The long-expected announcement of Mamphela Ramphele’s intention to launch a new political crusade in South Africa has done more than shake up the political landscape of the country – it has exposed some of the country’s more pervasive fault lines.
Specifically, some responses by media and other commentators to the declaration paints a fascinating picture of prevailing attitudes in South Africa — and goes some way towards explaining why the country is struggling to actualise the promises of 1994.
The first of four fault lines that have emerged from this discourse is a lack of evidence-based opinion. With notable exceptions, the majority of writing on this matter has been filled with personal opinion and speculation. As one respected commentator accurately acknowledged, while going right ahead and doing it anyway, it is nothing more than idle gossip.
While freedom of speech is a vital part of any democracy, opinion that is not grounded in evidence is dangerous, demoralising and ultimately pointless.
South Africa is filled with examples of this kind of mud slinging debate, from the much-publicised words of Julius Malema to the reporting on the Marikana incident. Witness how difficult it was to find any actual evidence around what happened at Marikana. Despite concerted attempts by reporters and others to establish the facts such as what exactly the strikers are paid, and whether there was an intermediary involved, these facts remained elusive — meantime the opinions about what was the cause flew back and forth.
This links to the second and third fault lines: lack of responsibility and accountability.
At Marikana, part of the difficulty in finding out what happened was due to the fact that absolutely no-one — not the police, the company or the protestors - were willing to take responsibility for what happened. The frantic pointing of fingers and shrugging of shoulders prevents progress, there is no doubt about it.
So too in the discourse around Ramphele; there is a lot of finger-pointing and criticism about her as a person, and her ability to make a contribution, but not much about the fact that she is putting a stake in the ground and that she is at least willing to stand up and take responsibility for being the change she wants to see in the country.
The fourth fault line that underpins all of these is lack of respect.
This is a country where disrespectful attitudes run as a seam through the discourse around race, sex, labour, politics and just about any other topic you care to examine. Arrogance and disrespect are evident in politics, business, schools and homes, and is arguably at the core of many of our challenges. It contributes to the high levels of violence against women and children that has recently manifested so dreadfully in in the murder of Anene Booysen, it played a huge role in the Marikana tragedy and it is alive and well in the way people are talking about Ramphele.
Evidence-based thought and action, responsibility, accountability and respect; these are all hallmarks of successful democracies and they are not evident enough in South Africa.
Whether or not Ramphele is an abrasive person or a saint, or if she is successful on the political stage, evidence from older democracies in Europe tells us that having a third credible voice in the political landscape can strengthen and enrich political debate and play an important role in holding both the opposition and party in power to account.
In fact, we all have a role to play here in supporting democracy and in shifting the culture of speculation and finger pointing towards a more balanced society that delivers the better life for all that we all want.
As much as most of us will agree that we are in need of strong leadership (from above); at the same time the political discussion going on opens the possibility for other kinds of leadership to emerge.
Working to overcome the four fault lines, leaders at all levels of society, be they in local government, communities and civil society or amongst the business community can make their voices heard.
If it can break free of its limitations, this country has great potential, not just to develop itself as an important example of a successful emerging market, but also to be a leader in the development of the continent.
Walter Baets is the Director of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business.