Mamphela Aletta Ramphele has been a student activist, a medical doctor, a community development activist, a researcher, a university executive, a global public servant and is now an active citizen in both the public and private sectors.
She was born in the village of Uitkyk in the Bochum district of Limpopo Province, an area to which she still regularly returns to share in the life of her extended family and community. The daughter of primary school teachers, she was attracted to science at her rural high school and resolved that she wanted to become a doctor. After a year of studies at what was then called the University of the North, near Polokwane, she was admitted to the Medical School of the then University of Natal, aged 20.
She borrowed the train fare from Polokwane to Durban from an aunt, and was soon pitched into a life of medical studies and political activism. She served as a local office-bearer of the South African Students’ Organisation, working with leaders such as Steve Biko and Barney Pityana. She served her medical internship at King Edward Hospital, Durban, followed by a surgical internship at Livingstone Hospital, Port Elizabeth – both urban hospitals serving black South Africans.
She next served as a medical officer at Mount Coke Mission Hospital near King Williams Town, where she re-connected with Steve Biko and other activists of the Black Consciousness Movement who were launching community programmes based on the principles of self-reliance and liberation through development. As part of this effort, she became the founding head of the Zanempilo Community Health Centre in the village of Zinyoka near King. In the wake of the Soweto uprising in 1976, she was detained without trial, released after five months but soon afterwards served with an apartheid banning order, banishing her to the Naphuno district of Tzaneen.
In Limpopo, Mamphela settled in the community of Lenyenye Township, where she started a clinic in the backyard of a local church and developed it into Ithuseng Community Health Centre. Apart from primary health care, the project promoted development initiatives such as brickmaking and vegetable growing. At the same time, she completed a B Comm degree, a Diploma in Tropical Hygiene and a Diploma in Public Health.
After her banning orders expired, after a brief spell back at Livingstone Hospital, she moved to Cape Town, where she first lived in Gugulethu and re-entered the academic world at the University of Cape Town, leading later to a PhD in Social Anthropology. She worked at the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit at UCT, where she took an interest in the plight of people living in migrant-labour hostels, and worked for some time with the Western Cape Men’s Hostel Dwellers’ Association in a project to secure better living conditions and their rights to family life. While working at UCT, she bought her first house, in Mowbray, Cape Town, in the face of initial protests from her white neighbours.
Following a fellowship at Radcliffe College, Harvard University in the USA, Mamphela returned to UCT as deputy vice-chancellor, in charge of the Equal Opportunity Policy Portfolio which aimed to change the culture of the university. She went on to become Vice-Chancellor of the university and then one of four Managing Directors of the World Bank, based in Washington, DC.
Since returning home she has been actively involved at the top levels of South African business, having served as chairperson of Gold Fields and of Circle Capital Ventures (Pty) Limited, and a director of Medi-Clinic Corporation Limited and Remgro Limited.
She is currently Chairperson of the Board of the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), which was established in terms of the TIA Act, 2008 (Act No. 26 of 2008), with the objective of stimulating and intensifying technological innovation in order to improve economic growth and the quality of life of all South Africans by developing and exploiting technological innovations.
She has served and continues to serve on the boards of a number of charitable organisations and foundations, among them the Nelson Mandela Foundation. She was a founding member of board of the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, which promotes the values, institutions and practices of an open, non-racial and non-sexist, democratic, civil society.
She is also the founder of the Citizens Movement, which uses a “walk together” approach to encourage South Africans to take active control of their lives. She served as chair of the convenors of the Dinokeng Scenarios in 2009, which promoted a vision of citizens engaging with a government that is effective and that listens.
Mamphela Ramphele is an author of several books and publications on socio-economic issues in South Africa. She has received numerous national and international awards, including honorary doctorates acknowledging her scholarship, her service to the community and her leading role in raising development issues and spearheading projects for disadvantaged persons in South Africa and elsewhere.
She has been a single mother for most of her children’s upbringing. She has borne three children: Lerato Biko, who died tragically of pneumonia after two-and-a-half months; Hlumelo Biko; and Malusi Magele. She now lives in Cape Town.