A Discussion with Dr. Mamphela Ramphele

With: Mamphela Ramphele Berkley Center Profile

February 9, 2012

Background: This discussion between Dr. Mamphela Ramphele and Angela Reitmaier took place in Cape Town on February 9, 2012 during a conference on "Investing in Africa Mining—Indaba," where Dr. Ramphele gave a keynote address on "Mining's Contribution to Sustainable Development" as chair of Goldfields and director of Anglo American. Dr. Ramphele reflects on the spiritual dimension that is needed to heal the many wounds that Apartheid inflicted on black citizens of South Africa. She touches upon the great gift of Africa, the practice of holding discussions at all levels, from the family to the community at large, in a circle where people can experience their connectedness. She speaks to the psychological liberation that Steve Biko emphasized as an important element of the freedom struggle: the need to overcome fear. Again stressing the importance of a deep-seated woundedness that still profoundly affects her country, she explores the significance of widespread corruption, gender inequality and violence, and authoritarian elements in present-day South Africa.

How do you approach religion, especially in terms of your professional life?

It is not so much religion that I believe is important in my work, but spirituality. What distinguishes human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom is the sense of being connected to others. These others are not just this generation, but also our ancestors and future generations. Of course, there is the genetic connection, but there is something less tangible than genes that connects us to previous generations. There is something profound about this intangible connection across generations and across time and space. I have never met you before, but when I meet you, there is a kind of recognition, or something familiar, something that I can engage with. And making eye contact is part of this connection.

When I was talking this morning about the need for healing, I was referring to people sitting in a circle having a discussion. The great gift of Africa is that in African traditional society, when you have discussions, whether family or community discussions, you don’t sit one behind the other, you sit in a circle. You can thus make eye contact and you can see people’s body language to know whether people agree or disagree with you, or whether what you are saying hurts them or makes them happy. So we need to return to that source, the cultural heritage from our agrarian connections. These agrarian cultural legacies ought to help us negotiate our way in the twenty-first century, where it is very easy to be marginalized, to be alienated, and to feel very lonely. Money does not solve the loneliness problem, it is the human connection that does.

This morning I mentioned a particular aspect of healing in relation to the mining industry. I said that the mining industry must recognize the woundedness that has been visited on communities who bore the brunt of past unjust policies that denied fair opportunities to those on the wrong side of the policy barriers. The unacknowledged social pain suffered by many such communities who endured broken families due to the migrant labor system, poverty level wages, and lack of training and education opportunities to advance themselves due to job reservation need to be dealt with. Societies have much to gain by engaging in conversations that can begin the journey of healing, away from destructive stand-offs between parties sharing this legacy. South Africa had an opportunity through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to tackle this woundedness, but corporate leaders shied away from confronting the impact of the past on the present and future. It is not too late at the mine-specific level to address these issues.

In your speech, you also mentioned the inferiority complex of the black and the superiority complex of the white. I believe that this goes back to your discussions in the Black Consciousness Movement and with its most important leader, Stephen Bantu Biko, whom you knew well. Please tell us again what were his most important messages that are still so relevant today.

I think the most important message was symbolic: that he was a young man—he was in his 20s when he died—and that in this short life, he had developed a profound understanding of the importance of focusing on psychological liberation. Everybody was focusing on the freedom struggle, in the sense that we have got to free ourselves from the oppressors, and very few people were talking about freeing ourselves from our own lack of self-respect, lack of self-belief, lack of self-confidence. The start of the discussion on psychological liberation created the impetus to overcome what was the biggest obstacle to freedom in this country: fear. If you feel inferior, and you are dealing with someone whom you see as superior, you are afraid. But by cutting through all of that, we were able to face up to those big guys. I remember, for instance, when I was banished to a small town in Limpopo province, this big security policeman would come into my house and I would sit him down and say “come and have a cup of tea!” And he would literally be shaking in his boots, not because I did anything to him, but by making him realize that I was not afraid. I was not treating him as an enemy, but as a fellow human being—“Sit down, let’s have a cup of tea”—that is most frightening for the oppressors.

