Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

The private is political: Ramphele and the Biko affair

I tried to play devil’s advocate in a conversation where Mamphela Ramphele’s affair with Steve Biko came into question. I was stunned that in a group of black women Ramphele was not the hero or the role model of what it means to be an example of a woman to be reckoned with in the political arena. Instead the word “umakhwapheni kaSteve” was bandied about with great ease. Umakhwapheni refers to a woman who has an affair with a married man (a side-chick/the mistress). The word has the root word armpit (ikhwapha), as a woman who is a mistress is a secret and therefore hidden (as one would hide something under their armpit). The conversation became centred on Ramphele’s “use” of her private life in public discourse.

I tried to make the argument that if she were a man we wouldn’t judge her as harshly for being very open about her relationship with a married man. But my friends pointed out that her struggle credentials have been put into question because as umakhwapheni, did she sleep her way into the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) or did she make real contributions that can be sited as an example of her work as an activist. It seems that until Ramphele launched a political party her relationship with Biko was common knowledge but was viewed with silent derision. It is taboo for umakhwapheni to be open about her relationship with a married man because of the social shame. But what happens when it is a successful, educated and potentially powerful woman such as Ramphele? Does the narrative change? Even though Ramphele is an example of a leader, she loses brownie points because she has not kept quiet about her private life with an icon. Would we judge her if the married man was not Biko? By talking openly about her private life the perception is that Ramphele is using it as part of her political campaign. But the question is then raised, is she a real voice to be reckoned with or is she just a mistress who happened to be successful in spite of the challenges she faced during apartheid?

She has a political party with policies that have been criticised: do they reflect her work and ideas as someone who was part of the BCM? She declared her assets and challenged the president to do the same. He didn’t respond to her challenge. Did this weaken or strengthen her campaign? She has exposed her private life with Biko. If we didn’t know that Ramphele was Biko’s makhwapheni, would the public receive her politics and ideals differently?

As much as Ramphele has shifted the political discourse about our ideas about what a woman should be, there could be the unintended consequence that South Africans are uncomfortable about being lead politically by umakhwapheni. By being open about her affair with a married man who is no longer alive, the question of the silent wife who is still alive remains. Has Ramphele silenced another woman in her open declaration of her relationship? I don’t know the context of the relationship between a married couple and umakhwapheni. Could there have been an understanding between the three adults about the relationship or does Mrs Biko’s silence to Ramphele’s stories suggest uneasiness about this love triangle? One cannot help but wonder, what if Biko had other mistresses other than Ramphele?

Ramphele is clearly walking to the rhythm of her own music because by publically admitting to being a mistress and allowing us into her bedroom (because we also know she has a child with Biko) she upsets the politics of respectability. A respectable woman tows the line: she does not admit to being a mistress. She can become successful and make money as Ramphele has done, but she must maintain an innocent persona that does not bring her character into question. Ramphele is clearly a complex character like most women who do not toe the line.

The role of one’s private life as a public figure has been discussed ad nauseam and Ramphele’s narrative is not new. That she is a woman who is damning herself as the mistress and expecting South Africans to respect her is a new narrative. I suspect it might make many women uncomfortable because ordinarily the mistress is shamed but if she is a mistress to a struggle icon such as Biko, do the rules of engagement change? This narrative has left me with more questions than answers and even after the discussion with friends, I couldn’t help but wonder why she has exposed her private life to this extent. I didn’t win the case of being devil’s advocate. The feeling was that Ramphele has done women few favours by declaring her private life for everyone to scrutinise. Perhaps South Africans are too conservative to vote for a mistress it seems.

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