Mamphela Ramphele was born on 28 December 1947 in Bochum District, Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo). Her mother, Rangoato Rahab, and her father, Pitsi Eliphaz Ramphele were primary school teachers. In 1944, her father was promoted as headmaster of Stephanus Hofmeyr School. Ramphele contracted severe whooping cough at the age of three months. The wife of the local reverend, Dominee Lukas van der Merwe, gave her mother medical advice and bought medicines for the sick child that saved her life.
In 1955, Ramphele witnessed a conflict between a racist Dominee (Reverend) and the people of the village of Kranspoort that also contributed to her political awakening. The dispute centred on whether the mother of a villager could be buried in the mission graveyard. The Dominee refused to allow the burial since he considered the woman to be a heathen who had not converted to Christianity. In defiance, local villagers took control of the church grounds and buried the woman. In revenge, the furious Dominee enlisted the police and banished all of the villagers who were involved in the burial and those known to be sympathetic to their cause. Two thirds of the villagers were cast out, losing their property in their rush to escape the violent police. It was her first direct experience of Blacks’ defiance to the apartheid system.
Ramphele’s political awakening came at a very young age. Her sister Mashadi was expelled from high school after she demonstrated against the celebrations of South Africa’s becoming a Republic in 1961. Ramphele also remembers her parents discussing the detention of her uncle under the 90-day detention clause.
She attended the G. H. Frantz Secondary School but in January 1962 she left for Bethesda Normal School, a boarding school which was part of the Bethesda teachers training college. In 1964, she moved to Setotolwane High School for her matriculation where she was one of only two girls in her class.
On completion of her schooling in 1966, in 1967, 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. Her meagre financial resources meant that she was forced to borrow money to travel to the Natal Medical School (now the Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Medical School).
Ramphele won the 1968 South African Jewish Women’s Association Scholarship and the Sir Ernest Oppenheimer Bursary worth about R150 annually for the rest of her years at Medical School. This helped finance her studies at medical school
She worked with the South African Students Association (SASO), a breakaway from the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) that operated on English speaking white campuses. NUSAS had Black and White students as members. SASO was formed in 1969, under the leadership of Steve Biko, with whom she later had a child.
From 1970 onwards, Ramphele became increasingly drawn into political activism with Biko, Barney Pityana and other student activists at the Medical School. She was elected the Chairperson of the local SASO branch. Between managing a hectic schedule of political activism and her studies, Ramphele qualified as a doctor in 1972. She began her medical internship at Durban’s King Edward VIII Hospital and later transferred to Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth.
In 1974, Ramphele 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. It was one of the first primary health care initiatives outside the public sector in South Africa. During this time, she was also the manager of the Eastern Cape branch of the Black Community Health Programme. She travelled extensively in the Eastern Cape organising people to be drawn into community projects. In addition to her medical duties, Ramphele also became the Director of the Black Community Programmes (BCP) in the Eastern Cape when Biko was banned. In August 1976, Ramphele was detained under section 10 of the Terrorism Act, one of the first persons to be detained under this newly promulgated law.
In April 1977, Ramphele was issued with banning orders and banished to Tzaneen, Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo), a place she was unfamiliar with. Alone in a strange place, she turned to the church for help. A Father Mooney arranged for her to live with two African nuns at a place called Tickeyline, a village of poor people. She later set up home in Lenyenye Township in Tzaneen where she was under constant security police surveillance. She continued her work with the rural poor, and formed the Isutheng Community Health Programme with money from the BCP. Here she set about empowering women, encouraging them to establish vegetable gardens among other initiatives.
A Father Duane became a close friend, risking arrest by taking her on trips to escape the boredom a banned person experiences. Helen Suzman, the Progressive Party MP, also visited Ramphele. She assisted her in securing a passport when Ramphele had to travel abroad. Father Timothy Stanton, an Anglican priest would visit her and celebrate Eucharist with her.
In 1983, she completed the Commerce degree, for which she had registered with UNISA in 1975. She also completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Tropical Hygiene and a Diploma in Public Health at the University of Witwatersrand. For this, she had to apply for a special dispensation to travel to Johannesburg where she had to report at the John Vorster Square Police Station upon her arrival and departure.
Ramphele left Lenyenye in 1984 to go to Port Elizabeth where she was offered a job at Livingstone Hospital. However, she left to take up an appointment at the University of Cape Town (UCT) which Francis Wilson, a Professor of Economics had arranged. She was to work with him here at the South African Development Research Unit (SALDRU)) as a research fellow.
Ramphele and her two sons (by now she had a second son from her marriage to Sipo Magele) moved to a house in Gugulethu, Cape Town. Wilson and Ramphele collaboratively, produced two publications, Children on the Frontline (1987) and Uprooting Poverty (1988) for SALDRU. Ramphele then transferred to the Department of Anthropology at UCT. Her interest in the plight of people living in the hostels led her to start a project, the Western Cape Men’s Hostel Dwellers Association (HDA).
In 1988 Ramphele left with her sons for Harvard College, America where she was the Carnegie Distinguished international Fellow for the 1988 – 1989 academic year. Here she wrote up her research data on the hostels as a PH.D thesis entitled Empowerment and the Politics of Space which UCT accepted in 1991. A book based on the thesis, A Bed Called Home, Life in the Migrant Labour Hostels of Cape Town was published in 1993.
In 1991, Ramphele was appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor of UCT. In 1996 she became the first black South African woman to hold the position of Vice Chancellor at UCT and at a South African academic institution. Part of her executive job roles was to take charge of the University’s Equal Opportunity Policy Portfolio, with the aim of changing the culture of the institution. In 1994, Ramphele was a visiting scholar at the Kennedy School of Government in the United States of America (USA).
In 2000, she joined the World Bank in Washington as one of four managing directors, responsible for human development, the first South African to hold this position at this institution. She oversaw the strategic positioning and the operations of the World Bank Institute and was the vice-presidency of external affairs.
She served as Co-Chair on the Global Commission for International Migration (GCIM) between 2004 and 2005 and served as the trustee to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Trust and 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.
Mamphela Aletta Ramphele has also been appointed director at think-tank Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA) and as a board member of Anglo-American and Transnet. In 2004, she was voted 55th of the Top 100 Great South Africans.