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Why South Africa's leaders 'have lost dream of greatness'

From Nick Thompson for CNN
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Dr. Mamphela Ramphele is considered one of South Africa's most accomplished women
  • Ramphele co-founded the anti-apartheid Black Consciousness Movement
  • Ramphele was first black Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town
  • Ramphele believes South African leaders "have lost the dream of greatness"

Editor's note: Every week CNN International's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. This week we profile Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, the first African managing director of the World Bank and South African political activist.

Watch the show on Saturdays 1130 and 1830 GMT, Sundays 1700 GMT and Monday 1130 and 1630 GMT.

(CNN) -- From one of the founders of the Black Consciousness Movement to a managing director of the World Bank, Mamphela Ramphele is a one-woman testament to the profound transformation of South Africa over the past forty years.

But while so much in South Africa has changed for the better, Dr. Ramphele's message hasn't wavered over the decades, and she continues to challenge authority and champion the rights of ordinary South Africans today.

"There is a lot we have around us, which we fought for and are very proud of," says Ramphele. "[But] the quality of leadership in the public and private sectors is weakening ... from having leaders who have lost the dream of greatness."

As one of her country's most experienced freedom fighters, Ramphele is uniquely qualified to assess the caliber of leadership in South Africa -- amongst the guests at her 60th birthday were Nelson Mandela and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, friends and heroes of South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle.

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For Ramphele, that struggle began as a university student and founding member of the Black Consciousness Movement in the early 1970s.

At this time the anti-apartheid movement was all but silent, with most of the leaders of the African National Congress and other organizations either in jail or in exile. Mandela had been in prison for over a decade.

Enter Ramphele and the other young leaders of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), which advocated a radical shift in how black South Africans viewed themselves.

"One could actually look at the movement as a confrontation with the psychological damage that racism had visited on black people -- the fact we allowed ourselves to be treated as inferior beings," says Ramphele.

"Black Consciousness started a movement of psychological liberation, liberation from this inferiority complex that was instilled in us as black people," says Ramphele. "And it also spoke to white people and their inferiority complex."

The rapidly-growing movement was organizing everything from community development programs to large-scale strikes and protests, and gaining widespread influence across South Africa by the late seventies. This development did not go unnoticed by the white apartheid government, which began cracking down heavily on the movement.

In addition to co-founding the BCM, Ramphele was also the lover of Steve Biko, the leader of the movement. Biko was jailed and then beaten to death while in police custody on September 12, 1977 -- a massive blow to both the anti-apartheid movement and to Ramphele personally, who was pregnant with Biko's child at the time of his murder.

"It was a humiliating death, humiliation for someone who was an extremely proud person," Ramphele says of Biko. "I believe he was killed because he wouldn't be cowed down, he stood his ground as a dignified person. And one is angry with the wastefulness of that kind of death and the manner of it."

The quality of leadership in the public and private sectors is weakening from having leaders who have lost the dream of greatness.
--Dr Mamphela Ramphele

While her son lost his father that day, and a movement its leader, Ramphele believes Biko's death was not in vain. "At the end of the day, I believe that his willingness to die in order to maintain his dignity is a great lesson for all of us. How willing are we to stand up and be counted?"

Ramphele's political activism didn't prevent her from pursuing a career in education, which would culminate in 1996 with her appointment as the first black Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

And after becoming the first African to be appointed to one of the four Managing Director positions at the World Bank in Washington, Ramphele has now returned to South Africa to address what she refers to as the "unfinished business" of her country.

"Many white people still believe that they have what they have because of their superior intellect, their superior efforts. They don't acknowledge that in fact they are where they are because of white affirmative action," says Ramphele.

Ramphele also sees an inferiority complex in black South Africans that still lingers today. "Black people don't acknowledge that they still have a sense of inferiority about them, a fear of being found to be not as good as other people. Not as good as white people," she says.

At the end of the day, she says, Ramphele remains hopeful for the future of the country she's fought to advance for the past forty years.

"I don't ever doubt that this country will realize its greatness. I just worry about how long it will take, and at what cost," says Ramphele. "And I believe that people are realizing that waiting for the government is not the answer."