THE young black undergraduate clears his throat nervously before asking Mamphela Ramphele how best to go about starting a revolution. A hush falls over the business school’s large and overflowing lecture theatre. Small-boned, powerfully voiced Ramphele explains empathetically but firmly that in the 1970s, young people did not need to be taught how to have a revolution. They just did it.
The author of Conversations With My Sons and Daughters (Penguin) made herself heard in word and deed at a time, the 1970s, when the apartheid state was fine-tuning its instruments of power and repression.
The young medical doctor was forcibly removed, in 1977, from the Eastern Cape and banished to remote Lenyenye, in what is now Limpopo.
Her partner and the father of her son, Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, was being tortured to death at the time. Most of us would have despaired, yet Ramphele created clinics to treat local villagers, refusing to buckle under the constant harassment of security police. "Giving up was not an option," she says.
"Having invested so much emotionally, intellectually and physically in fighting a brutal regime and having lost many friends, including Steve, there was no way I was going to betray them by giving up."
Three decades on, the young woman who spoke truth to a violent power is speaking up once again, this time to the African National Congress (ANC) government. The former University of Cape Town vice-chancellor and World Bank director, now a businesswoman and founder of The Citizen’s Movement, says people died so that "the people shall govern. Yet right now the party bosses are governing. The power needs to go back to the people, where it should be."
Ramphele’s dynamism and energy are such that professionals have been stopping her "in the corridors of various places I go, asking me to mentor them". An impossible task. One such young woman suggested a book. Another spur for it was the thirtysomething financial analyst who lives in a trendy Joburg suburb. Ramphele describes him as a committed patriot, "who has been watching the slide of our society into poor governance, growing social ills such as crime and insecurity, and high unemployment, especially among young people. The bright future he saw so clearly 10 years ago is becoming dimmer and dimmer."
His despairing words — "the soil has been stolen" — galvanised Ramphele. The Sepedi idiom is used as a call to action to defend the land after the assassination of a king by a conquering power. All able-bodied men would be expected to avenge the outrage and reclaim the land from the usurpers, explains Ramphele.
She wondered why a young South African would use this idiom many years into democracy and believes he was reflecting the sentiments of many similarly aged professionals and businesspeople, "as well as a significant proportion of those in the public sector". And thus was born her book, a discussion with our youth that tells it like it is, landing bruising punches on the noses of the our government.
"How can we now explain being afraid to exercise the very democratic rights and duties so many fought so hard for — are we afraid of our own shadows?"
Her questions and challenging answers lie in a fact-filled but easy-to-read book that she hopes will be translated into Zulu and Sepedi before being distributed to schools.
It will undoubtedly sting even the most complacent into seeing the shades of grimness into which our once rainbow nation has faded.
She chats to her youthful constituency about unemployment and how "society has failed them". She is concerned about young women "who bear too many burdens", including sexual assault, teenage pregnancy and caring for HIV/AIDS-afflicted relatives.
Ramphele questions the value system we live by as a result of the arms deal, the prevailing attitude of "wealth at all costs" and the fact that public concern over (President Jacob) Zuma’s corruption charges is regarded by the ANC "as a sign of antirevolutionary action".
These are telling blows from a woman who was once seen as a revolutionary by the apartheid state. There’s an irony in her now being in danger of a rebranding by the very freedom fighters in whose cause she once struggled.
She speaks of the country "failing the 1976 generation" and is scathing about "the dumbing down" of our education system.
"It is a curious assumption that black children would not be able to compete with other children in the world at the level that was expected from them."
Ramphele shakes her head as she recalls her grade 8-schooled father, who went on to become a self-educated poet, buying himself the Encylopaedia Britannica and as many of the great classics as he could afford.
When she took him afternoon tea as a young girl, "I would often find him asleep with a book over his face. Back then, parents walked miles with their little children to the school at which he taught."
Ramphele’s family was close-knit and poor, with a set of values whose decline she laments in today’s society, in which "having" has transcended "being".
She understands, however, the underlying reasons for rampant materialism, recognising it as an attempt to cope with poor self-esteem.
Her voice, an interesting mixture of musicality and vehemence, rises and falls as we chat. When something amuses her, as it often does, she relaxes into a full-throated, infectious laugh with frequent Afrikaans exclamations. She won a matric prize in the language and when she needs a rich punch line, that’s where she goes.
I realise I am being squeezed into a multitude of appointments in the diary of one of the busiest people in the country. Her bodyguards are close by, keeping close watch on her and her precious time.
She has founded two civic organisations in the past couple of years. The Citizens Movement for Social Change mobilises people and institutions to change South Africa, while the Letsema Circle is a health-reform programme.
If Ramphele is stressed, she gives little indication of it beyond checking her constantly beeping cellphone, and she has about her the aura of an extremely well organised businesswoman.
Asked if she’d become a politician or start her own party, she responds tartly: "I am in politics. We’re all in it, by virtue of being citizens. It makes us all agents who can shape the politics of our country."
The message is clear. We can all do something unless we’re afraid of being shouted down and labelled — the fate of business leaders such as Reuel Khoza, Paul Harris and Tony Trahar.
She says defiantly: "You can give me any label you want. I know my name, I know what I stand for."
Indeed, it’s all there in her outspoken book that will forever be a litmus test of South Africa’s health.