At the end of January, a shock announcement by the leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance (DA) party, Helen Zille, said that Mamphela Ramphele – who leads the Agang SA party – had agreed to stand as the DA’s presidential candidate.
Elements within the DA and Agang SA made it perfectly clear that they were none too happy with this development. It was, after all, an extraordinary proposal that the leader of one opposition party should stand as the presidential candidate of another opposition party.
In early February, five days after the ‘agreement’ had been announced, the deal was called off with Zille accusing Ramphele of reneging on the accord – specifically, refusing to formally join the DA party. Zille and Ramphelaeboth declare they share a close personal friendship; but it was difficult to understand what had transpired – and Zille’s statement about the matter was contained barely concealed fury.
Nevertheless, Ramphele is a formidable political figure, and also much more: a medical doctor, author, academic and business leader. This unfortunate episode only provides added piquancy to this, her autobiography. It is rich in detail and correlates strongly with the history of South Africa’s liberation struggle. But the book’s opening chapters tells a far more intimate story of childhood and growing up in a rural village in Limpopo.
Ramphele tells us in her preface that she was originally inspired to tell her life story by Albertina Sisulu, who is quoted as saying in the book The Spirit of Hope: “We are required to walk our own road – and then stop, assess what we have learned and share it with others. It is only in this way that the next generation can learn from those who have walked before them … we can do no more than tell a story. They must do with it what they will.”
Political sensibilities were stirred from a young age with the influence of family members. One uncle, Solly Mogomotsi, was an African Congress Member and had been a member of the South African Communist Party before it was banned in 1950. An aunt’s husband had been detained under the 90-day rule, and her elder sister Mashadi was expelled from high school for participating in a demonstration against the celebrations of South Africa becoming a republic in 1961.
But politics was always discussed in hushed tones, a symptom of the times – as was Ramphele’s father’s dilemma. As she describes it, her sister’s expulsion was “not an uncomplicated event for my father as principal of Stephanus Hofmeyer School, which was also part of Afrikaner hegemony”.
Later, Ramphele writes about her father “in his usual quiet way successfully walking the tightrope between remaining a loyal civil servant and not antagonising those who were up in arms against the [Afrikaner] dominee [of the Kranspoort Mission Station where the school was located]”.
She describes her family as not wealthy, but by local standards well off. It would appear to have been a happy childhood, but not without some sorrow – as when a younger baby brother died during the first night of its life.
But the residents of Kransport knew how to enjoy themselves, celebrating elaborate weddings as well as Christmas and New Year festivities with the sharing of food, singing and dancing.
Ramphele takes us through her adolescent years with relentless frankness. It’s a narrative of boarding school life, at Bethesda Normal College “like an island of Protestant morality in the Bushveld”, where hunger seems to have been a permanent companion and strong friendships were formed, before Ramphele opts to study medicine at Natal Medical School after a pre-medical school stint at the University of the North.
Shortly before medical school, Ramphele lost her father to cancer. It was a heavy loss, but just the first of many she would suffer over the years. She seems to have blossomed in medical school and admits that it was here that the innocent rural girl became a person “who became alive to the vast possibilities that life has to offer”.
To use the word ‘sassy’ might not be wide of the mark, although it would not be a term she would have recognised in the late 1960s. But with talk of hot pants, beer drinking, dancing and smoking (before the health risks, even to the medical profession, were widely appreciated), ‘sassy’ is probably an apt description of her lifestyle.
She remembers listening to Malcom X speeches on tape, as well as Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and she joined a circle of friends that avidly read and shared banned books of the day.
One of her friends was Vuyelwa Mashalaba, and it was through this friend that Ramphele met a new circle of student activist friends that included Steve Biko.
That meant an increasing involvement in student politics, which at that time, focused on criticism of white liberal policies as “ineffectual” and unlikely to lead to change.
This was Biko’s view, but his debating opponent Ben Ngubane argued that the apartheid machine was so powerful and so evil that it should be denied the pleasure of seeing disunity amongst the anti-apartheid movement.
