Dr Ramphele's remedy for South Africa

Mamphela RampheleImage source, Getty Images

Another sullen debate about the president's penis. Another cheerless ANC policy conference.

More shrill contradictions from the government about nationalisation. And the familiar, hoarse shouting match about who owns the least of South Africa's economy.

The blare and frenzy of this country's gloriously feisty political culture can sometimes get, well, a little gruelling.

But fear not. There is an antidote.

I met her last week in a modest office block overshadowed by a cloud-cloaked Table Mountain just outside Cape Town.

Mamphela Ramphele is among South Africa's most prominent and well-respected public intellectuals - which is another way of saying that she talks with great passion and even greater common sense about the way forward for this restless country.

You can read her biography here and perhaps note, or even lament, the fact that academia and other pursuits have kept her away from high political office.

In her own calm, forensic way, Dr Ramphele is a ferocious critic of the ruling ANC - each blow delivered with a gracious smile and a surgeon's acuity.

"The key issue of the ANC is not a lack of policies," she said, dismissing the recent policy conference out of hand.

"The key problem is leadership and capacity to govern. Is it possible to have a liberation movement transforming itself into a democratic governing party?" she asked.

"There were glimpses of it during the Mandela administration… but the rest of the ANC, quite frankly, from the very beginning was more about taking control and… stepping into the shoes of the former colonizer."

"What we have currently is a corrupt, unaccountable government," which is trying to follow East Asian developmental state models, she declared.

She added: "Look at who runs those countries and see who is in government - engineers, accountants, lawyers, highly technically capable people" with performance targets to meet. Whereas in South Africa - and here she slowed to choose her words carefully - "you don't have a critical mass of competent civil and public servants."

'Subjects to citizens'

But if Dr Ramphele is tough in her judgements on President Jacob Zuma and his team, her real preoccupation is with the ruled, not the rulers.

"We liberated ourselves as South Africans by coming together… from the churches to the schools to the private sector, and that is what unseated the apartheid government. Not guns," she said of the long struggle against white-minority rule.

Now she says she is "disappointed and frustrated" that people have forgotten how to work together.

"Post-colonial South African citizens continue to function as subjects. Their mind-set is 'those in authority know best, they will tell us what to do, they will decide when this or that happens.'"

"And so you have cycles of people waiting and praying, and when nothing happens they wait some more and then at some stage the cup runs over and then they burn and loot, and go back to the waiting business. So that kind of 'subject mentality' is what needed to have been addressed in a systematic way so they could make the transition from being subjects to citizens," she said.

"For us to be effective shareholders of South Africa Inc. we have to understand what it means to be a shareholder."

Powerful, not invincible

So much for the diagnosis. Dr Ramphele moves on to the remedies, which, for now, come in a box marked "Citizens Movement for Social Change" - a new coalition with an ambitious agenda.

The organisation aims to champion, defend and generally spread the word about South Africa's constitution, partly through a grass-roots education campaign, but also by challenging government on policy issues and, more controversially - and with the help of another group called Freedom Under the Law - to contest the authorities in court.

"We believe that the easiest way for people to understand what power they have is to demonstrate it," said Dr Ramphele, explaining the decision to challenge the recent reappointment of a controversial figure, weighed down by serious criminal allegations, as crime intelligence chief.

"Only in a culture of impunity would a government be able to think they could get away with choosing someone facing serious charges, to have those charges dropped and be given a key sensitive position. I mean it's inexplicable that they could have thought they could get away with it," said Dr Ramphele.

But the court challenge - a saga that is still unfolding - seems to have worked.

"Now they know they have to watch," she said. We are in a sense teaching by example and people can see that [politicians are] 'Ha - powerful but not invincible."

My time was up. Dr Ramphele's next visitors were queuing up outside the door, and just a few miles to the east, Cape Town's gang-infested suburbs were erupting into a new spasm of violence. Before leaving, I asked her about the endless rumours that she might finally be lured into joining a political party.

"They are looking for a box to put me in," she said, with a laugh. "And there is no box to put me in."