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Africa Today 47.2 (2000) 207-208

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Ramphele, Mamphele. 1999. Across Boundaries: The Journey of a South African Woman Leader. New York: Feminist Press. 272 pp.

The autobiography of Mamphela Ramphele portrays the remarkable experience of a black South African woman's early childhood, youth, and struggles against apartheid. She was born on 28 December 1947 to parents who were respectable, well-to-do primary school teachers. She is now Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, but she will join the World Bank in mid-2000 as a senior administrator for health, education, and social services.

Ramphele's chapter "Roots" offers insights into the North Sotho tradition, customary practices of marriage, childbearing and naming, male-female relationships, male chauvinism, adults and youth--the tendency to treat youngsters as half human beings--with special mention of adult treatment and expectations of the girl-child.

Ramphele grew up in a nuclear family which joined the extended family for holidays. She found this uncomfortable because of the sexual roles and divisions. Yet she appreciated the values of sharing, caring, and assisting which are part of communal life. Her mother's questioning of biased traditional practices and her father's active role in helping the needy influenced her thinking to be a medical doctor and become involved with the disadvantaged. Her later research and reports for UNICEF on the status of children in South Africa, on poverty, and on the problems of hostel dwellers show her commitment to these groups.

She strongly resisted family expectations for her to become a teacher, an acceptable career for academically capable blacks. Her father, the Dominee, and her first lover attempted unsuccessfully to dissuade her from becoming a medical doctor. Her excellent matriculation and University of North results earned her financial assistance to study medicine at Natal Medical School.

Ramphele's friendship and association with a female classmate in 1968 brought her into contact with student leaders and student politics, and with Steve Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness Movement. Her militant interests were ignited. She became very close to Biko and his political struggles, and they eventually became lovers.

Sensing the threat and competition, Ramphele's first lover hastily arranged their marriage. However, his continued mistrust and failure to [End Page 207] appreciate his wife's activism led to a divorce on her return from a South African Students' Organisation conference in June 1971. This, and other incidents, gives insight into male-female relationships, especially many men's feelings and failure to handle women of substance.

Ramphele's commitment to the people is shown in the number of health centers she established, and her devotion to the work, sacrificing her time and almost her life, under adverse conditions. When Biko's banning order was tightened in 1976, she took over the directorship of the Black Consciousness Movement in the Eastern Cape. Later she became involved with the Independent Development Trust, showing commitment to solving poverty issues.

The autobiography also shows the relationship between the church and its role in the lives of the oppressed and victims of the apartheid system. In Meetse-Bophelo Hospital, where she was placed as part of her banning order, Father Mooney of the Sacred Heart Mission and two nuns were very supportive. Desmond Tutu also features in her life as a friend and guide.

Ramphele's autobiography is critical of political movements which endeavor to fight for national freedom but negate the individual's freedom. It also relates how she, as a black woman, had to fight cultural stereotypes. Successful as she was as an academic researcher, she notes that the media only recognized her as "Steve's lover," even when she was Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

The book highlights the history of South African politics, the Black Consciousness Movement, poverty, transformation, nation building and nation healing in the 1990s. The image of healing taken from Ramphele's personal experiences and profession runs in her vision for South Africa, which for years had a political system in need of healing. Ramphele...


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