Tuesday, 15 April 2014
Stepping out of Biko's Shadow
Mamphela Ramphele's name will always be linked with that of Steve Biko - as she points out, she is a kind of honorary "widow" - but here in A Passion for Freedom (Tafelberg) we have her own story, in her own words. It is a story of loss and (although this sounds clichéd) survival and triumph over adversity. It is told dispassionately and honestly, with grace and dignity.
Her academic training affords her a degree of detachment - she is, to use her own term, a kind of "participant observer" - and allows for perceptive analyses of her position as a black female activist in the struggle, as a community health worker, as a medical doctor - and eventually as an academic, as vice- chancellor of UCT, as a director of the World Bank, and lately as the leader of Agang and now presidential candidate for the DA.
A common thread runs through her story: this is her determination not to be dictated to by circumstances, and her passionate concern for the freedom and advancement of the people of South Africa.
Her story starts with an exploration of her familial roots in Kranspoort, situated in what is now Limpopo Province, and she takes care to delineate the communal fabric of life in her home village. As a young black woman she seems destined to become a teacher (few other options were available to black women), and her first life-defining assertion of independence is her decision to become a medical doctor: "I would not become a teacher."
This leads her to the University of Natal Medical School - and to her encounter with Biko and the circle of activists he led. The story of her difficult, multi-faceted relationship with Biko is the pivot around which the book turns. Theirs was a deep, personal and political engagement, complicated by the fact of Biko's marriage. She pays tribute to his presence and personality.
This period was also her initiation into activism: "The formation of SASO and the subsequent maturation of the Black Consciousness Movement into a political force to be reckoned with became the main focus of Steve Biko's life.
"One could not help admiring this tall, handsome, eloquent and totally dedicated activist."
This resulted in the transformation of Ramphele "from an innocent rural girl to a person who became alive to the vast possibilities which life has to offer". It was in the crucible of BC activism that her personality as a fighter and political actor was forged.
Ramphele is relatively silent on the position she must have found herself in as a result of the predominantly masculinist discourse and orientation of the BC movement, as evidenced by the default use of the masculine pronoun, and the restricted use of the term "man". The overwhelming emphasis on race as the determining factor in South African life and politics led to a neglect of gender and of sexual politics.
Ramphele indicates (later in the book) that she had yet to develop a full awareness of the role of gender in personal and societal relations. However, she does describe her growing self-confidence and self-assertion ("I became quite an aggressive debater and was known for not suffering fools gladly") and records the emergence of a group of "similarly inclined women? who became a force to be reckoned with at annual SASO meetings".
At the same time, she states that "ours was not a feminist cause"; it was, rather, an insistence on the need to be taken seriously as activists in their own right.
Her own life story (often involving pain and loss) is interwoven with the more public story of the state's attempt to suppress the BC movement, though in her life the personal and the political are inseparable. State repression included the banning orders of 1973, the death in detention of Mapetla Mohapi in 1976, and the murder of Biko at the hands of the Port Elizabeth security police in 1977. The final blow was the banning of all BC-related organisations on October 19, 1977.
Ramphele records her initial reaction to the news of Biko's death and describes how she found the inner strength to carry on: "I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and get up and walk."
Part of her response to adversity was to throw herself into community work, first at the Zanempilo Community Health Centre near King William's Town, which opened in January 1975, and then, following her banishment to the Naphuno district of Tzaneen (in the then Northern Transvaal), at the Ithuseng Community Health Centre.
Her narrative of these events includes an account of the stresses and strains in her relationship with Biko, and an insightful take on the activist community that developed in Ginsburg, centred on Biko. It culminates in "that fateful day - 12 September 1977". The death of Biko was also "the death of a dream". How did Ramphele survive these traumatic events? The birth of their son, Hlumelo, in January 1978 ("the shoot that grew from a dead tree trunk") must have afforded some comfort.
Ramphele left the home she had made in Lenyelenye for Port|Elizabeth in 1984, partly in an (unsuccessful) attempt to save her marriage to Sipo Magele.
A life-changing event was the offer from Frances Wilson to take up a post at UCT and assist with work on the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in Southern Africa.
This opened a much-needed door, and led to her entry into academic life. It led also to her important work on migrant-labour hostels in Cape Town and to her appointment as vice-chancellor of UCT.
The more interesting parts of these chapters are those dealing with her (unwanted) status as "Biko's widow", and her assessment of the contribution of BC to the liberation struggle.
She also describes more personal crises, including what might be called post-liberation depression. She gives a fascinating account of her encounters with Nelson Mandela (which began in Pollsmoor in 1988) and records his insistence that the role of Biko (and by extension that of BC) be acknowledged.
The sections dealing with the transformation of UCT will be of greater interest to academic insiders, but throughout these chapters her activist background leads her to ask awkward questions, including questions about her own role.
Her stance as "participant observer" makes possible a kind of double perspective on the challenges of her personal and professional life.
She takes the occasional side-swipe (at Azapo, at Thabo Mbeki) and is generous in acknowledging the help and support she has received from family, friends, fellow activists and others.
She deals briefly with her years at the World Bank ("a toxic institution"). It becomes clear that her return to South Africa was never in doubt, and equally, that retirement is, for her, hardly a possibility. She believes passionately in the need for "active citizenship", and her refusal to accept corruption or mediocrity (particularly in the education system) helps to explain her most recent commitment, which is to the leadership of Agang. So this book is not the end of the story.
Ramphele emerges as a tireless and uncompromising fighter for liberation and justice. "I have invested enormous psychic energy in the struggle," she says, and her book explores the costs and the rewards.
The publication of A Passion for Freedom may be timely, but it is clearly no quick exercise in self-promotion. It makes an important contribution to the understanding of our recent past, and fills out the life story of a brave, resilient and transgressive woman. It supplements her recent Conversations with My Sons and Daughters (2012). It deserves close and careful reading. - published February 2, 2014.