Nelson Mandela was still very much the figurehead of project New South Africa when Ramphele warned at a conference that “corruption among black people was too often justified on the basis that they occupied the ‘moral high ground’ as victims of apartheid oppression (and that) until whites ditched the myth of superiority and the country confronted this humiliating fallacy head-on, South Africans ‘cannot talk about a shared society’”.
That was in August 1999. These nearly 18 years later she has proved herself tireless in being willing to go back over the covered ground – her own mistakes, too – to re-examine the ideals and the lapses, and reassert the need for the work that has been too long deferred.
The trajectory of her thinking is captured in the title of her latest book, Dreams, Betrayal and Hope.
Continuing denial about the past that has made us, she argues, will only ensure it remains the condition of our future – but it need not.
Ramphele has travelled a long way in the public arena as an activist, medical doctor, academic, businesswoman and political thinker.
In 1968 she enrolled for a medical degree at the University of Natal, where she became involved in the SA Students Organisation and was a founder, with Steve Biko, of the Black Consciousness Movement. She was detained, then banned, in the late 1970s.
Ramphele became a research fellow at UCT in 1986 and was appointed vice-chancellor in 1996.
In 2000 she became a managing director of the World Bank.
She has served as the director of the pro-democracy think-tank the Institute for Democracy in SA, a board member of Anglo American and a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
In 2013 she formed the political platform AgangSA – an interlude, including her failed political marriage with the DA in 2014, which she deals with in some detail in her new book, concluding that the disappointments and inevitable strategic machinations of the terrain convinced her that she was “not a party-political animal”.
She has written extensively and often provocatively about her life and her country, always affirming the idealism that impelled her earliest activism and which finds her today as determinedly engaged.
In an interview at her Camps Bay home, Ramphele observed: “There is a drive in me, which is the dream I talk about, that will not rest until we have achieved what we fought for when we were young activists.
“We grew up poor – in a country that was exceedingly rich – simply because of structural injustices, so I am driven to do all I can to bring the country closer to the one we dreamt of. It is perfectly possible.”
South Africa had “everything we could wish for”, not least the “patient hope” of its people.
She added: “The reason we have not had an ontploffing (explosion) is because South Africans are truly patient people, perhaps to a fault but they live in hope that tomorrow will be better. Even as they feel betrayed by their leaders, they keep hoping.
“This is an enormous asset but it’s not an asset that will always be there.”
It was time to commit to realising the hope.
The settlement of 1994 held out the promise of the dream “but we were too early in declaring victory”.
Key sectors of society – including but not limited to the corporate sector – “checked out” back then, once the political settlement had been achieved, leaving unfinished what Ramphele calls the “emotional settlement”, the demanding task of establishing new values in every aspect of life, as a distinctive break with the past, and a foundation for the future.
In the book, she writes frankly about the challenges facing people history placed on opposite sides of an abyss of inequality.
“The healing process to effect an emotional settlement requires deep introspection by black citizens to acknowledge how their woundedness undermines their ability to assume the responsibilities and rights of citizenship.
“We have allowed ourselves to accept a narrative of the Struggle that reduces us to the status of passive recipients of freedom with the ANC as our liberator.
“We have, over the past 23 years, acquiesced in the erasure of our agency as active participants in the struggle for freedom.
“We have become tolerant of the use of this narrative as an excuse for the entitlement to rule by the ANC.”
On the other hand, it was essential for white society to acknowledge that the “accrued benefits and privileges of our divided past (which produced “one of the most successful affirmative action programmes ever implemented”) were “entrenched” in the settlement of 1994.
Without such acknowledgement, “healing the wounds of the humiliation of poverty in the midst of plenty” would be impossible, denying the country the scope for genuine renewal and growth.
Ramphele said the “failure to confront the scars left on the psyche of black and white” was everywhere evident.
It was no surprise “the chickens have come home to roost personal violence, domestic violence, public violence. I would go as far as saying even corruption and lack of accountability has a lot to do with this unfinished business, where people feel entitled to enrichment for all they have gone through.
“The ANC as an organisation acknowledges it is riddled with this sense of entitlement – but that matches poorly with white people who do not recognise that their privileges of today were bought at the expense of the majority.”
Ramphele paused, adding: “I bought this house in 2004 because I am one of the lucky few who managed to get educated and get a profession but (many homeowners in suburbs like Camps Bay) inherited these houses which their parents or grandparents had built at a fraction of today’s cost.
“Nobody is expecting people to give away their homes but can we just at least have an acknowledgement?”
Without it, could there really be enough trust to forge a hopeful future?
Enabling people to understand they were poor not because “you are lazy or there is something wrong with you” was a vital element of restoring their self-respect and dignity.
The key lay in the constitution of 1996 – and Ramphele’s latest activist venture, “Re-imagine South Africa” – as the means of instilling in young people a sense of their own agency, their “rights and responsibilities” as citizens.
“We, the upper middle classes, have ourselves to blame for people remaining in darkness about their rights and responsibilities, because we have not pushed hard enough for the healing of wounds, and the structural reforms needed to get people to positions where they can participate meaningfully as citizens, and prosper.
“Right now they can only prosper by attaching themselves to some authority figure; their power as individuals has yet to be revealed to them and to be recognised, or be effective in getting leaders to be accountable to them.
“We also need to end the silence of our own complicity, those of us who are aware of what is going on, and have not spoken out loudly enough not about what ‘they’ have been doing, but what ‘we’ have not been doing.”
Re-imagine South Africa would seek to reach the widest range of constituencies in the country, and confront people with the question: what are you going to do?
“That’s what matters,” Ramphele said. “No one can say there is nothing they can do because they are just an ‘ordinary person’. The question is, because you are an ordinary person, how are you going to change what you do in your home, street, community, workplace, place of worship? It’s not just about re-imagining the country ‘out there’.”