A South African Vision

By Norman Boucher / July / August 1998
November 30th, 2007
Standing at the Salomon auditorium lectern, Mamphela Aletta Ramphele appeared tall but slight. She spoke modestly, almost to the point of self-effacement. But make no mistake: there is iron in the thoughtful voice. Anti-apartheid activist, doctor, anthropologist, and advocate for the rural poor, Ramphele has been vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town since 1996, the only black woman in South Africa to hold such an elevated university post.

In her Stephen A. Ogden Jr. Memorial Lecture on International Affairs, Ramphele, who was on campus to receive an honorary degree, briefed her listeners on her country's progress toward a truly democratic society. But as the title of her lecture, "Lessons from Crossing Boundaries," suggested, her observations were largely personal ones, shaped over long years of struggle and determination.

"Individuals do matter in history," asserted Ramphele, whose autobiography, Across Boundaries: The Journey of a South African Woman Leader, was published in the United States last year. But the risks can be great. Leading the struggle for social and political change, she said, can mean "confronting the might of the state and risking the loss of support of one's family, friends, and peers."

For Ramphele and her fellow black South Africans, the risks paid off in the South African government's 1994 transformation to democratic rule. But a new struggle has replaced the old, she added. Many African countries, she said, grabbed their independence and "simply jumped into the shoes of their former colonial masters."

South Africa, she continued, has been a special case. Unlike the situation in other African countries, white South Africans are a deeply rooted part of the country; the future of the nation must be a future for both black and white."We have white institutions in need of transformation," she said, "and black institutions that think they don't need transformation. That's wrong."

As an example, Ramphele described details of the University of Cape Town's transformation from a university primarily for white males to one that's more representative of today's South Africa. With a nod to the portrait gallery at Sayles Hall that brought chuckles and applause from the audience, she described the paintings lining the walls at her own university, which a few years ago were an endless series of portraits of white men. "We didn't destroy the portraits," she said. "We took down some and replaced them with landscapes to get away from the idea of portraiture entirely and to see the world beyond it."

Similarly, she added, she and other administrators replaced some of the stained-glass windows celebrating European explorers who "discovered me and my people" with ones depicting scenes from the settlements that stood before Europeans arrived, as well as scenes from the new democratic South Africa. The point, Ramphele emphasized, is that "we did it in a way that would not give offense to members of the white community."

Her hope is that her country's eventual success will encourage people all across Africa "to defend democracy and keep their leaders accountable." It's an idealistic goal, but an attainable one, Ramphele believes. The first step is to teach each individual to "see the future in one's everyday acts."

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
July / August 1998