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Mamphela Ramphele

Regions : Sub-Saharan Africa : South Africa

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Mamphela Ramphele was born in South Africa’s Limpopo province. She has been an anti-apartheid activist, a medical doctor, a community development activist, a researcher, a university executive, and a global public servant.

As a medical student, Ramphele became one of the founders of the Black Consciousness Movement with activist Steve Biko. They began the movement as a way to empower black South Africans and protest against the apartheid regime.

Following the 1976 Soweto uprising, a series of protests begun by South African high school students, Ramphele was detained without trial. She was released after five months and soon afterwards was legally banned, an apartheid-era mandate where individuals were prohibited from communicating with more than one person at a time and from traveling domestically or internationally without permission.

After the fall of apartheid, Ramphele was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town becoming the first black woman to hold such a position at a South African university.

From 2000 - 2004, Ramphele served as a Managing Director of the World Bank. She was the first South African to hold the position. Ramphele is a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, and has served as the director of the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa.

Ramphele is the author of several books and publications on socio-economic issues in South Africa. She has received numerous national and international awards acknowledging her scholarship and leading role in spearheading projects for disadvantaged people in South Africa. 

The success of the Black Consciousness Movement was captured most poignantly by the Soweto uprising. In our movement we mobilized university students first and then the wider community including high school students. So post the Soweto uprising the government locked us up. Anybody who was seen to be active was regarded as having instigated this. Now we didn't instigate the Soweto uprising.

We did prepare the minds of those young people by inspiring them to be proud of who they are, so their rejection of what they called “gutter education” was an assertion of black pride and the insistence that they deserved the best. And so after being detained, we were -- then the whole idea of banning and banishment was to break up networks, break up solidarity groups, break up any activity that the government regarded as a threat to state security.

[Soweto, meaning Southwest Township, was a community near Johannesburg designated for black residents. Under apartheid, townships were residential areas designated for non-white groups. Non-whites were prohibited from living in areas reserved for whites. The Soweto Uprising was a series of protests led by South African high school students on June 16, 1976. Students from various Sowetan schools began demonstrating in the streets against Afrikaans as the primary language of educational instruction.]

And so after we were detained for four and a half months we were released and then people were banished to different parts of the country. I was banished to the northern part of Limpopo, not where I grew up, not where my father's homestead is but in on the eastern side of it in a place called Tzaneen and I'd never been to the place.

So banishment is actually beyond banning, people were banned and restricted to their homes but when they banish you, they take you to a far off place and the idea being to isolate you. To neutralize whatever activities we're involved in. In my case because I was running very active community projects in the eastern cape was to take me as far from eastern cape as they could but also as far from Steve Biko and the community that we had set up as they could.

Banning orders were meant to kill you politically. So you are no longer able to associate with people. You can only have one person at the time except your own family. You are not to be counted. You are not to address any rallies. You are not to move outside your restricted area.

In my case, in addition to being banished to that place I was restricted to a township with 800 houses. Each time I needed to go to church, as an Anglican the nearest church was in Tzaneen I had to get permission from the magistrate. So if I forget to get permission on a Friday I can't go to church on Sunday. I had to get permission to go and buy groceries, which the shopping centers were in town. Everything was about permission and that is to break your spirit and for many people it was devastating.

I was fortunate as a medical doctor and I dared them. At first they had restricted me to a large area of the Tzaneen district but when they saw me starting community health projects all over, they decided okay, let's limit her to the township. They made a mistake because the people came from those villages to the township and they could never break me. So I said if you were to restrict me now from leaving my house, let me tell you I will find something to do, you will never break me. And that is, I believe, a strength that you develop both from this identity journey we had gone through but the more they killed those close to me the more they made me.

At first of course, the reaction is shock, grief, pain and then anger. And the only way I could deal with anger was to translate it into energy. And I just worked and slept, worked and slept and there was no way in which I was going to sit there and be depressed.

The theory was that you could ask the Minister of Justice to explain to you why you were banished. So duly I got my lawyer, Raymond Tucker, to write to the minister to inquire as to why I was banished. And he said that is not in the interest of state security to tell you why you are banned. Full stop. And there's no appeal after that.

[Raymond Tucker (1932 – 2004) was a South African lawyer who defied the apartheid government by providing legal services to anti-apartheid activists and organizations.]

I was banned and banished from 1977 to 1983. That was the beginning of the so-called opening of South Africa -- very tentative steps about the need to negotiate, etcetera. But because I'd started projects in Lenyenye and that whole Tzaneen district I stayed on as a free person for another year because that had become home.

