Growing up in Munsieville, west of Johannesburg, Lebo Ramafoko’s father, Thabo, would cook her dinner. After dinner, cuddled on his lap, she would read the newspaper, while her mother, Queen, worked late.
Thabo worked flexi-hours in the taxi-industry, while Queen’s nursing career required night shifts. Born in 1971, Ramafoko’s childhood home was not one of traditional male and female roles.
“My mother was very outspoken, very vocal,” she recalls. “The personality that I present to the world is from my mother. But for me, my emotional anchor and emotional support was my father. My father was my compass. My father was very nurturing, very interested in what I did and incredibly proud of me. He encouraged me to stand out. He encouraged me to go after, you know, whatever I fancied. To reach for the stars.”
Legs tucked under her on a sofa, Ramafoko is speaking from her new apartment overlooking the urban bustle in Woodstock, Cape Town. She had moved from Johannesburg to Cape Town just the day before. There are tattoos on her leg, just above the ankle – a rose and a butterfly. “Oh, those are temporary,” she laughs. “They’re from my farewell party at Soul City. It was so much fun. There were tears.”
At a key career juncture, Ramafoko, 48, has just stepped down as CEO of the Soul City Institute for Social Justice, based in Johannesburg. A member of the organisation since 1995, she led it from 2011, carving an international reputation as a defender of women’s and children’s rights. From 2021, she will helm health advocacy organisation Tekano in Cape Town.
“Leaving Soul City is like leaving home,” she says. “You spread your wings, taking lessons and memories with you.”
During the interview, Ramafoko excuses herself to check her phone. Her son Mpho, 17, has locked himself outside their house in Johannesburg. She is deliberating with him over a locksmith. Her daughter Tumi, 28, lives in Cape Town. Ramafoko raised her children alone. They even joined her at Harvard University in the United States, where she completed a Masters in Public Administration at the Kennedy School of Government.
“I’ve never been married,” she says. “I had my daughter when I was very young. When I had my son my own belief was that it would be good to get married, because of the stigma attached to having children outside of wedlock. But also just the practicality of raising children, you know, on your own it is much harder. But that relationship did not work, it was emotionally abusive.”
Ramafoko’s voice is loud and precise: “You know, I live my politics. For me the personal is political. I do my activism because this is what I believe to be true. For me the 24 years at Soul City was about an activism I deeply believe in. And that’s how I’ve lived my life. I’ve always, you know, travelled a path where others dare not. I’ve always been very vocal and yes, it wasn’t easy. And there’ve been many moments where I have asked myself whether or not certain decisions had been good ones, especially when I saw my children grapple with their relationships with their fathers. But looking back, I have no regrets. I have a lot more sanity being in the driving seat of my own life. I have seen my children grow up in a much happier environment than what would have been the case had I married their fathers.”
Did her own father set the bar too high?
Ramafoko shakes with laughter, then tiptoes around the question: “You know, from a very young age, this idea of a man as the head of the house and stuff like that, I was just like ‘No, actually it doesn’t have to be like that.’ From really young, I could not understand the situation where, for example, the best piece of meat or whatever goes to the father. The key thing is, my father’s role-modelling, it helped me to understand fundamentally that gender identities are just that. That there is no one form of masculinity. I mean, my father died of cancer in 2009. My last memory of him was Christmas 2008. We had a Christmas lunch with family and extended family at my house. Afterwards, we all went outside to sit down and relax. It was my father who tidied the kitchen.”
Ramafoko matriculated at Bethel High School near Ventersdorp in North West. “During the uprisings of the late Eighties, my parents sent me to this boarding school,” she says. “It was in the middle of nowhere, which they considered safer. To this day, I have a little rural person stuck inside of me.” Again she laughs.
In 1990 at Wits University in Johannesburg, studying toward a BA in Education, she started honing her activist’s teeth.
In a poignant blog post on Soul City’s website, she recalls the birth of South Africa’s democracy: “If you were born black, the images of 27 April 1994 will be etched in your mind forever. Long lines of people, some of them very old, waiting in line to cast their first vote; to finally belong and become citizens. I stood in those lines too, a black 23-year-old woman, hopeful about the future. Hopeful that my dreams mattered, my ambitions mattered, my life mattered. Hopeful, because I was finally free.”
Now, some 25 years later, Ramafoko points out that women around the world and particularly in South Africa remains shackled by patriarchy – a system perpetuated by both sexes.
“Patriarchy is a system,” she says. “And it’s a system that all of us – men and women of all races – are brought up into. It sets power relations, assigning power. So it assigns power to men, it assigns power to heterosexual and married women. I mean, you can see the patriarchy princesses, as I like to call them. There is a pecking order, and that’s what we need to start questioning. We need to question things that have been fundamentally normal for years.
“We are facing generations and generations of women being silenced, of women’s bodies and women’s agency being controlled in particular ways. The myth of ‘it’s a private matter’ when there is abuse. The belief that it is a woman’s duty to stay in a relationship. Research points out, even when women are in physically abusive relationships, we will try up to 15 times to leave. Fifteen times!
“It starts with psychological violence. So we will see a woman who looks very accomplished, who is out there doing a lot of things. But back home, the situation is terrifying. She will stomach his philandering, as long as he comes home. Or, their marriage is such a sham, but given that she will lose one, two and three, if she left him, she stays.
“This is patriarchy too. A system like ours basically puts marriage as an achievement for women. The more influential or affluent you are, the bigger the price you pay for leaving that relationship. And therefore you convince yourself that perhaps if you tried one more time, perhaps if you did this one more thing. Or, what about the children?”
Ramafoko points out how global solidarity movements like #MeToo are helping subvert ingrained perceptions. However, on a world scale, South Africa faces urgent challenges.
“South Africa has four times more reported abuse cases than the global average,” she says. “The question we need to ask ourselves is what that means? Particularly if we compare ourselves to other African countries. One of the things we can say is maybe we have a culture of reporting abuse, which does not exist in other African countries. Because even with our country being as violent as it is, other people, particularly gay people and non gender-conforming individuals, still come to South Africa to escape persecution. Here, yes you will face violence, but not from the state because of the Constitution. So it’s nuanced, but the numbers are shockingly high.”
Ramafoko notes that while 1994 was “nothing short of a miracle” South Africa has dire concerns. “We live in an incredible country, I don’t think we need to be blasé about that. From a country that was at war with itself, 1994 symbolically is a date where we put hope and faith in ourselves as a nation, and in what we could become. But, more than 25 years post-democracy, we need to ask ourselves some very hard questions about what we have done, especially with the high levels of gender-based violence and femicide.
“I think there are a number of concerns. One is just how pervasive this violence is. And secondly, just how little the state, despite progressive legislation, is doing. The lack of accountability at the top, the lack of accountability by influential and powerful people. The lack of accountability by duty bearers, you know, people telling you of dockets going missing, the criminal justice system making it very difficult for women to report cases.
“Thirdly, at times the momentum can be disappointing. You know, the belief that men own women, the belief that ‘boys will be boys’, the belief that sexual powers and predatory behaviour is acceptable when it’s done by a man. Because that’s how you prove that, you know, you are a ‘real man’. The way in which social institutions like the church and cultural practices, across races, are supporting women and children not speaking out. The fact that families have cultures of silence when they know that there is a predator in the family. They will not call out the predator; they will warn girls, especially young girls, don’t dress like that when your uncle is in town.”
Ramafoko leans back against the sofa, fanning her face. “We all need to take stock,” she says.
Ramafoko’s next chapter will play out at Tekano’s offices in Khayelitsha. She beams at the prospect. This warrior-woman’s fire burns strong. MC