“We have to transform democracies – from short-term to long-term thinking!”
Dr. Mamphela Ramphele has since 2018 been co-president of the “Club of Rome”. The 73-year-old South African medical doctor and anti-apartheid activist has always been a formidable champion of human rights. Dr. Mamphela Ramphele was managing director of the World Bank before founding the South African party “Agang South Africa” in 2013. Sven Lilienström, founder of Faces of Democracy, spoke with Dr. Mamphela Ramphele about democracy, white supremacy and about why women are better leaders.
Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, you grew up in the years of apartheid and experienced racial discrimination first hand: How important are democracy and democratic values for you personally?
Mamphela Ramphele: There is a sense in which having lived without democracy and experienced the humiliation and marginalization and total disregard of one’s human rights and opportunities, as well as the denial of opportunities for one’s development to become the best that one can be, is a primer, it actually makes you appreciate democracy even more than would be the case if you grew up in a democratic state.
And so, for us, the post-1994 period was received with great jubilation because our struggle for freedom was a struggle to have our voices heard in choosing who represents us, how we are represented, what kind of framework our constitution should take and how the democratic dispensation will translate into a fundamental transformation of a society that had been engineered to be unequal.
For us, democracy is a sacred ideal because we have seen the dangers and experienced the pain coming from a lack of democracy!
We also appreciate democracy as an opportunity for us as indigenous people to be able to celebrate who we truly are and to draw strength from our rich cultural heritage. And so, for us, democracy is a sacred ideal because we have seen the dangers and experienced the pain coming from a lack of democracy.
Speaking of apartheid: What memories do you have of that period of racial segregation? How did you experience the violent years of the early 1990’s and finally the end of the apartheid policy?
Mamphela Ramphele: Our memories of the apartheid period are not just about what happened between 1948 and 1994. Because apartheid was an elaboration of a colonial process, it was about capturing the resources of a nation for use by and for the benefits of the colonists.
The memories of colonial conquest and discrimination are in this way engraved into our psyche.
What apartheid did post-1948 was to codify color-coded discrimination and to tighten the screws on the majority people and their exclusion from the process. The memories of colonial conquest and discrimination are in this way engraved into our psyche, our sense of who we are, the way we are attached to our culture, our languages.
It wasn’t just the physical violence or the material deprivation, but also the capturing of the intellectual property of the people of Africa!
The violence was also not just the physical violence – the very idea of conquest, the violent idea behind Europeans arriving in Africa and appropriating the richness of the conquered culture – as for example Napoleon did by capturing the richness of the Alexandrian library and taking those scrolls back to Europe, such that they are now known all over the world as “Greek philosophy”!
So, it wasn’t just the physical violence or the material deprivation, but also the capturing of the intellectual property of the people of Africa.
My family was forced to move from a very rich piece of land on the foot of the Soutpansberg mountains, you can’t forget these things.
For us therefore the wounds from all sources are still raw. We also experienced them in very personal ways. My family, for example, was forced to move from a very rich piece of land on the foot of the Soutpansberg mountains, you can’t forget these things. I also have very deep wounds from losing my fellow activists, many of whom were tortured and some of them killed, including the father of my eldest son.
April 1994 saw the first democratic elections held in South Africa since the end of white rule there. Racism, however, continues to be an issue in South Africa even today. What are the reasons?
Mamphela Ramphele: I think the reasons for persistent racism is because the humiliation of racism was such a fundamental factor in colonial conquest.
The humiliation of racism has caused multigenerational wounds that persist to date!
The humiliation of racism has caused multigenerational wounds that persist to date. You see, when human being evolved here in Africa, we didn’t distinguish between white and black or whatever. There were just different people with different colors, different shaped noses, different shaped hair.
Racism also needed engendered superiority of those defined as white.
But colonialism required color coding to justify treating other people as being less than yourself and not worthy of human dignity. Racism also needed engendered superiority of those defined as white. Now, once you have the benefits of that superiority over generations, it will be very deeply embedded.
There are very few people who will give up such an advantage. White privilege is addictive!
There are very few people who will give up such an advantage. White privilege is addictive. This is why, as activists in the 1970’s, we focused as much on opposing the system of discrimination as we did on freeing ourselves from believing in the lie that because of our color we were inferior. We liberated ourselves from black inferiority and challenged white superiority.
Racism persists today in South Africa because part of the political settlement of 1994 was not to disrupt the patterns of capital accumulation that had engineered the inequalities that the democratic government inherited in 1994. It’s all very well having a constitution that mandates equality, that provides in its preamble the need for healing of wounds and the fundamental transformation so that you have socio-economic benefits going to every citizen. That is one thing. But to then translate that into a practical, effective program to undo 400 years of racist discrimination and white privilege is very difficult.
