'Across Boundaries': South Africa's saga


"Across Boundaries," by Mamphela Ramphele, The Feminist Press. 240 pages. $19.95.

Her name may not be as familiar, but with the publication of her memoir, Mamphela Ramphele invites comparison to a formidable collection of women - Katharine Graham, Pamela Harriman, Madeleine Albright - recently in the news because of the way their careers were shaped by personal and family sagas.

Ramphele is a South African political activist, anthropologist, medical doctor, university president and "political widow who could never be."

She is not yet 50, but her story has the sweep of an historical novel, in which one woman's tragedies and triumphs play out on the stage of one of the century's great political morality plays, and in intimate proximity to one of its leading actors.

The morality play is the conquest of apartheid, the system of institutionalized racism the South African government adopted in and abandoned in 1994. Ramphele was part of the resistance movement, and now, as vice-chancellor (the equivalent of president) of the University of Cape Town, she's confronts the challenge every day of building a prosperous and equitable multi-racial society from the ashes of apartheid oppression.

The leading actor is Steve Biko, the charismatic founder of South Africa's black consciousness movement. Biko was beaten to death by police in 1977 in what stands as the most infamous act of apartheid-era police-state terrorism. The admission just last month by five policemen that they were responsible for his murder made front page headlines all over the world.

Biko and Ramphele were comrades and lovers. But their relationship was a star-crossed. Each was married to someone else (Ramphele got a divorce; Biko did not). They were physically separated for long stretches by jailings, detentions and bannings. She bore two of his children. The first died in infancy. The second was born four months after Biko's murder.

Despite its inherent drama, the section on Biko never satisfies. Neither Biko the man nor Biko the leader comes alive in the pages of his lover's memoir, and Ramphele's treatment of the "triangular" personal relationship that included Biko's wife never penetrates the surface.

The rest of the book is more nuanced and rewarding. With an anthropologist's eye, Ramphele describes how she fought her way through rigid boundaries in a culture that is every bit as sexist as it is racist. She makes it clear she became a medical doctor not so much out of a soft maternal instinct to heal, but out of stubborn streak. She wanted to prove she could do it when everyone said she couldn't.

Her current position as head of one of the leading universities in the nation places her in circumstances where she often has to explain blacks to whites and whites to blacks in the new South Africa. She is amusing on the frustrations. She also describes with fine irony how uncomfortable it can be to wear the robes and wield the authority of her former oppressors.

Ramphele has given us a clear window into one of the most riveting national makeovers of modern times. More, her story serves as a reminder - as do those of the grand dames on this side of the Atlantic - that the slogan from the '60s had it just right. The personal is political.

Paul Taylor, a former newspaper reporter, was South African bureau chief for the Washington Post from 1992-1995. He currently heads a public interest group seeking campaign reform.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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