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Ramphele: Committed anti-apartheid activist to take on Zuma

An anti-apartheid stalwart, respected academic and successful business executive, Mamphela Ramphele — tapped to take on Jacob Zuma at upcoming South African elections — has an impressive CV, but may not always connect with voters.

As an activist, she fearlessly fought against white minority rule, and had a child with slain black consciousness leader Steve Biko.

A respected academic, she landed at that bastion of free market capitalism — the World Bank.

With such anti-apartheid and economic credentials, Ramphele, 66, might appeal to a broader section of voters than most South African politicians could dream of.

But as the head of the opposition’s Democratic Alliance’s election campaign, she faces the unenviable task of upending the ANC’s crushing electoral dominance.

Born in 1947 to two teachers near the northern city of Polokwane, Ramphele was exposed to political activism in the late 1960s while studying medicine.

That was when she met Biko, a founder of the Black Consciousness Movement inspired by Malcolm X, whose story is portrayed in the 1998 movie “Cry Freedom.”

In the wake of the 1976 Soweto uprising — when police opened fire on student protesters in the black township — she was detained for five months without trial.

By 1977, she was exiled to Tzaneen, an area she had never been to, in the northern Limpopo province.

That same year, Biko was killed in police detention.

After his death, she gave birth to their son, Hlumelo, whose name means “the shoot growing from a dead tree trunk”. He was her only surviving child with Biko.

The couple’s daughter, Lerato, died at two months of age in 1972.

While exiled in Tzaneen, she set up a clinic at the backyard of a church and developed it into Ithuseng Community Health Centre, which is still operational today.

‘Dust off my boots and struggle’

After her banning order was lifted in 1983, she completed a business degree.

She would go on to get a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Cape Town, before being appointed vice-chancellor, the first black person and the first woman to hold the post.

After that she worked as a managing director at the World Bank.

Since then she has served as chairman on a number of boards, including Gold Fields, one of the world’s largest bullion producers.

She has held several other board member posts including at Anglo American and Standard Bank.

Ramphele, who often paints her nails a signature fire truck red, has also authored several books on social issues.

Openly critical of the ANC government, Ramphele once said she never thought she would have “to dust off my boots and struggle” after the advent of democracy.

A vociferous critic of the ANC government, Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu lauded her as “a brave and principled leader who has been ready to take costly stands for social justice”.

She has also suggested the country would be a better democracy had South Africa’s first black president Nelson Mandela served a second term.

“He was a committed democrat,” she said.

In February last year, Ramphele launched Agang, a political movement whose name means “let’s build” in the Sepedi language.

Five months later it became a party.

But she struggled to build a wide grassroots support base, appealing only to a narrow constituency of educated urbanites.

At the helm of the DA’s election campaign she will be able to harness a broader network.

But it remains to be seen if she can translate that clout, and her resume, into votes.