Active citizenry

Dr Ramphele cautions South Africans


Dr Mamphela Ramphele recently addressed a full house at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, where she offered insights about the nation after Marikana.

Speaking on everything from the reconstruction and development programme flop to entrepreneurial development, she laid down a challenge to members from business, media, government, public and academia who attended, to become active citizens of a constitutional democracy instead of being mere subjects thereof.

“We have much to be proud of. We have pulled ourselves back from the brink of chaos over and over again,” she said. “Transition from authoritarianism to democracy has been difficult, and Marikana is a reminder of the unfinished work in that transition.”

Ramphele sees the crisis as a valuable opportunity to think anew. She has a clear vision of the future of the country, which is sometimes expressed with brutal yet refreshing honesty. The main thrust of her thinking is the need to create a more equitable society by refashioning the economy, creating an economy that works for everyone.

“There is no chance of community, if there is no equality,” she said.

Ramphele’s five-point plan to building tomorrow’s South Africa from this, “our Tunisia moment”, onward is as follows:

Reinvent SA

Ramphele dreams of a more inclusive constitutional democracy, a new social compact and an economy that works for everyone.

“People most active in the liberation movement were left out of the negotiated settlement,” she said. “And now they continue to be left out of the benefits of that settlement, so many years later.”

She said that in order for democracy to work, there must be an active citizenry who holds government accountable and who actively participates in national discourse.

“The problem is, we came from an authoritarian past, and now we don’t actually know yet how to act in a democracy,” she said. “We are still learning the ropes of democracy.”

But, said Ramphele, things are changing. “Ordinary citizens are waking up to their entitlements and their responsibilities.”

Implement radical change in foundation of economy

Much of her focus falls on the foundation of the economy: mining and agriculture, which she said is in dire need of modernisation and transformation.

“We are using a 19th century business model on the mines – a model that relies on unskilled workers, and has firmly in place a black and white divide,” she said. “Agriculture is the same; our approach relies on unskilled workers.”

She said it is urgent that these sectors be modernised or we will be leapfrogged by our neighbouring countries.

“Make mining and agriculture hi-tech and high-skilled,” she said.

Ramphele also said we should take our cue from other countries by way of agriculture, especially on labour matters.

“When it comes to labour, other countries look for highly skilled seasonal workers in the agricultural sector,” she said. “This whole thing of picking up people from the side of the road is unsustainable.”

Radically develop human settlement and infrastructure

“Imagine radically altering the apartheid geography; the nature of power and how we are governed has not changed – that geography is still in place," she said.

“Imagine mixed-class residences, where people from all different income groups live together and interact and share the space around them.

“Imagine ICT (information and communication technology) in every school and in all public spaces. Imagine the environment you could create – an environment that stimulates the economy, innovation and entrepreneurship.

“South Africa has spent a lot of financial resources trying to develop entrepreneurship, with the least outcomes,” Ramphele said. “What that tells you is that our economic problems are structural – from education to employment to infrastructure. That needs to change.”

Reintroduce national service

To deal with service delivery problems and at the same time tackle the challenge of high unemployment, Ramphele called for the reintroduction of a compulsory two-year national service.

“Young people can get a study loan and pay a large chunk of it back by doing national service,” she said. And, in order to ensure these young people succeed in the workplace, all retirees should be called back to work to help bring young people into the workplace.

Mobilise citizen education

Ramphele introduced the Citizens Movement for Social Change, an initiative that is trying to get people – both rural and urban – to become active citizens in the democracy.

“We talk to people and tell them (remind them) that they own this country. We don’t have to march; we own the country. Change only comes when politicians realise they are at risk of losing power.”


In conclusion, Ramphele reiterated the need for all citizens to get involved, saying that current challenges can be overcome, “but you have to put in the work”.

“Our greatness awaits us, on the other side of our Tunisia moment, provided we seize this crisis as an opportunity to reinvent ourselves, our society and our country,” she said. “Are we ready?”

“I am.” 

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