When Dr Mamphela Ramphele’s banning orders were renewed for two years in 1982, there was outrage in the liberation movements. She had already been banned for five.
“Bannings, banishments, detentions without trial and ideologically-motivated trials are viewed as an open war against black aspirations and security,” railed the Azanian People’s Organisation spokesman Ishmael Mkhabela.
But not much could halt apartheid security legislation and technically, Ramphele was a prisoner without the locks.
She was barred from attending any gatherings, which should have included treating a patient in the presence of their relatives. And she was, on paper, prevented from leaving the magisterial district of Lenyenye, 20km outside Tzaneen – the place of her banishment.
Her first sight of the rural village had come after a 1 000km drive through a cold night in May 1977.
She had travelled with anger, her captors cold-hearted, having given her no time to put her life in order at her home in the Eastern Cape.
The plan was, of course, that Ramphele’s life be controlled and, at best, made into a living hell. That started with her being allocated a house designated for a policeman in an area where all her neighbours were cops. But if that was their best shot, Ramphele had no intention of allowing herself to be broken.
They may not have known it in 1977 but by 1982, when her banning orders were renewed, the authorities must have realised it was an uphill battle trying to contain the young doctor. For them, it was a journey of diminishing returns.
Stronger than they imagined, Ramphele had been determined to start her strange new life from scratch – despite the bannings, despite being pregnant and – most difficult – being without her soulmate, Steve Biko. And she did.
Ramphele would have to beg permission from a magistrate to get medical supplies and regularly apply to visit outlying areas when her dedication to medicine took her as the only doctor to a community of tens of thousands of people. But the red tape never stopped her.
She had first felt the racist iron fist when she was detained after the Soweto uprisings in 1976, a year before her Black Consciousness (BC) co-founder and lover Biko was murdered in police custody.
Their son Hlumelo never met his father. Biko was killed just months before he was born.
When Ramphele was banished to Lenyenye, she was based at the Zanempilo Clinic in King William’s Town as its first superintendent.
Although she was born in Limpopo, her new home – which she shared with her mother, two brothers and Hlumelo – was a world away from the Eastern Cape where she had been building a life.
But Ramphele, then only 33, says she was “very fortunate” to belong to the BC movement when it happened. Its powerful philosophical grounding prepared her.
“They threw me out into Tzaneen, but I did not give up. I looked for allies and found the Catholic Church which gave me a room at the back and I started a clinic,” she reflected in an interview.
“I translated my personal commitment into civic duty.”
This is typical Ramphele style.
Today, at 64, the medical doctor and activist continues her commitment as founder of the Citizens Movement, launched in April.
She is also chairwoman of Gold Fields and has been one of four managing directors of the World Bank – the first South African to hold this position.
Ramphele has served as a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, director of Idasa and as a board member of Anglo-American and Transnet.
Now, she has released a book, Conversations with My Sons and Daughters, and it couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune moment.
With the country’s morality at odds in the wake of a massacre, Ramphele’s set of values and outspoken ethics are rare.
Although she has used her life as a fearless fight for real democracy, it is how Ramphele spent her banishment in the old homeland of Lebowa more than 30 years ago which is particularly revealing of her qualities.
It took three years for Ramphele’s vision of a clinic for the poor, abandoned community there to blossom.
Community leaders, the SA Council of Churches (SACC), Anglo-American and the Australian government helped her raise money to set up the Ithuseng Community Health Centre opposite her home, and it was an honour for them when the then-secretary-general of the SACC, Desmond Tutu, agreed to open it.
But she didn’t wait until the whitewashed new clinic could be built. Ramphele started working as a doctor, operating out of two converted shops soon after her banishment began.
While her humble four-room house was frequented by diplomats and foreign journalists as she grew in stature, she was still an outcast under apartheid’s laws.
But she didn’t rest.
Five years after her banishment, she still had only three maintenance people and five nurses to help her treat a community of just under 50 000. By 1980, the clinic was serving close to that number, and Ramphele had become something of a celebrity.
The late Zwelakhe Sisulu described her in a 30-year-old article as “a pert, pretty figure of mysterious manner to be seen fluttering in her white dust coat every morning at the crack of dusty dawn”.
Later, Ramphele was the energy behind a brickyard, library, crèche, community garden filled with mielies, ground nuts, spinach, beetroot, cabbages and green beans, and other self-help projects – not only for Lenyenye – but for the villages beyond it.
Those “sons and daughters” to whom Ramphele’s new book is dedicated are a little like those villages beyond Lenyenye. Ramphele cannot help but extend her reach, and she’s very clear on the reasons why.
She says a junior politician asked her to mentor her and she declined, “because so many have asked”.
“I worried that I would not do well, and would then be put in double jeopardy.”
So instead, Ramphele has chosen to focus on a group – “those in their twenties and thirties …the generation of young people who’re growing up in democratic South Africa, with parents who don’t know what democracy means”.
But those “sons and daughters” trouble Ramphele.
“They have it all … the world at their feet, but so many do not have an anchor. Their lives are simply driven by materialism. When I was their age, the country was such a mess, but we contributed to the struggle.
“This generation doesn’t have to struggle. They’re bright, energetic, imaginative, but they haven’t got a clue. They’re drifting, thereby robbing us of the opportunity to make ourselves a formidable competitor. You don’t necessarily need to be educated to make a difference, you just need to be fired up.”
So that’s what Ramphele is doing through her interventions in social issues: firing people up as she has always done.
She says it’s her family who first allowed her to “aspire”.
“They encouraged me to have a sense of self. My grandmothers were beautiful and powerful in spite of living in a patriarchal society. They were not to be trifled with. Neither was my mother. She was a superb housewife, teacher, soprano and villager. If you messed with her, you would regret it.
“I was taught early on to play to my strengths, in the belief that if I did, nothing would be impossible. I was made to believe that I had something between my ears and I could make optimum use of that. Nowadays, I think a lot of young people have such a strong desire to have more things to fill the void of not being sure of who they are.
“You cannot let material things define you. You have to be at peace with who you are.”
Ramphele describes the void where there should be involvement among young South Africans as part of “a hole inside which is very deep”.
She talks about it as a “woundedness”. “Yet when we share our stories, we realise, but jeepers, we have so much in common.”
Ramphele advocates “mining the diversity of our backgrounds … that’s where the healing comes”.
“Young black professionals are trying to arrive, wherever it is they are arriving. Young whites either resent that or look down on them. So we need to attend to the structural issues in our society.”
A smile constantly on her lips, Ramphele hasn’t bought into the SA political apocalypse.
She worries – especially about education. But even though she says she won’t become a politician herself – “that worries me, that is the quest for a messiah and I’m just the loudest mouth” – she has an intrinsic hope.
“A good crisis should never be wasted.
“We must use the opportunity this crisis presents to us. We need massive mobilisation.”