The only way we can end racism in South Africa is for white people to give up their white supremacy.
The only way we can end racism in South Africa is for white people to give up their white supremacy, while we as black people also need to assert ourselves as the people who are heirs of the very first human civilization on earth.
Because of the nature of colonial education, a lot of African people aren’t even aware of the richness of African culture!
Because of the nature of colonial education, a lot of African people aren’t even aware of the richness of African culture or the fact that it is actually the culture that gave birth to other cultures. So, for example, the appropriation of African wisdom by the Greeks, which now comes back to us as Greek philosophy, continues to undermine the ability of African people to appreciate and to draw from their rich heritage. Such appreciation is, however, needed to enable governing themselves with greater confidence and to feel free to devise models of socio-economic development that are suitable for the philosophical orientation of Africa- Ubuntu. Our African ancestors understood that human beings are interconnected and interdependent, and that we can thrive only if we contribute to the well-being of all people and of the bio-system in which we live.
Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, you are co-president of the “Club of Rome” and, together with Sandrine Dixson-Declève, the first women ever to hold this position. Do women lead differently? What are your primary goals for your term of office?
Mamphela Ramphele: Well, the Club of Rome has got a very proud history of having disrupted the concept of economic growth as an ever-growing big mountain that will continue to grow, by publishing “The Limits to Growth”, a 1972 Report commissioned from MIT experts. The arguments were about the limits to the way in which human beings and human civilization are utilizing natural and other resources to drive endless economic growth. If we don’t recognize and respect those ecological limits, we shall end up with even bigger planetary crises than those already upon us.
The way we currently relate to one another is simply not nurturing the concept of well-being for all.
If you look at the world today, we have multiple planetary crises. We have pandemics, climate change, and many conflicts. The way we currently relate to one another is simply not nurturing the concept of well-being for all. With Covid of course we realize that well-being for a few undermines well-being for all, because Covid doesn’t respect boundaries, doesn’t respect class, doesn’t respect culture. It just continues to spread, because we as human beings, and the world, are interconnected.
We committed to ensure that the Club of Rome’s profile of members also reflects the diversity of the world today.
We took our co-presidency as an opportunity to build on that very rich tradition of the Club of Rome to lead intentionally to bring the feminine to the fore to correct male dominance. We committed to ensure that the Club of Rome’s profile of members also reflects the diversity of the world today. Diversity brings the richness of the values of Ubuntu and other indigenous cultures to learn anew what it means to be human in the 21st Century.
Therefore we, in this presidency, are not only bringing our femininity to the table (which is very important because it has so far been a male-dominated club). But we are also bringing geographic diversity, since I come from the continent, Sandrine comes from Europe, and so we are able to draw on different continental and other cultures to shape our tackling of the responsibilities of our co-presidency.
However, we have also decided that we needed to choose some thematic areas of focus to help us explore how humanity could Emerge from the Multiple Emergencies we face. The four themes are: Planetary emergencies and Action Plans to address them; Reframing Economics; Rethinking Finance; and New Emerging Civilization Initiative. As the Club of Rome we can’t tackle them alone. So, our approach is to mobilize partnerships of like-minded entities and people to address the various themes. The economic and the financial models we are using as a global community are not sustainable. We are proposing to go beyond sounding the warnings about limits to growth to propose that the whole model of development requires fundamental transformation.
How do we learn anew how to become human in a sustainable way in the 21st Century?
And of course, finance in the global economy has become the tail that is wagging the dog that is human development. We have already seen various financial crises generated by greed, and so we are Rethinking Finance, we are Reframing Economics. But overall, we are saying to the world: we need to explore what a new human civilization would need to look like. How do we learn anew how to become human in a sustainable way in the 21st Century?
Just look at the countries currently led by women during this Covid pandemic – they have done better!
You see, I think women leaders are much more able at multi-tasking. Just look at the countries currently led by women during this Covid pandemic – they have done better, whether you are looking at Iceland, New Zealand, Finland or even regions like Scotland. They are by far out-performing male led countries by focusing more on wellbeing for all and promoting values that value life above all else. Now that doesn’t mean women are more intelligent, simply that women are wired to be much more sensitive to interconnectedness and interdependence.
“2052”: According to the current report to the Club of Rome, democracies tend to be geared towards “short-term solutions”. Do democracies put a brake on efforts to control the Corona pandemic or climate change?
Mamphela Ramphele: You come back here to the issue of the need for a new human civilization. Because it is not inherent in democracies to be short-term, but leadership that is focused on the next election cycle undermines democracy. Because if you look at how the world functions, how civilizations function, going back to ancient civilizations there was always the idea that what each generation is doing should be done for posterity.
