Ramphele, Mamphela (1947—)

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Ramphele, Mamphela (1947—)

South African doctor, anthropologist, educator, and activist. Born on December 28, 1947, near Pietersburg, South Africa; parents were rural schoolteachers; entered medical school in 1968 and qualified in medicine at the University of Natal in 1972; Ph.D. in social anthropology, University of Cape Town, 1991; BCom. degree in administration, University of South Africa; married and divorced; children: sons Hlumelo and Malusi.

Born to rural schoolteachers in the northern Transvaal, South Africa, in 1947, Mamphela Ramphele determined to become a doctor while growing up under apartheid. In 1968, she entered medical school at the University of Natal, where she became one of the group of political activists associated with Mapetla Mohapi and Steven Biko, who was also a medical student, and joined Biko's Black Consciousness Movement. As well as colleagues, they also became lovers. She qualified in medicine in 1972, and three years later founded the Zanempilo Health Clinic at King William's Town through the auspices of the Black Community Programmes. In 1977, she was arrested and, without a trial, banned to a far corner of the Transvaal, where she continued to work as a doctor. Soon thereafter, she discovered that she was pregnant with Biko's child, and learned that Biko and Mohapi had died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody—Biko supposedly committed suicide by jumping out a window. Ramphele gave birth to her first son, Hlumelo (she would later have a second son, Malusi), and, overcoming her grief, eventually went on to found another health clinic, the Ithuseng Community Health Program, while still in detention at Trichardsdal. She later wrote about Biko and their relationship in her autobiography Mamphela Ramphele—A Life (published in the U.S. as Across Boundaries: The Journey of a South African Woman Leader), and her frank discussion of the romance (Biko was married, and commands enormous respect for his part in the struggle against apartheid) caused no small amount of controversy and talk in South Africa.

Her banning order was lifted in 1983, and three years later Ramphele became a research fellow at the University of Cape Town. She earned a doctorate in social anthropology there in 1991 (her dissertation was published two years later as A Bed Called Home: Life in the Migrant Labour Hostels of Cape Town), and that same year was named a deputy vice-chancellor of the university. She became vice-chancellor in 1996, the first black woman to be appointed to such a post in South Africa; President Nelson Mandela, a friend, gave the speech at her installation ceremony. One of her initial acts was to institute a strong sexual harassment policy. During her tenure, she provided stable leadership and strove to elevate the school into a "World-Class African University," which she described as a pledge both to students and to Africa: "We owe this to the students of today and tomorrow, who deserve a qualification that measures up to the best available anywhere. And we owe it to a country and to a continent that can potentially offer so much—socially, culturally, politically and economically—to human understanding and progress in the new millennium."

In 2000, Ramphele left the University of Cape Town to become the second woman managing director at the World Bank, where as managing director of human development she oversees activities in health, education, and social protection. She dismissed criticism about joining the powerful organization, which has been frequently vilified by many who see its actions in poor and developing countries as brutally heavy-handed, by citing her lifelong commitment to equality and empowerment. Widely respected and no stranger to controversy herself, she is the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees.

sources and suggested reading:

Monday Paper (University of Cape Town). May 8–15, 2000.

Ramphele, Mamphela. Across Boundaries: The Journey of a South African Woman Leader. Foreword by Johnetta B. Cole. Feminist Press, 1997.

Uglow, Jennifer, ed. and comp. The International Dictionary of Women's Biography. NY: Continuum, 1989.

"World Bank Appoints New Managing Director." World Bank Group news release, September 24, 1999.

Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont