By Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu
South Africa’s constitutional democracy was very hard-earned. People were harassed, beaten, locked up, banished, forced into exile and killed for it. They included supporters of the UDF, ANC, PAC, BCM; members of religious, cultural, sporting, business and youth formations; young and old, men and women – across our beautiful land.
When push came to shove, God blessed South Africa with an extraordinarily gracious and magnanimous leader. After the hundreds of years of suffering that preceded it, our relatively peaceful transformation was a miracle.
Working together, politicians across the political spectrum developed a Constitution that has been lauded the world over.
We were highly mobilised and active citizens with a common purpose. We were crowned world champions on the rugby field and won the most prestigious continental soccer trophy at our first attempt. The world looked on in awe; the sky was our only limit.
Nearly 20 years into our democracy the graciousness and magnanimity that characterised our political firmament have to a great extent been surrendered at the altar of power and wealth. We read compelling stories of state corruption and misspending in our newspapers every day, not that we can ever be sure they are true because nobody ever seems to appear in court. We fought for the right to protest, but we abuse the right by damaging property, looting, terrorising others – hurling excrement at politicians! We laid the foundations upon which to restore the dignity of our poorest and most marginalised people, but we are struggling to build the house.
For all of these reasons – regardless of which political party one plans to support in next years election – few thinking South Africans would not welcome the entry into South African politics of someone of the calibre, background, intellect and resourcefulness of Mamphela Ramphele.
Besides the fact that there is no doubt that a strong constitutional democracy is strengthened by the presence of vibrant and credible opposition, I have known Dr Ramphele for more than 30 years as a brave and principled leader who has been ready to take costly stands for social justice.
When the apartheid government banished her to Lenyenye in Limpopo province, the South African Council of Churches helped her to start her first clinic there. I opened the clinic for her in 1981, and to this day the people and leaders of the area remember her for changing their lives.
Later she became a pioneering leader and administrator in universities, in global public service at the World Bank and in business.
If Dr Ramphele formally enters the election race next year, and goes on to attract sufficient votes to become a parliamentarian, there is no doubt that South Africans will benefit from her experience and her knowledge – and from hearing her voice.
She is an African woman – I happen to think women make better politicians than men – and she is entering our political discourse on a clean slate, so to speak. She is neither a newly disaffected member of an old political party nor the bearer of any party political baggage from the past.
The fact that she may criticise the ruling party at times – as I have – does not mean she should lose the right to speak, or that she does not love her country. Or, frankly, that the ruling party does not deserve it.
Dr Ramphele has spoken of a pervasive climate of fear and intolerance in South Africa, where critics restrict their criticisms to their armchairs behind closed doors rather than risk their capital or their connections or their clout. If we have indeed become a nation that fears the consequences of not kow-towing to the government we have clearly taken a wrong turn somewhere.
As citizens we should never have to fear constructively criticising and engaging that which is wrong (and equally, praising that which is right). We have earned the right to be critics. We have earned the right to hold our leaders to account, to hold them to the highest standards. Their challenge is to improve their performance, to prove they can do it. Is that not what a constitutional democracy such as ours is all about?
Our country has immense potential. Our people have thrilled the world with their talents and their capacity to change the course of history. We still have that capacity. Those who support Dr Ramphela, those who support our other opposition parties – and not excluding those who support the ruling party – still have the capacity.
It starts with our ability to listen, to hear, to care and to support one another.
We can still lead Africa, and the world, in showing the way to a modern, participatory democracy in which the voices of citizens are supreme.
Our people deserve to fulfill their potential. Our country deserves an environment that is conducive to an active citizenry and active debate, holding to account a government that is magnanimous and pragmatic and responsive to the many challenges we face.
I welcome Mamphela Ramphele’s arrival in the South African political landscape. Hers is a voice that is worth hearing, and I look forward to the contribution she will make towards building the society we know we can become.