to. “The media has been outstanding and so reliable in their investigations. They fought the Protection of State Information Bill and, although it hasn’t gone away, it is far better than it would have been had the media not given a good fight.
“If there isn’t a ruling party that is prepared to take what is being exposed and right the wrongs and use the legal system to bring the wrongdoers to book, nothing happens.
“[Agang’s] role is to mobilise citizens to understand that they have the power to change the status quo. We will partner with society, through the media, for change.” She says that a change in leadership in 2014 is essential to South Africa to prevent corruption rotting the country. Agang’s campaign incorporates the media in everything, believing in transparency, she says.
One of the biggest problems in the country, she says, is that people do not understand democracy as they were never given a civic education.
“I am pleading with the media to invest in training journalists – some are very professional but others are not. The juniorisation of newsrooms is having a serious impact on the quality of journalism. They also need to ensure that journalists are given a civic education so they understand things like: we don’t have a weak state, we have a weak government, which is quite different.
“The media needs to have a commitment to holding public servants to account. The fact that thousands of South Africans don’t have identity documents is totally unacceptable. People are powerless to vote, among other things, without an ID.”
For her the media’s most important role is to “keep a watch on everyone in positions of power and keep these people on their toes.
“We must speak truth to power and uphold the role of the Fourth Estate, as it is truly the last bastion of democracy here.”
Agang has embraced social media as a campaigning tool. “We are building a robust digital platform to reach the last mile in South Africa. I am well aware that we are not the United States and social media is not that widespread, so we have a team of boots on the ground who will go into people’s homes around the country to make sure people understand what our party stands for.”
Ramphele has been tweeting but, she says, “it is a double-edged sword as one can get entangled in minutiae when there are bigger issues to deal with”.
One of these bigger issues is how South Africa has a “clear anti-women leader sentiment”. As a leader, she says she brings a connectedness, an ability to think for the future, a sense of nurturing and multitasking.
She believes the media can assist by being aware of the profile of leadership they are presenting and making sure women’s voices are heard.
As to the future of Agang, we shall wait and see…