Ramphele's personality is backed up by pedigree
The best thing Mamphela Ramphele has going for her as she sets out into the stormy waters of party politics is her personal brand. The question for the next one to six years is whether that is enough.
In about a year from now, probably on April 27, she will test the popularity of her idea at the polls. Then, in 2019, she will find out whether five years of parliamentary politics have given her the momentum to stay in the game.
I had expected her to roll out one or two really big names when she announced her plan to launch a political party, but it seems the project is to be carried largely by her own reputation.
Writing ahead of Ramphele's formal announcement of a new political "platform" called Agang, Gareth van Onselen said on his liberal Inside Politics website: "It will represent the triumph of ego over sound political analysis and, as a result, the indulgence of narcissism above South Africa's best interests.
"If one has no market analysis, no clear understanding of what voters are available to you as a party, who they are or what they want, and yet you still decide, on the basis of a feeling in your gut, that you are what South Africa needs, rest assured, you are in for a horrible and humiliating experience," he said.
It is not yet clear how much formal analysis Ramphele has put into her project, but her presentation to the public on Monday did have an evangelical ring to it.
"I have never been a member of a political party nor aspired to political office. I, however, feel called to lead the efforts of many South Africans who increasingly fear that we are missing too many opportunities to become that which we have the potential to become - a great society," she said.
That is the sort of rhetoric that gets crowds on their feet wherever she speaks. Standing ovations are the norm for her, even when her audience is black and broadly ANC-aligned.
She has as good a political pedigree as you can get. She comes from within the anti-apartheid struggle; she paid a heavy price for her opposition to white rule and lost the love of her life, Steve Biko, to police murder; she mixes with the great and the good around the world; and she has an honourable record of hard work on the ground, where inequality hurts most.
But the ANC reserves a special vitriol for black leaders who turn their criticism of the ruling party and its government into political activism.
ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe already has come close to branding her plan treason. Referring to the fact that her intentions became public during a recent visit to the US, he raised this absurd canard: "We are hoping against hope that it is not an American initiative aimed at destabilising our country. We are very much alive to concerns by Western powers that liberation movements in Africa are too powerful."
Cosatu also tried to undermine Ramphele's grassroots credentials, saying: "She speaks for the class of capitalists which has embraced her and now sees her as a saviour from their working-class enemies."
Van Onselen argues that reputation is not enough to win an influential place in politics. That requires a defined market for a unique policy programme presented by a solid party structure.
Passion and profile may not be enough, but they are essential ingredients, which Ramphele has in buckets, and there can be no doubt that personalities do drive politics.
Apart from outsized examples such as Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Fidel Castro, just think about how those who have claimed the title "South African president" - whether legitimately or not - have shaped the country's history in their eras. Even just since 1994, Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and now Jacob Zuma have moulded this country and their common platform, the ANC, in quite different ways.
Across the aisle, Helen Suzman, Colin Eglin, Tony Leon and now Helen Zille made quite different things of the brand now known as the DA - each shaped by their own separate personalities.
Ramphele's riveting oratory, her incisive analysis of the elitist corruption corroding our democracy and her call for better things will draw crowds.
But as DA leader Zille pointed out in a weekend address to the South African National Editor's Forum, each post-democracy election has launched a new opposition party, and none has gained traction with voters.
Bantu Holomisa's and Roelf Meyer's United Democratic Movement in 1999, Patricia de Lille's Independent Democrats in 2004 and the Congress of the People in 2009 all promised a personality-driven challenge to ANC hegemony. None succeeded.
South Africa is awash with personalities as strong as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former ANC minister Jay Naidoo, Mbeki himself and Jonathan Jansen telling us that democracy is dangerously adrift. They all point to the same failings - inequality, joblessness, corruption and collapsing education.
But none has been able to divert us from our course into the rocks.
Ramphele will need to find formidable strengths and skills in addition to the ones she has so far shown if she is to be the one who does.