Review of ' The Seed Is Mine and Across Boundaries'- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
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Review of ' The Seed Is Mine and Across Boundaries'

Review of ' The Seed Is Mine and Across Boundaries'

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But his insistence on patriarchal authority was tied to the increasingly destructive rules and policies of a racist government that were driving his family off the land, denying their rights to own livestock or even farm for themselves, and turning a once independent black rural population into subservient laborers and slum-dwellers. In a shrinking world of choices, Maine was fierce in his determination not to give in. Yet that fierceness also alienated his own children, destroyed his labor resources as they fled the family, and further limited his possibilities as age and growing blindness sapped his own strength. When he insisted on buying that last tractor at the age of 86, van Onselen writes, "He was living in a resettlement slum surrounded by the neglected fields of a dying peasantry, whose labouring lifeblood had long since drained away to the cities."

Two lives could scarcely be more different. Yet their biographies are like different threads in the same fabric, each part of the complex interweaving of forces bringing about South Africa's remarkable transformation. One can sense the stubborn dignity of the sharecropper as well as the selfless courage of the activist in the figure of Nelson Mandela. These biographies offer a rich understanding of people whose lives are the roots of history, the roots from which such symbols as Mandela spring up.

In her autobiography, Across Boundaries, Mamphela Ramphele writes of a generation that rose to resist apartheid, as if from the ashes of a sharecropper's dreams. Theirs was a different kind of struggle, shaped by the realities of mass urban poverty, rural disintegration and the cultural destruction that apartheid had produced. Ramphele grew up in a hybrid family culture, both traditional and liberating. Her mother set the example of defying patriarchal rules, and she followed the example, choosing a career in medicine against her family's advice. "It was not the desire to serve which influenced my career choice," she writes, "but the passion for freedom to be my own mistress in a society in which being black and woman defined the boundaries within which one could legitimately operate."

Medical school also became the seedbed of political activism as she was drawn into the "black consciousness" movement and a deep friendship with the young leader Steve Biko, who urged blacks to have more faith in themselves and not let white liberals run their liberation struggle. Ramphele needed little urging, as her remarkable life demonstrates. In a world of police surveillance, orders that restricted her and other activists to remote places and forbade contact among them, and imprisonments that often resulted in brutal deaths (Steve Biko died of beatings in police custody while she was pregnant with their child), she combined medicine and activism. Ramphele's mission was founding and running community clinics for poor patients. Banished from directing her first clinic (a security agent told her, "Well, Dr. Ramphele, goodbye, you bitch!"), she soon started another in the province to which she was exiled.

It was the commitment and determination of men and women like her that ultimately broke the back of apartheid, and her autobiography is full of tributes to these activists, as well as to the priests and nuns, and white liberal allies, who sheltered and comforted her during her darkest moments of grief and despair.

In the twilight of apartheid, Ramphele took refuge in academia, turning from medicine to research, alarmed by the symptoms of social disintegration among poor black communities that a clinic could never cure. She became an anthropologist. Her work attracted the interest of Nelson Mandela, still in prison, who encouraged her, and who took to heart her criticisms of patriarchal abuses occurring within the liberation movement.

Ramphele is now working at the peak of South African society, as a vice-chancellor of Capetown University and on corporate boards of directors, to advocate the cultural changes that must accompany any real economic development among the poor. She writes: "Affirmative action as it has been pursued in the United States and in many other parts of the world assumes that 'outsiders' have to be brought into the mainstream to ensure their participation, without there being any fundamental questioning of that mainstream as a desirable social framework." Clearly, her success has not tamed this activist any more than the punishments of apartheid did.

Reviewer Paul Trachtman writes from his home in rural New Mexico.


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