We have in the 20th and 21th centuries become too focused on short-term benefits. And I daresay that colonial conquest has contributed to this.
But somehow, we have in the 20th and 21st centuries become too focused on short-term benefits. And I daresay that colonial conquest has contributed to this. Because commandeering the resources of others as colonialists did, is in ecological terms short-term. When you go and destroy the asset base of India or South Africa or of Egypt you are being short-term, because you are forgetting that in the long term the world is interconnected. The destruction of the Amazon forest affects the well-being of people in Europe, in Africa and in whatever other biosystem you are looking at.
We have to transform democracies – from short-term to long-term thinking!
I don’t buy the proposition that in order to make progress in terms of thinking long term we have to get rid of democracy. No, rather we have to transform democracies – from short-term to long-term thinking.
Women are able to postpone our short-term benefits and short-term satisfactions in favor of paving the way for their children and their children’s children.
And this is again where good female leaders come in, and of course not every female leader is good at thinking that way. But good female leaders, because of being wired to be mothers of generations, think in generational terms. Women are able to postpone our short-term benefits and short-term satisfactions in favor of paving the way for their children and their children’s children. What is called for here, and this is what the Club of Rome is talking about, is the need for us together to explore what a new human civilization in the 21st Century should look like. We have the benefit of science: evolutionary science is telling us that the species that thrives best is the one that contributes most to the well-being of other species in the eco-system. That is the wisdom I grew up with as an African, with the framing of African philosophy to “I am because you are”, that my well-being is connected to your well-being. That is what is needed. We, as citizens of the world wherever we are, should be choosing our leaders and interrogating their tolerance or otherwise of long-term interests, rather than feeding the beast of twitter-based leadership.
In Germany, the “New Right” is currently gaining ground, and since 2017 the AfD has held seats in the federal parliament, a party that openly rejects ethnic and cultural diversity. Are you concerned about developments in Germany?
I’m very concerned about developments, not just in Germany but everywhere in the world where we see this growing intolerance, and I think this speaks to what I said earlier about the persistence of racism. I mean, the treatment of Afro-Americans in America is no different to what you are describing. Because whiteness and its privileges, is deeply ingrained in American society.
The idea that because you are white you ascribe to yourself a level of superiority is preposterous!
The idea that because you are white you ascribe to yourself a level of superiority, a level of moral right that you don’t ascribe to other people is preposterous. The far-right movement in Germany is a challenge to the German people.
The far-right is hiding behind the kind of conversations that take place around tables that are demeaning of people that don’t look like you.
You have a fantastic chancellor in Angela Merkel, and I think you should probably ask her post her retirement, to chair a commission to help the German people tackle the deep-seated white superiority amongst many of your citizens. Once you systematize the uprooting of white supremacy in subtle and unsubtle forms, you will leave no room for the far right. The far-right is hiding behind the kind of conversations that take place around tables that are demeaning of people that don’t look like you.
These far-right movements are unfortunately symptoms of societies that have not yet made peace with the fact that there is only one race – the human race!
Of course, with migration, a lot of that talk about the color coding of migrants with xenophobia directed at WHO is migrating who does not look like me. After all, you don’t hear about xenophobia relating to Dutch people coming to Germany. You have to tackle that problem head-on. And if you don’t face it head-on, it is going to keep re-appearing, whether in the US, in the UK or in Germany. These far-right movements are unfortunately symptoms of societies that have not yet made peace with the fact that there is only one race – the human race.
Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, our last question is a personal one: what do you like to do most of all in your leisure time and what private objectives have you set yourself for the next years?
Mamphela Ramphele: Well, my favorite leisure activity is reading, travelling, walking, I used to hike but I’m now 73 and I don’t hike any more. I used to hike every Saturday on Table Mountain when I was Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town. Because I believe that nature is rejuvenating, walking in wilderness areas takes you to where you are reminded that you are part of nature. The Western Cape has this beauty, particularly in Cape Town, that is so cultivating. Going for a hike or even just a walk around the neighborhood is so relaxing, so invigorating and affirming of the beauty of the planet that we have been gifted by our maker and the responsibilities that come with that, to protect and promote its wellbeing.
My generation and the generation now in government, are still very much programmed by the legacy of racism in the past.
My objectives at 73 are to be the bridge between my generation that fought for freedom and the generation that is making freedom work and the next generation that, I believe, with enough support from all of us, will be the leaders that they are waiting for. My generation and the generation now in government, are still very much programmed by the legacy of racism in the past.
My most important responsibility and objective in my seventies is to be available for conversations that are intergenerational!
We need a new generation of young people who will have the courage to shape the future as they would like to have it. They will have the tools to connect and they have time on their side. My most important responsibility and objective in my seventies is to be available for conversations that are intergenerational.