Good Hope Project – Meet inspirational Lebogang Ramafoko, SA’s Oprah

LONDON — It is impossible to quantify the contribution made by the inspirational journey of Lebogang Ramafoko, CEO of the hugely successful Soul City operation. Over decades on television, she has served as the “Agony Aunt” to millions of young South African women, drawing on her own deeply instilled values to help them address real life challenges. That has morphed into a local role similar to that of US media superstar Oprah Winfrey. In this fascinating interview, we discover more about Lebo’s own background, tapping into where she draws her own inspiration. It provides a fascinating story of triumph over adversity – and a level headed understanding of the way to overcome the unique challenges that come from South Africa’s own historical reality. I loved listening to it. So will you. – Alec Hogg

There are many inspirational South Africans but a few who have made the name that Lebogang Ramafoko has done, as the Chief Executive of Soul City. An organisation she joined in 1995. We pick up with Lebo now to find out a little bit more about her own story. Where do you come from Lebo? Give us a bit of an insight into the way you grew up?

I’m the eldest of 3 daughters born in the West Rand in a small township called Munsieville, close to Krugersdorp. I was born like most black people who were born in the 70’s, during the apartheid era, and I think everything about who I am right now was shaped by being born at that time but, also being born in the family that I was born in. My mother was a nurse and my father first worked as a salesman for Simba Chips and my mother’s family really valued education. I think like most black people growing up there, the only way in which we believed we can have a better life and I think it’s still true today – was through education.

The first school I went to the headmistress was my aunt in, I think around an area that is now known as Pecanwood, Hartbeeshoek – that’s what it was called then. It was some school and almost all the firstborns of my aunts’ siblings went to that school. A very passionate teacher, a very strict teacher, and my very first view was that I would want to be just like her. I want to be a teacher. Hence, my first degree was in education. I graduated with a Bachelor of Education. A Bachelor of Arts in Education from Wits in 1993.

I also think that my father, whom I was very close to, influenced who I am in a lot of ways. In fact, until today. He died unfortunately, in 2010. Everything I do I really want to make him proud and live his legacy. He looked after me. We used to go to my grandmother after school but the role-modelling of a very involved father came from him because despite the fact that my grandmother was close by. After work, when my mother was working night shift he would come and pick me up and prepare supper for me, and tell me stories. We created a culture until he died, when we would tell each other stories. I really looked forward to telling my father. Even in my adulthood, even if I was working and travelling around, what I was up to.

I think for me, as I grew older, I understood just what an intelligent man he was but because of the social, and structural, and political arrangement he couldn’t be who he was. I almost felt like my life was an extension of what he could have been so, it was fascinating. He loved history. He knew a lot. He was a compassionate person. In fact, my whole sense of living a life of giving or just living a life where you contribute to the detriment of others – it came from him. My dad had an amazingly bad handwriting, and what he’d do is that he would give money to World Vision.

Growing up in Munsieville, with nearly five-thousand households, in a very segregated South Africa. World Vision used to send him like pamphlets of kids in Ethiopia and from that age on. I think from the time I was in grade 1, aged 7, I understood that there were other people who were even less fortunate than us, in Munsieville and he did an amazing thing.

Lebo, I’m just thinking about that, before we move off onto World Vision. It’s fascinating that side but your siblings, did they also get influenced by your dad? Where I’m going here is that many people who you come into contact with in SA, come from single-parent homes and to almost contrast the privilege in a way that when one does come in with have both parents at home. Rather than others who have to grow up in different circumstances.

Yes, look I was the closest to my dad but certainly I was home with very involved parents, both mother and father has had an influence on all of us, as three sisters. We continue to live with the values that both our parents and having both of them, having passed that to us – a very close-knit family. I, myself, interestingly am a single parent and one of the things that I find very astounding is the role that my father had on both my children, especially my daughter, who is my eldest. Who really, for me, because as a single parent I was really worried about what the impacts of not having her father in her life would mean. But my father stood so much in the gap and for all terms and purposes, in her mind my father is her father. In the house, involved and he was.

I find myself, some of my friends they laugh at me. My daughter is 25; she’s married and she even had a curfew when she and her husband lived in my yard in a cottage. I continued the curfew that I had for her at 22h30. And I think once, at 22h30, she sent me a message that said, “I can’t find my car parking ticket.” My father was already late and I remember saying to her, “What am going to say to Papa if you are not home by this time?” It took me a while to realise, oh my goodness, he’s no longer there.

That is how involved, even in their lives were. I think my dad died believing that I would never be as good as him and my mother, at bringing up children. He was just so involved and I think for me, it’s more than growing up with both but growing up with involved parents.

Indeed.

As a single parent, I absolutely marvel at how involved. It was second nature to him, to be involved in my life at the level. I would tell my father a story about a friend who is going through a divorce. Five years later he would say, “What happened to that friend of yours, she was going through a divorce?” I’m like, “Which one are you talking about?” That’s just how he took our lives and the happenings in our lives so seriously.

And the foundation that he gave you, you just move onto the World Vision, (before we forget that story). You said that here he was, compassionate about other people, even though he had a struggle himself.