Biko and Ramphele became closer, she regularly working with him taking dictation of his ‘stream of consciousness’ musings that she would read back to him so that he could type out his regular newspaper column.
“The pursuit of an academic degree was no match for the excitement of being part of a process of shaping history,” Ramphele notes.
Ramphele seems particularly sensitive to the way that her relationship with Biko is frequently misrepresented and distorted. She writes: “The film Cry Freedom was in one respect an inaccurate portrayal of Steve’s political life … what the film did was perpetuate the lie of Steve as a Gandhi-type person respectably married to a dedicated wife who shared his life and political commitments”.
That is somewhat at odds with the reality, which was that Ramphele and Biko were lovers and when, on the 12th September 1977, Biko died from the security police’s brutal treatment of him, she was 16 weeks pregnant with their second child Hlumelo (a name meaning ‘the shoot that grew from the dead tree’). Tragically, their first child, Lerato Biko, died in infancy from pneumonia.
Strangely, nor is there any reference to the recently published Biko, A Biography, by Xolela Mangcu – an associate professor at Cape Town University who also knew Biko well.
Later in the book she rails at a 1994 Boston Globe article that ran under the headline ‘Biko’s Lover: Banished and Pregnant’. She takes exception in the inference “that my public persona was an uncomfortable one for patriarchal society to deal with, and had to be given ‘respectability’ by summoning Steve from the grave to accompany me and clothe my nakedness”.
Exactly when her feminist awakening took place – as opposed to her political awakening – is not entirely clear (or perhaps the two are indistinguishable), but she describes these kinds of attitudes as “an effective form of social control of women who may be too independent for the comfort of the existing social structure”.
Her first meeting with Nelson Mandela took place at Pollsmoor Prison one Sunday morning, at his invitation, resulted in his urging Ramphele to document the history of the Black Consciousness Movement.
The result was Ramphele writing the 1991 book, Bounds of Possibility: The Legacy of Steve Biko and Black Consciousness. In this instance, it would seem, Madiba’s request to her was far more than an attempt to ‘clothe her nakedness’.
Ramphele continued to visit Mandela, on one occasion with Hlumelo and her daughter Malusi Magele during his “luxurious” incarceration at Victor Verster Prison in Paarl. “I got to know more about the person behind Mandela the symbol,” she remarks.
Strangely, and regrettably in this reviewer’s opinion, her book devotes comparatively little attention to her time as one of four managing directors of the World Bank, based in Washington, DC, in charge of strategic positioning and operations at the World Bank Institute and the vice presidency of External Affairs.
Nor to her life in the top echelons of the corporate world after she returned to South Africa from Washington DC in 2005, becoming the chairperson of Gold Fields and of Circle Capital Ventures (Pty) Limited, as well as a director on the board of companies such as Medi-Clinic, Anglo American, Transnet, Standard Bank and Remgro.
Nor is her role as an academic research fellow, deputy vice-chancellor and vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town (prior to her World Bank appointment) discussed in that much detail. Perhaps there is enough material here for another autobiography to be penned?
But Ramphele will be remembered as a fearless struggle figure even if her detractors believe that she became too close to corporate South Africa in later years. Nor was she able to leverage that relationship to fund her party, Agang SA (“let us build” in Sosotho) that analysts say occupies much of the same ground as the DA party.
Agang SA is broke, by all accounts – it is reportedly unable to pay its staff – and after the latest imbroglio with Zille’s DA, whatever chances it had of influencing South Africa’s political direction seems to be fading fast.
Many of Ramphele’s closest advisors and confidantes believe it is time for Ramphele to bow out of politics and enjoy a well-earned retirement. But few would be surprised to see her battle on in her struggle to transform South Africa’s fractured and fractious society.
A Passion for Freedom
By Mamphela Ramphele
ZAR250 Tafelberg (SA)
Subscribe for full access
You've reached the maximum number of free articles for this month.
£8.00 / month
Receive full unlimited access to our articles, opinions, podcasts and more.
£70.00 / year
Receive full unlimited access to our articles, opinions, podcasts and more.