Across Boundaries: The Journey of a South African Woman Leader

By Pollard, Mignonne | The Journal of Negro Education, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Across Boundaries: The Journey of a South African Woman Leader


Pollard, Mignonne, The Journal of Negro Education


Across Boundaries: The Journey of a South African Woman Leader, by Mamphela Ramphele. New York: Feminist Press at City University of New York, 1997. 241 pp. $19.95, cloth.

The first book in a series from the Feminist Press on African women's lives, Across Boundaries is the public document of South African educator-activist Mamphela Ramphele's private life. In it, Ramphele traces her education and career path from the 1940s as a young girl in missionary school in the Northern Transvaal to her position as chancellor of the University of the Western Cape. She addresses social issues and personal struggles in a writing style that ranges from political essay to intimate conversation. The text is not lyrical or poetic, but is filled with details that provide a rich context for understanding life in apartheid-era South Africa.

Ramphele's commitment to family, education, community service, and career are the major themes that tie the book's chapters together. The first chapter, entitled "My Roots," places the author in historical context within her family and community. Education played a crucial role in Ramphele's ability to survive in an oppressive system. One of the smartest young girls in her region, she dreamed very early in life of becoming a physician. Though her parents were teachers, she had to move away from home at a relatively young age to obtain a high school education. Ramphele writes that Bantu education was designed to "train and teach people in accordance with their opportunities in life" (p. 232). For Black South Africans, this did not include becoming doctors.

The book includes only a few details of the author's early educational journey, instead it emphasizes how she moved beyond the many roadblocks placed in her path and describes the important ways her family intervened to ensure her education. In the chapter, "An Unlikely Career Choice," Ramphele details her struggle to become a physician. The descriptions of her work as founder of two health clinics and her interactions with clinic staff and the surrounding communities make for some of the most interesting reading in the book, and help to explain why Ramphele's achievements as a physician and humanitarian have been recognized in South Africa and throughout the international community. The chapter entitled "Initiation into Activism" is a dual narrative of her relationship with student activist Steve Biko and her involvement in the Black consciousness movement. Ramphele recounts in detail her unconventional romance with Biko, describing it as a political and intellectual partnership:

He [Biko] realized that one could not sustain a marriage on the basis of guilt about wrong decisions he had made in the choice of a partner. Attempts to protect his wife from the pain occasioned by his continued love for me has not been successful anyway: all three of us were constantly hurt by the tensions inherent in the triangular relationship. (p. 117)

Ramphele writes with openness and candor about her relationship with Biko and the impact that his death had on her life and public persona. She also presents a frank discussion about the status of widowhood and her reaction to being publicly defined solely on the basis of her relations with men rather than her accomplishments. Although Ramphele cherishes and protects Biko's legacy, she fights for public recognition as more than his lover and the mother of two of his children. This book addresses many public myths and presents the private truths according to Ramphele regarding her relationship with Biko.

The chapter entitled "Surviving in the Wilderness" is a metaphoric and geographic description of Ramphele's life in Tickeyline Village, where for over 10 years she endured banishment, a type of internal exile, for her activism. …

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