Memoirs of a survivor

Across Boundaries
April 25, 1997

South Africa's greatest gift is its many outstanding people; among the most remarkable is Mamphela Ramphele, black consciousness activist and intellectual, medical doctor and community worker, social anthropologist and now vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

Born at the end of 1947 in the northern Transvaal, the middle child of primary school teachers - already a position of "relative privilege" in the rural black community where she grew up - Ramphele showed both her intellectual promise and her "passion for independence" at an early age. Assigned to write a letter to a friend about the Dutch Reformed Church secondary school she was attending, she took the opportunity of writing a truthful but scathing account of a school in which the dormitories were infested with bedbugs, the food was "unchanging and unappetising", and social relations between the students and most of the teachers "a problem area". The teacher was manifestly outraged and gave her a low mark, but, Ramphele remarks, "I was not perturbed in the least, because I had given a true account of life at the school as I experienced it."

Across Boundaries takes us through her life from her rural childhood negotiating the "tricky" relationships of an extended family, to her early days as a naive young medical student at a time when black doctors, let alone black women doctors, were few and far between, her political activism in the Black Consciousness Movement and intense relationship - as his colleague, fellow activist and lover - with its charismatic leader, Steve Biko; her establishment of model rural health clinics first in the eastern Cape (where she followed Biko, who was banished to King William's Town) and the northern Transvaal where she was banished by the National party in 1977; her two disastrous marriages and difficult pregnancies; the evolution of her ideas on feminism and the importance of the support of the Anglican church; her reservations about the political direction South Africa has taken since 1990 and the pressures on her as a black woman to become a "superwoman" coping not only with a career and single parenthood, but also with all the pressures to engage in "many national and community activities".

Moving to Cape Town in 1984, Ramphele was at last able to take pause from a life of "terror living on the frontline" for herself and her children. She re-entered academic life and another important stage of her personal growth by working with the economist Francis Wilson on the Carnegie Commission on Black Poverty and on the plight of children caught up in violent struggle. Formidably energetic and competent, she combined this with sessions in the Guguletu dayhospital and moving into anthropological research, producing a fine study on hostel dwellers in the western Cape (published asA Bed Called Home in 1993), which gained her a doctoral degree. By this time she had also picked up a B. Commerce, and diplomas in public health and tropical medicine.It is to the credit of the University of Cape Town that it appreciated both her creative capacity and her strength of character and invited her to join the UCT executive first as deputy vice chancellorin 1991, and in 1996 as vice chancellor.

Her autobiography is, Ramphele remarks, "a story of loss...the loss of country, the loss of innocence, of space for creativity, personal freedom and loved ones... Story-telling is part of the struggle to transcend the loss." This is a story of loss - but also in the end of personal growth and redemption, as the author discovers - after years of activism - how to relax and "just to stop and smell the flowers". "People often ask me how I could have survived under the conditions I had been subjected to in my life," she writes, in the chapter that charts her years of greatest personal trial. "The short answer is that if you are faced with adversity, you have no choice but to strive for survival. It is amazing what internal reserves come to the fore under stressful conditions - mostly reserves you did not even know you possessed until they are needed." Fortunately for her and for South Africa, Ramphele is a great survivor.

Ramphele's capacity to look at her life without blinkers and then move on is impressive. She has never been afraid to cross boundaries, whether those imposed by race or gender, or those imposed by the "party line". At several points in the narrative she pauses to tell the reader of the demands and limitations of her "fragile body". But whatever the fragility of the body the spirit is indomitable. As she says: "in a racist and sexist society ... a nonsubservient black woman is by definition a transgressive - she is the ultimate outsider."

In the preface, Ramphele justifies her writing her autobiography. It is, she says, both a way of reflecting on a past that too many people want to forget and a "script" to guide those black women who follow after. Those who wish to assess the true cost of the human degradation that was apartheid should read this book; but so should those who want a true measure of the human spirit at its most resilient.

Shula Marks is professor of southern African history, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Across Boundaries: The Journey of a South African Woman Leader

Author - Mamphela Ramphele
ISBN - 1 55861 165 7
Publisher - The Feminist Press, New York
Price - $19.95
Pages - 244

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