Review: Sonwabiso Ngcowa
Medical doctor, academic, director of companies and former director at the World Bank. More recently, leader of her own political party. And now presidential candidate for the Democratic Alliance.
Ramphele writes about family, activism, love, intimacy, detention, being a mother and, above all, her “passion for freedom”. She shares events in her life with an aim to bear out this passion, the most recent being the formation of Agang.
The book is organised in short, concise chapters, titled using quotes from the text. This is one of its very attractive features.
She relates that she was born to a primary school teacher mother, and a father in the same profession. She had, from a young age, “cultural capital” because of her access to her father’s “sizeable library”. However, what she saw and read in the Encyclopedia Britannica made her yearn for a life she was “not supposed to live”. She grew up in a system that clearly believed there was no need to show a Bantu child greener pastures – they were not going to get there anyway.
It is her refusal, from a young age, to be dictated to in key aspects of her life that sees her triumph over adversity. Will she survive now her unpopular decision to wed herself to the DA? Certainly, there was no foreshadowing in the book of her move this week, though it does contain some of her most negative perceptions of the DA.
After her primary school education and medical training, Ramphele explores the spaces she had joined and shaped. Together with Steve Biko, the pioneer of Black Consciousness, she understood that dignity for all had to come, and lived this belief to the extent of banning orders, detention and close encounters with death. She would not back down.
Her trail left telling landmarks. In Zwelitsha, King Williams Town, she started Zanempilo Clinic. In Linyenye, Limpompo, too, she would start a health care centre, even though she had been exiled there on a banning order. The University of Cape Town was another landmark, as the first female ever, let alone a black female, to be Vice Chancellor.
One criticism of the book is that the writer chose not to warn the reader with italics when switching from English to Sesotho or isiXhosa. However, this criticism becomes somewhat insignificant when levelled against a book that seeks equality at all levels, in the social constructs of race and gender, so why treat languages any differently?
The book initially struck me as an unapologetic story, but on reflection I understood the seemingly unapologetic stance to be more of a protective shield. I missed some of the vulnerability she may have felt at times. The author was certainly strong and fearless, but she presents a woman who has far too little regret, or none at all.
And yet her narrative is sincere and unashamed, and there is no sugar coating of battles.
This is a recollection of a rich life told with great integrity, generosity and honesty.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in January 2014