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Wednesday, 01 October 2008 02:00

Transformation in Need of Ghostbusters

By  Karina Magdalena Szczurek
In a time of uncertainty and discouragement, reading Mamphela Ramphele's Laying Ghosts to Rest: Dilemmas of the Transformation in South Africa feels like a breath of fresh air. Not because she is saying anything radically new, but because her honest and comprehensive assessment of present-day South Africa and the challenges the country is facing at this volatile moment in history is an inspiration to stop complaining and to start acting instead.

Ramphele divides her book into six main parts, each structured around major dilemmas which the young democracy is confronted with at the moment: the historical and political heritage, questions of ethics, policies and responsibilities of governing, skills, affirmative action, and leadership. Tackling such topics as reconciliation, racism, citizenship, or the HIV/Aids pandemic, she addresses 'the ghosts of the past' and discusses what role they play in our society as well as how they can be 'laid to rest' in order for South Africa to continue with the process of transformation in a desirable direction which will benefit all of the country's citizens.

Retaining the historical perspective is crucial to her arguments: "The leap of faith required to fully embrace our ugly past to transform it is often underestimated." She is also aware that the kind of enterprise she envisages, "entails transcendence beyond normal human experience. […] Transcendence requires openness to a radically different frame of reference; it takes one beyond the known into the unknown, demanding courage and a willingness to take risks."

The most important step in this process is the acknowledgement of all the ramification of the legacy of the past, i.e. the ghosts which haunt us. Only once we have proceeded beyond denial can we shift into the right frame of reference in order to achieve the changes which will bring the country "towards a bolder imagined future."

Perhaps the greatest myth which stands in South Africa's path towards this future is the myth of a miracle. Ramphele argues that however seductive it is to believe that the political changes of the early 90s were a miracle, believing in divine intervention robs us of the two unavoidable factors which make true transformation possible: responsibility and accountability. She knows that by "facing our ordinariness as a young, fragile country is essential to the maturation process of the new democracy."

In many well-substantiated examples Ramphele offers strategies of how the process of 'growing up' of the nation can be helped along, not only at governmental levels, but from the bottom up. Each and everyone's contribution is necessary. By championing the re-establishment of a "culture of self-reliance and pride" Ramphele's approach is highly empowering. It also exemplifies the kind of non-fiction writing that does not stand back to analyse its subject from a safe distance, but includes the author in the midst of its inquiry. Ramphele generously shares her own experiences as a daughter, an activist, and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

Laying Ghosts to Rest is written in a clear, well-paced style that holds one attention throughout the book. It is thoroughly researched, but not weighed down by heavy polemics or statistical data. An indispensable book for anybody wanting to understand where we come from and how we can continue into a brighter future, Laying Ghosts to Rest offers a substantial lesson in democracy.

Laying Ghosts to Rest: Dilemmas of the Transformation in South Africa
Mamphela Ramphele
Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2008

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