Academic and co-founder of South Africa's Black Conscious Movement, Mamphela Ramphele, announced the creation of a new political party Monday "to build the South Africa of our dreams," lambasting the 101-year-old African National Congress of Nelson Mandela for corruption and power abuse.
The 65-year-old medical doctor, who was close to activist Steve Biko before he was assassinated and bore him a son, told a news conference that her party will contest the 2014 elections, campaign "from village to village" and serve millions of South Africans "who have confirmed a hunger for a new beginning."
Her party joins several in the opposition at a time when South Africa is burdened by a growing chasm between rich and poor, as well as massive unemployment, and increasingly violent protests against job losses, utility shortages and an education and health system in crisis. She said Monday that she was appalled to learn that 71 percent of South Africans between the ages of 15 to 38 years are unemployed. That group, she said, makes up 60 percent of the population.
Ramphele, among four people appointed managing directors of The World Bank in 2000, has what South Africans call "struggle credentials." She was an anti-apartheid activist and domestic partner of Black Consciousness co-founder Biko, with whom she had a son. Ramphele spent seven years under house arrest enforced by the white-minority apartheid regime in the 1970s, and she used her expulsion to a remote rural area to start a health program and empower women through initiatives like growing vegetables.
But analysts say they don't know what she will bring to the political table, noting that her criticisms of the ANC are no different from those of several other opposition leaders, that she has no grass-roots support and is not well-known even in cities. The ANC party that fought a guerrilla war to liberate South Africans from apartheid has won resounding victories at past elections.
"The dream has faded for the many living in poverty and destitution in our increasingly unequal society," Ramphele said. "And perhaps worst of all, my generation has to confess to the young people of our country: We have failed you."
Ramphele said her party, called Agang in the Sesotho language meaning "Build," will be funded by South Africans at home and abroad. City Press reported that she had recently been on a fundraising trip abroad where she canvassed South African ambassadors.
She also criticized the government's foreign policy, saying South Africa has lost "moral authority and international respect" for taking positions on Zimbabwe, Sudan's Darfur province and Myanmar that flout the human rights principles of the constitution.
She also attacked the decision to refuse a visa to Tibet's exiled religious leader, the Dalai Lama, as "the surrender of our country's national sovereignty to appease foreign powers such as China."
Recently she has become a businesswoman, sitting on the boards of several companies including Anglo American Corp. and Gold Fields Limited. This makes her part of the small elite that has benefited from black empowerment programs, criticized for promoting ANC members and cronies.
Ramphele has drawn the ire of the ANC-allied National Union of Mineworkers for defending companies that want to lay off workers in the aftermath of violent and prolonged strikes that led to the police killings of at least 34 mine workers last year. She said it was better to lose jobs now and work on creating new high-tech jobs.
On Monday, Ramphele spoke of the need for reform and innovation in the mining sector that is a pillar of the South African economy, and said its reliance on migrant labor and large numbers of cheap, low-skilled workers is unsustainable.
The union had welcomed her resignation from Gold Fields last week, ahead of Monday's announcement. Spokesman Lesiba Seshoka told The Associated Press that in the five years she chaired the company "there has been no transformation, in fact we have seen the state of health and safety get worse."
Gold Fields spokesman Sven Lunsche denied that, saying the mine has had "safety issues" but the number of fatalities has consistently decreased.
Lunsche said Ramphele "has certainly put a focus on sustainable development and drove very hard at board level for everything from housing to investing in communities."
Like most miners in South Africa, many Gold Fields workers live in shacks. The company says on its website that it has reduced room density in its hostels to just over two to a room from six in 2006 in a major housing investment program. Ramphele's interest in the plight of people living in overcrowded hostels led her to start the Western Cape Men's Hostel Dwellers Association in the 1980s.
In 1988 she went to Harvard University as the Carnegie Distinguished International Fellow and wrote a doctorate of philosophy thesis based on her research at hostels. She later wrote a book about life in the migrant labor hostels.