South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Mamphela Ramphele

(December 28, 1947 - )

Doctor, academic and first woman and Black person in South Africa to be a University Vice-Chancellor


Mamphela Ramphele was born on the 28th of December 1947 in the Bochum District in the Northern Transvaal. She attended the G. H. Frantz Secondary School but soon left for Bethesda, a boarding school. She then went to complete her matric at the Setotolwane High School. Her political awareness was awakened early in life when an uncle was detained for political activities, soon after this her elder sister also got excluded from high school for her participation in a demonstration against the formation of a republic in 1960. On completion of her matric year in 1966, Mamphela enrolled for pre-medical courses at the University of the North.

In 1968 she was accepted into the University of Natal’s Medical School, then the only institution that allowed Black students to enrol without prior permission from the government. In 1969, she became increasingly involved in student politics. She worked with the South African Students Association (SASO), a breakaway from the multiracial National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). SASO was formed under the leadership of Steve Biko a "Black Consciousness philosopher" with whom Mamphela later had a child. She qualified as a doctor in 1972.

In 1974, Mamphela was charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for being in possession of banned literature. In 1975 she founded the Zanempilo Community Health Centre in Zinyoka, a village outside King William’s Town. During this time, she was also the manager of the Eastern Cape branch of the Black Community Health Programme but was detained in 1976 under section 10 of the Terrorism Act. The National Party government banished Mamphela in 1977 to rural Northern Transvaal, she however continued her work with the rural poor, forming the Isutheng Community Health Programme.

In 1984, Mamphela’s interests shifted to academic research when she entered the South African Development Research Unit (SALDRU) of the University of Cape Town as a research fellow. Soon she was appointed senior research officer in the University’s Department of Social Anthropology, where she obtained a PhD. Also, she was a researcher at the university’s Pediatric Department. She was elected vice-chancellor of the university in 1996, the first Black person and woman to hold such a position in a South African academic institution.

In 2000, she joined the World Bank in Washington as managing director responsible for human development becoming the first South African to hold this position in the institution.

She has served as the trustee to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Trust and also the President’s Award Trust. She has also served as chairperson of the Independent Development Trust (IDT), as director of the Institute for a Democratic South Africa (IDASA) and a board member to the Anglo-American Corporation and Transnet. She has received many honorary degrees and her PhD thesis, A Bed Called Home: Life in the Migrant Labour Hostels of Cape Town was published as a book. Her other publications include, Bounds of Possibility: The Legacy of Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness, Uprooting Poverty: The South African Challenge and an autobiography, Mamphela Ramphele: A Life.




This biography is from South African History Online. Used by permission. 
AODL African Studies Center MSU Matrix NEH