South African political activist Mamphela A. Ramphele explored the question, “can African women redefine liberation for all?” at the annual Rothschild Lecture held by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study on Monday. Ramphele described storytelling as a means of empowerment, urging African women to “weave new narratives.”
“The redefinition of freedom is most likely to be done by those who suffer oppression the most and are conscious of their agency to bring about change,” Ramphele said. “The persistence of a narrative of freedom that excludes such change agents becomes, in this case, a motivating force.”
Ramphele, born just before the beginning of Apartheid, grew up in South Africa and received a medical degree from the University of Natal, where she engaged in anti-Apartheid activism. Over the course of the past five decades, Ramphele has promoted her cause of liberation across posts in academia, public service, and politics.
In addition to her stint as a visiting scholar at HKS in 1994, she has also served as a managing director at the World Bank, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, and founder of the Agang South Africa political party.
The Rothschild Lectures have featured “visionary leaders who straddle the worlds of academia and public life,” said Lizabeth Cohen, dean of the Radcliffe Institute, in her introduction.
Ramphele insisted upon equality in terms of gender as well as race in post-Apartheid South Africa. She pointed to the alpha-male construction, a cultural motif in African societies, to emphasize that many liberation stories feature a single powerful male protagonist. Saying that women are too frequently excluded from these stories, Ramphele called upon African women to ask, “Is this all that freedom means for us?”
“The disjunction between a youthful population that is majority women being led by old men speaks to the old mindset that needs to be challenged,” said Ramphele.
In her analysis of South African societies, Ramphele said that gender inequality harms men and women alike. The male-dominated model of power sustains itself through the subjugation of other men, who in turn strive to dominate females, according to Ramphele.
This toxic narrative resolves itself through self-liberation, solidarity, and connection with others, and African women are in a strategic position to change dominating narratives, Ramphele said.
“History teaches us that change only comes when those who stand to benefit most stand up and make it happen,” she said.