I had started community projects, which ranged from the community health center, which I built just across the street from where I lived, a child's development center, which was a model for how you can give a childhood education to kids. A youth center to create a positive environment for young people to develop themselves. We had started projects with brickmaking, community gardens. All of that needed to be handed over in an orderly way to the people I'd been working with who lived there. Those projects are alive and well today. And that time I spent there was really worthwhile because I could use my network to raise money and to introduce them to the donors who used to support us.

And so yes, it was a long journey. It was also a growth period for me because you either get destroyed by pain or you get strengthened by it. In my case I think I was strengthened by it. 

South Africa is a nation of almost 53 million on the southern tip of Africa. The nation has a unique multicultural character and is approximately 80 percent African and 10 percent European, with the remaining 10 percent being of mixed race or Asian heritage. These broad racial categories include a multitude of ethnic and linguistic groups.

Although it has the largest economy on the continent, much of the nation remains in poverty and there is great economic disparity. Historically, the mining industry has played a key role in South Africa’s economy and it continues to remain an important industry today, alongside manufacturing, tourism, and financial services.

South Africa was first settled by non-natives in 1652, when the Dutch established an outpost in what would later become Cape Town. Soon after, British, French, and German settlers came to the area. The descendants of the original Dutch settlers became known as Afrikaners. Conflicts over land and power arose between the settling groups as well as between the settlers and the native people of the region. In 1910, Britain formally created the Union of South Africa as a self-governing dominion within the British Empire.

Throughout South Africa’s history, non-whites were subjected to widespread discrimination. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the government passed a series of laws institutionalizing discrimination and segregation. In the 1948 elections, the National Party, which served as a platform for Afrikaner nationalism, gained power. The National Party program was centered on the system of racial segregation known as apartheid. Supporters of apartheid argued that South Africa was made up of four distinct racial groups: white, black, “Coloured” or mixed-race, and Indian.

The white minority oppressed the African majority and other non-white groups. Black Africans were particularly disadvantaged in terms of education, housing, income, and health. Blacks were denied citizenship and not permitted to use the services and facilities accessible by the white minority. Many blacks were forced to relocate when their neighborhoods were declared “white.” A series of laws enacted in the 1950s further codified and expanded racial segregation. In part, the National Party justified its policies by branding its opponents as communists.

The African National Congress (ANC) was founded in 1912 to advocate for the rights of black South Africans. As apartheid expanded, the ANC and other groups used both nonviolent and violent actions to combat the government. The ANC and other groups were oppressed by the government, and many of their senior leaders were banned or imprisoned. Nelson Mandela, a prominent ANC leader, was imprisoned from 1962 to 1990.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the anti-apartheid movement gained strength. Foreign governments and the international community isolated South Africa. International sanctions damaged the economy and helped erode domestic support for apartheid. Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War weakened the government’s claim that yielding power would lead to a communist takeover.

In 1990, the government of South Africa took its first steps toward ending apartheid when it ended a ban on certain political organizations including the ANC. Nelson Mandela and other opposition leaders were released from prison and apartheid legislation was repealed. F.W. de Klerk, President from 1989-1994, helped to broker this transition of South Africa from the apartheid-era to a multi-racial democracy. In 1993, de Klerk and Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize for their work.

In 1994, South Africa held its first election that allowed all adults to vote, regardless of race. The ANC gained power and Nelson Mandela was elected president. South Africa enacted a liberal, democratic constitution, backed by a strong and independent judiciary. While the ANC has remained the strongest party, elections are vigorously contested and democratic safeguards are respected. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated abuses and crimes committed during the apartheid era.

Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom in the World report categorized South Africa as “free” with an overall freedom rating of two, with one being the most free and seven being the least. The country also received ratings of two in political rights and civil liberties. However, in the 2013 Freedom of the Press report, the nation was categorized as “party free” due to government restrictions on the press and the prevalence of civil cases brought against journalists for libel.

More from Mamphela Ramphele

Mamphela Ramphele: Banishment “You either get destroyed by pain or you get strengthened by it.” Mamphela Ramphele: Lessons Learned from South Africa “Mandela’s leadership welded together segments of society.” Mamphela Ramphele: Preparing for Change “People whose minds were freed were not going to go back into the box.” More + Mamphela Ramphele: Signs of Inequality “Why would a person's education be interrupted because they refused to wave a flag?” Mamphela Ramphele: The Black Consciousness Movement “If your mind is imprisoned you're imprisoned.” Mamphela Ramphele: Censorship “My crime was daring to have books that the apartheid government deemed unhealthy for a native's mind.” Mamphela Ramphele: Background Mamphela discusses her first realization that something was wrong in South Africa. Mamphela Ramphele: Inspiration Mamphela discusses inspirations for the Black Consciousness Movement.