South Africa has been freed of Apartheid for more than 15 years, yet the struggle to bring development to all citizens is ongoing. What is it that needs to be done to improve the lot of the ordinary citizens?

The first thing is to heal those wounds I just referred to. If we don’t heal those wounds, we will continue to have people in government who are stealing from poor people. These are black people, stealing from poor black people. They treat them with disrespect; they tolerate xenophobia; they tolerate abuse of public resources. Why? Because there is a woundedness in them; there is a lack of self-respect. You can’t steal from yourself. If you believe that as a citizen, you own this country, you cannot steal something, it’s yours already! So why are you stealing it and doing it in such a way that takes away the benefits that we share in as a society? It is impossible that you can use the amount of money that is reported by the Auditor General as having been stolen; these millions, billions which just disappeared. How many millions do you really need in your life to address your needs? So the greed is in part a reflection of emptiness inside.

Corruption exists in many other countries in Africa and all around the world. That greed is there as well, but it is not linked to the racial discrimination. We have corruption, for instance, in Germany, where most of the people are white.

Yes, except that in Germany, there is no impunity in the corruption. Here, there is impunity because people feel that, because they were oppressed, they are entitled to take money from the public purse. In Germany, if you are caught taking money from the public purse, you end up in jail. Here, you take money from the public purse, you are given a golden handshake and you are kept away from jail. That is the difference.

And the judicial system is not really in a position to take action as it would in Germany?

It is, but it is hampered by a weak system of public prosecution. We have currently a case where the Director of Public Prosecution was found not to be a fit and proper person by the Ginwala Commission, and yet he was put in charge of this key institution. Why? Because the president would not want to have a strong public prosecution system. And so you put a weak person in charge, so that nothing happens to those wrongdoers. It is a protective mechanism ensuring that impunity in corruption continues.

Let me ask you about another area: gender equality. What has to be done here in South Africa and the rest of Africa to make women equal to men?

Well, I hope better than men! Again, going back to woundedness, it is because African men were treated as boys right across Africa that they behave like boys even today. They feel frightened or threatened by strong women. It does not make a difference whether they are Muslim fundamentalists or African fundamentalists or traditionalists. It is all about an inferiority complex. If you were self-respecting, you would not allow yourself to treat a woman, with whom you cannot actually fight, in the brutal manner in which some women are treated. But it is also a problem from the women’s side. We had in this country a struggle for freedom that included gender equality. For the women in power now, gender equality comes second. This was evidenced by the minister of basic education, who is also president of the ANC Women’s League. When she was asked about what the Women’s League was doing to ensure gender equality, she said that she was first and foremost a politician. So the problem is also with women who have “made it,” but who no longer strive to ensure that the gender equality embedded in our constitution becomes real in the lines of peer audience in particular. So there is a gap between the ideals of the constitution and current practice. This gives ample space to chauvinists to do what they are doing. We have more gender-based violence now than we ever had in the apartheid era. Gender equality has to be fostered by ensuring that it is a reality in the home, school, work, and wider society, through changing relationships of power. Parents’ relationships to each other model gender relationships for their children. The treatment of boys and girls in the home also must set the tone of gender equality.

Our school system also needs to model gender equality by encouraging boys and girls to relate in a respectful manner and break down stereotypes of what boys can do and what girls cannot do. Teachers must model behavior in their treatment of pupils and their own collegial relationships.

The work and wider community should also adopt institutional cultures that re-enforce gender equality. Government, parliament, and the judiciary need to re-enforce the constitutional value of gender equality.

And lastly, could you please make a quick comment on how vestiges of authoritarianism can be overcome under the new constitution of South Africa?

Overcoming authoritarianism starts with recognizing it. The attitude that those in authority are to be respected to the point of not daring to question their behavior, even when it involves wrong-doing, needs to be changed. Educating for democracy is an essential part of that change, as well as realizing that the mindsets of both leaders and those who are being led need to be transformed.

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