Back to all interviews
Freedom Collection

Interviews with Mamphela Ramphele

Interviewed December 10, 2023

The success of the Black Consciousness Movement was captured most poignantly by the Soweto uprising. In our movement we mobilized university students first and then the wider community including high school students. So post the Soweto uprising the government locked us up. Anybody who was seen to be active was regarded as having instigated this. Now we didn´t instigate the Soweto uprising.

We did prepare the minds of those young people by inspiring them to be proud of who they are, so their rejection of what they called “gutter education” was an assertion of black pride and the insistence that they deserved the best. And so after being detained, we were — then the whole idea of banning and banishment was to break up networks, break up solidarity groups, break up any activity that the government regarded as a threat to state security.

[Soweto, meaning Southwest Township, was a community near Johannesburg designated for black residents. Under apartheid, townships were residential areas designated for non-white groups. Non-whites were prohibited from living in areas reserved for whites. The Soweto Uprising was a series of protests led by South African high school students on June 16, 1976. Students from various Sowetan schools began demonstrating in the streets against Afrikaans as the primary language of educational instruction.]

And so after we were detained for four and a half months we were released and then people were banished to different parts of the country. I was banished to the northern part of Limpopo, not where I grew up, not where my father´s homestead is but in on the eastern side of it in a place called Tzaneen and I´d never been to the place.

So banishment is actually beyond banning, people were banned and restricted to their homes but when they banish you, they take you to a far off place and the idea being to isolate you. To neutralize whatever activities we´re involved in. In my case because I was running very active community projects in the eastern cape was to take me as far from eastern cape as they could but also as far from Steve Biko and the community that we had set up as they could.

Banning orders were meant to kill you politically. So you are no longer able to associate with people. You can only have one person at the time except your own family. You are not to be counted. You are not to address any rallies. You are not to move outside your restricted area.

In my case, in addition to being banished to that place I was restricted to a township with 800 houses. Each time I needed to go to church, as an Anglican the nearest church was in Tzaneen I had to get permission from the magistrate. So if I forget to get permission on a Friday I can´t go to church on Sunday. I had to get permission to go and buy groceries, which the shopping centers were in town. Everything was about permission and that is to break your spirit and for many people it was devastating.

I was fortunate as a medical doctor and I dared them. At first they had restricted me to a large area of the Tzaneen district but when they saw me starting community health projects all over, they decided okay, let´s limit her to the township. They made a mistake because the people came from those villages to the township and they could never break me. So I said if you were to restrict me now from leaving my house, let me tell you I will find something to do, you will never break me. And that is, I believe, a strength that you develop both from this identity journey we had gone through but the more they killed those close to me the more they made me.

At first of course, the reaction is shock, grief, pain and then anger. And the only way I could deal with anger was to translate it into energy. And I just worked and slept, worked and slept and there was no way in which I was going to sit there and be depressed.

The theory was that you could ask the Minister of Justice to explain to you why you were banished. So duly I got my lawyer, Raymond Tucker, to write to the minister to inquire as to why I was banished. And he said that is not in the interest of state security to tell you why you are banned. Full stop. And there´s no appeal after that.

[Raymond Tucker (1932 – 2004) was a South African lawyer who defied the apartheid government by providing legal services to anti-apartheid activists and organizations.]

I was banned and banished from 1977 to 1983. That was the beginning of the so-called opening of South Africa — very tentative steps about the need to negotiate, etcetera. But because I´d started projects in Lenyenye and that whole Tzaneen district I stayed on as a free person for another year because that had become home.

I had started community projects, which ranged from the community health center, which I built just across the street from where I lived, a child´s development center, which was a model for how you can give a childhood education to kids. A youth center to create a positive environment for young people to develop themselves. We had started projects with brickmaking, community gardens. All of that needed to be handed over in an orderly way to the people I´d been working with who lived there. Those projects are alive and well today. And that time I spent there was really worthwhile because I could use my network to raise money and to introduce them to the donors who used to support us.

And so yes, it was a long journey. It was also a growth period for me because you either get destroyed by pain or you get strengthened by it. In my case I think I was strengthened by it.