LSE’s Mitchell Aghatise calls the most recent autobiography by the South African politician, former activist, doctor and academic Dr Mamphela Ramphele as a very engaging read.
Much has been written about the apartheid era in South Africa. Lessons from those who challenged the status quo inspire the fight against injustice today. Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Steve Biko are still venerated today for their sacrifices. Yet, there are countless others who also left their mark. Among them is Dr Mamphela Ramphele who has not only played her part, but continues to do so.
The book, aptly titled, A Passion for Freedom: My Life, documents events beyond her “passion for freedom” against apartheid, to other areas in which she has made her mark. In this way, the book sidesteps the trap of becoming a sole recollection of the apartheid struggle.
The early chapters cover her upbringing in rural South Africa. From this starting point, the reader is presented with an autobiography which examines themes of feminism, service, love and loss, all amid political repression.
Exposed to the traditional patriarchal views inherent in South African culture at an early age, her mother nevertheless set an unforgettable example in standing up for what she perceived to be her rights. She recollects an incident when her mother insisted on, and received, adequate recuperating time after childbirth – a request which had initially been staunchly opposed. Her mother’s actions resulted in a paradigm shift, as the other village women soon began benefiting from this, as a matter of course. Similar examples like these are scattered around the book, one begins to appreciate the idea that human dignity and the subjugation of same, is not the preserve of any gender (or race). The theme recurs throughout the book; however the prose succeeds in sensitising the reader that though glass ceilings exist, they can be shattered.
She variously discusses her roles within the sectors of medicine, academia, business, education, technological innovations and others. Alongside her successes, she catalogues her challenges and failures, thus presenting a realistic view of life in service. Dr Ramphele narrates the occasion when she was virtually ordered by President Nelson Mandela to take up the position of Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, a post that she baulked at initially. At Cape Town, there were substantial challenges which she had to overcome, but she demonstrated grit especially in the face of adverse public opinion at certain times. By her willingness to discuss the negatives of public service, it helps to give the reader a healthy dose of realism, which is essential for those who seek to learn from her experiences.
She approaches the theme of love and loss bravely through very personal moments. An example of this is seen in the experience of losing her first child, Lerato Biko. So skilful is she in describing this experience, the reader cannot help but feel moved by her loss. Her frankness in describing such a difficult issue educates and instructs the objective reader about dealing with loss first as a person; and then as an activist. She constantly returns to this theme when she discusses her relationship with Steve Biko, as well as the undying love shown by her family in her times of need.
Often, with autobiographies of this nature, there is a tendency to ramble. This is not the case here. Rather, the stories help to form a rounded view of the author. The writing is very engaging, and the stories told in a very interpersonal level. One expects that this book will particularly appeal to young activists across the continent. The book is also a clarion call for women to push the envelope, even in misogynistic societies. Instead of being confined to the pages of history, Mamphela continues to shape it.
There are some issues that I would have liked to be addressed in the book. For example, her recent foray into politics with the Agang party and the lessons she learned from this.
I must end with a quote taken from the preface to the book. “…we are required to walk our own road – and then stop, assess what we have learned and share it with others. It is only in this way that the next generation can learn from those who have walked before them…We can do no more than tell our story. They must do with it what they will…”
Mitchell Aghatise is the Co-Director of the LSE Africa Summit and an LLM student at LSE.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.