/ 22 March 2013

Ramphele the empowerer

Mamphela Ramphele could not persuade Helen Zille to form a new party with her.
Mamphela Ramphele could not persuade Helen Zille to form a new party with her.

Jared Sacks ("Biko would not vote for Ramphele", March 15) expresses the opinion that if Steve Biko were alive he would not vote for Mamphela Ramphele. Such speculation is futile because none of us mortals is in a position to know that.

I wish to comment on some of the misconceptions about Ramphele. Most of what is known and publicised about her is her high-profile status as a former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, a former managing director of the World Bank, as a chairperson and board member in the boardrooms of multinationals, and as an academic and intellectual.

Less is known about other aspects of her life. She is a powerful grassroots community mobiliser and an empowerment agent of the rural and urban poor. I know this from experience because I have worked with her in villages in the Eastern Cape.

At the beginning of her career, at the Zanempilo Clinic she ran with Steve Biko, she was probably the first South African doctor to practise primary healthcare. The women of the Zinyoka villages, where the clinic was located, still remember her. Though they are grannies today, they speak fondly of the doctor who transcended hospital bounds to mobilise them to grow vegetables in their gardens and on the clinic premises, and taught them best practice in feeding their babies and children.

Ramphele did the same in Tzaneen, to which she had been banished, and later in the townships and squatter camps of Cape Town. In the past four years I have worked with her in the Eastern Cape in her nongovernmental organisation, the Letsema Circle Trust, mobilising and empowering multitudes of villagers from Cofimvaba in the Intsika Yethu Municipality down to the Wild Coast villages of King Sabata Dalindyebo Municipality. The impact of her work has made Letsema a household word in these villages.

Ramphele is an incredibly versatile person. When she works with rural people, she becomes a peasant woman. So, let us allow her to do what she has decided to do and let her be supported by those who wish to support her. Those who do not wish to do so, wait and see; do not condemn. – Xoliswa Skomolo, King William's Town.

Sacks has every right to criticise whoever he wishes, but no right to brazenly distort Biko's ideas to assault Mamphela Ramphele. Sacks is one of the new "black souls in white skins" Biko expelled from black struggles in the 1970s.

Sacks uses his white privileges not only to destroy black people's organisation, but also to criminalise others. In the forthcoming edition of New Frank Talk, we name Sacks (and others) as one of the new anthropologists who are hellbent on lording it over the post-1994 black resistance. Having been a missionary to the black poor, like a sadistic parasite he now turns to the only hope that blacks still have – Biko's philosophy of black consciousness – and distorts it.

Sacks's arrogant inclusion of himself in this tradition is the severest assault on Biko and black consciousness adherents. The exploitation of black people by these messiahs, who use their fathers' stolen wealth to establish nongovernmental organisations to save blacks, is actually worse than the ANC in its denial and denigration of black control over their affairs.

For the record, we shall do the criticism of the likes of Ramphele ourselves. We don't need Sacks to talk on our behalf, nor shall we allow him to insult Biko's name and philosophy. White liberals can't stand blacks who speak for themselves; the attack on Ramphele must be understood primarily in this context. She is a black woman who speaks her mind. We recognise this fact, notwithstanding our own fundamental disagreements with her. White racism assaults all blacks, irrespective of their politics or class. This new assault on black consciousness reminds us of Ayanda Mabhulu's canvas of a white pig pissing on the head of Biko. The artist couldn't have been more perceptive. – Andile Mngxitama and Athi Joja, editorial collective of New Frank Talk