TOPICS > Education

Across Boundaries

April 21, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks with a South African who rose from radical street activist to head one of the country’s top universities.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: She is Mamphela Ramphele, now vice chancellor, the American equivalent of president of the prestigious University of Capetown. Along with Steve Biko, she was one of the founders of South Africa’s Black Consciousness movement in 1969, was exiled for six years to an impoverished resettlement area for blacks in the northern part of the country.

There, pregnant with Biko’s son, she heard he had died in police custody. By the time the banning order was lifted in 1983, Ramphele, a trained anthropologist and medical doctor, had built health clinics, a day care center, and an adult literacy program.

The 49-year-old academic has recently chronicled her life story in “Across Boundaries.” We spoke with her on a recent visit here to promote the book and raise funds for the university. She told us her greatest challenge was trying to overcome years of apartheid educational policies designed to keep blacks inferior.

MAMPHELA RAMPHELE, University of Capetown: You can’t simply equalize educational opportunities by taking away from those who are over-endowed and giving to those who were under-provided for because the world doesn’t work that way. But more important is the human capital, the quality of teachers, is really showing how successful the apartheid system has been. It has left a mark in the form of demoralized teachers, teachers who are really not up to the challenge that we face.

At the university level what we’re doing is to increase access to higher education. Universities such as the University of Capetown started off in the early 80’s with less than 10 percent of students being black. Today, as we sit, 46 percent of the students at the University of Capetown are black.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How have you done that?

MAMPHELA RAMPHELE: And that has happened through making sure that we go out to the schools and encourage and let people know that there is an opportunity such as the University of Capetown, and secondly, to test those even though their metric–their high school scores may not be good–we test their ability to learn English and mathematics. And if they show the capacity to learn through a teach-test-teach program, then we admit them.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is that your brand of affirmative action?

MAMPHELA RAMPHELE: It’s our brand of affirmative action and affirmative action, which is within a wider vision of Africa because we’re not going to simply affirm people because they happen to be black. The difficulty is how one helps young people coming from this divided past to see themselves as South Africans and to celebrate the diversity that they bring to the University of Capetown.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: On the black side and the white side?


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you find this in both?

MAMPHELA RAMPHELE: Yes, indeed. And so what we do is to take our transformation process further than just simply access but to transforming the institutional culture of the university.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do you do that?

MAMPHELA RAMPHELE: Well, we do very interesting things, including taking graduation ceremonies, for example, and making them much more into occasions for celebration. You know, graduation ceremonies stem from the European very austere kind of approach to pomp and ceremony. And we have transformed that. We keep the gowns, but we–we whistle, we clap, we dance. We really have incorporated the African way of celebrating into what is originally a European ceremony. When I was installed as vice chancellor, my mother was there to sing my praises. They’d never seen anything like that.


MAMPHELA RAMPHELE: Yes. She’s a praise singer. And she really just took the floor.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Tell us what a praise singer does.

MAMPHELA RAMPHELE: A praise singer in African culture is someone who weaves together the story of the extended family and celebrates the heroes, ridicules those who have gone astray, and admonishes those who think that they can go on without attention to the extended family. And so you’re constantly reminded of your roots. So as she prowls up and down the stage she was telling me I come from great stalk and I have to succeed but I have to remember where I come from.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That must have been amazing.

MAMPHELA RAMPHELE: An electric moment.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And they had never seen anything like it?

MAMPHELA RAMPHELE: They had never seen anything like that. And so that immediately says to the African students who are there that you, your culture too, matters, and that makes them proud. And of course the fact that I’m there as the vice chancellor symbolically also creates an environment of self-confidence, but I also do on many occasions, whenever I have the opportunity, say to young people, when they say to me, but UCT is still a white university, I say, yes, the professors are still largely white, but that is what UC has given us. I can’t produce professors out of my pocket, but you must behave like you own this place.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In the 70’s you were a part of the Black Consciousness movement, one of the most radical of the anti-apartheid opposition. How did you go from that to being at the top of the educational establishment, member of corporate boards? How did you get from there to here?

MAMPHELA RAMPHELE: That Black Consciousness movement experience was essential to that because even though I grew up as a very confident child because I knew I was smart, and that helps a great deal, but piecing the pieces of South Africa together, beginning to understand that black people were not visible in leadership positions not because they were not smart but because there was, in fact, a policy that actively generated a feeling of inferiority amongst blacks and the feeling superiority amongst whites, and understanding that and then liberating oneself psychologically from that trap, there was no stopping me.

I was able through all sorts of linkages with people, with fellow activists, to really transcend the constrains that keep people down. And I think for me there is no contradiction in moving from being an activist to being a community developer, to being a corporate board member, and to being a vice chancellor is all part and parcel of living out the dream that we had over in South Africa, which is free, democratic, and equitable.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you see a role for Americans in this?

MAMPHELA RAMPHELE: They have a huge role to play because one of the ingredients of the human capital development is education. And given the backdrops in education it’s very difficult for the government to have the results to plow into all levels of education. And I believe that as the high education level, the international community, particularly the United States–we have great institutions–can help through partnerships with institutions in South Africa–can help through direct offerings of opportunities for our young people to come over for some semester courses.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Finally, let me just ask you about the Truth & Reconciliation Commission and the fact that several policemen have come forward and confessed their role in the killing of your comrade, Steven Biko. How do you feel about that process and the prospect that they will get amnesty?

MAMPHELA RAMPHELE: I know that there are people who think that we should be trying those perpetrators and punishing them in kind of Nuremberg type trials. I don’t think that that’s the way to go. There are just too many perpetrators. We’ll be at it until the next century.

On the other hand, the view that we must forget the past is also wrong. I think what the Truth & Reconciliation Commission is doing is allowing us to lance those boils, including allowing those perpetrators who killed people to be able to make their confession, and for society to be able to make peace with the fact that, yes, we as a society in South Africa created an environment which made those murders possible. So it’s not just those individuals who actually bashed your head, but it is the politicians who created the policies that created the environment. The voters wrote to those politicians.

So in my view (a) I really didn’t need to know who they were and (b) I didn’t really need the details of how they killed him because they didn’t actually kill him. Although they did the actual, physical killing, it is the apartheid system that killed him.

And I think to the extent that the Truth & Reconciliation Commission is allowing South Africans to come to terms, confront the low level talks to which we had actually descended in the country, and to be able to make a commitment that never again will we abuse human rights, I think that alone would have made his death worthwhile.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Mamphela Ramphele, thank you for joining us.

MAMPHELA RAMPHELE: Thank you very much.