Yes, and for seven years. He would make me address the envelopes. He would send R10 in 1978, R10 was a lot of money. He would take R10 out of his pocket and put it in an envelope, at that time you could still trust the Post Office, and post it to World Vision and make me read the pamphlet. He would sit with the World Newspaper and at some point, it was a banned publication, and make me read and explain what the newspaper was about. I really didn’t reflect on it much because I think as you grow older, particularly when you get to your 20’s you actually think you know so much more than your parents and you think they are so old fashioned and so, everything that you frown upon.

As I grew older, and I just had this passion. I was just like… It comes from those days. Those memories are just so vivid with him but you see, we are 3 girls. We grew up with a man and that is why I am so passionate about gender equity. My father truly and firmly believed we can be who we wanted in the world. I was astounded when I walked into the world and in fact, I actually not even adjusted and I’m in my late 40’s in a world that says, “Women can be this and men can be that.”

In my home, the role model was very different. My father was the quieter, more nurturing emotionally. My mother had my personality. Like larger and life and not as nurturing, for me, as a child as my father was. So, the whole issue of ‘to be a man – this is how you must be.’ I’ve just known even before I knew that there’s a word called feminism or gender equality that it was a bit odd because it really was not my lived experience.

It also wasn’t my lived experience that you go into other homes and here’s a chair for the father and you dish this way for the father and I just saw a father. My last memory of my father, when he was alive, was Christmas Day of 2009. He died the 23rd April 2010. We had a Christmas lunch at my house with my sisters, my mother, and my sister’s in-laws. My father was the very first one to stand up and say, “You can go outside and do what you need to do. I’ll wash the dishes.” An hour or two later the kitchen was spick and span. He had packed the fridge. He had washed up and that was our home so, I think for me I just then realised I had no choice but to be a feminist and a gender activist.

And a man…

And a social activist.

A man ahead of his time, who knew you. He also knew though, your work at Soul City because clearly, you’d been there for 15 years, by the time he passed on. Did he support you in that endeavour and did that upbringing draw you into this incredible organisation that you’re the CEO of?

Without a doubt. Three things drew me to Soul City. It was my upbringing and while it has its unique attributes, I think many black people grew up with that sense that the world has to be better. But secondly, being at Wits and graduating in 1993, had a lot to do with it. That institution, and I’m reading the book that was written by Thuli Madonsela, ‘No Longer Whispering to Power’, and there’s a lot of references to Wits and I think those spaces, now that I read the book and I reflect – you felt like you were in an intellectual candy store because that is where people like Milly Metcalf and others, and the Centre for Applied Legal studies. People were imaging a new tomorrow and it was a huge privilege to be in those spaces.

South African Public Protector Thuli Madonsela gestures during a briefing with journalists at Reuters offices in Sandton outside Johannesburg, South Africa, June 7, 2016 . REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

And graduating – I think when you graduate as a black person, as a black woman, at the dawn of democracy. There were so many spaces you could get into but I think my family background then sustained me because we have seen people who have joined government, who have gone into development, and have actually swayed to another direction altogether. I do think that for me, I’m not ashamed to say, ‘I live for my father.’ I live for the life he hoped for and I could see him seeing glimpses of it through my success but completely rooted through the person that he was. He was the salt of the earth. He was a very, simple man. He had very fixed, simple wisdom about humanity.

If I am afraid of God, when I feel like steering away from there, just below that, I’m afraid of disappointing my father because the influence of what is success for him was less material, but what you stand for as a human being and he lived that in terms of what he would acknowledge, commend, and support, and what he would be disappointed in, if you were caught up in a lie, if you treated someone unfairly. You know he would be so disappointed but if you helped somebody else. If you went an extra mile, you knew it would give him so much satisfaction and it is those values for me that I carry right now, very consciously, in my life about the kind of life that I would like to live.

Lebo, you do a lot of work. Well, your life is dedicated to helping, particularly young people, and particularly young ladies. Just to dwell on the television work that you’ve done, up to this point. How’s that fulfilled you, in the first instance, and secondly them, and how did you get into it?

One of my subjects that I did and it wasn’t a major but I absolutely loved was drama and film at Wits. I’m extremely creative and in a lot of ways, Soul City for me, apart from being a job, is really a place where I think I’m living out my talents. When Soul City first advertised the job for a life-skills material developer. They knew, by me calling the organisation to find out if they found my application that the job had been advertised so, they were not even aware that that Friday it would be in the Mail & Guardian.

Being at Soul City was great in a sense that I was not only involved in television but in television for a purpose, which we call talent change communication or entertainment education, which really made my love for the arts and my undergrad, which was an extension. Then we did a story for ‘Take Five’ – Soul City pitched a story on ‘Take Five’, a little drama series on youth sexuality. The role that I played there was that of an ‘agony aunt’ or an aunt that young people could go to, to talk about their sexuality.

It did so well that after that 6-part series, Take Five kept me on as an advisor for a whole, I mean it’s so many years. I also then became an ‘agony aunt’ for the Nelson Mandela Foundation 46661 to 2010. It’s a passion of mine. I think youth is an amazing stage of self-discovery but also an amazing stage of confusion. I was the eldest, I mean the age gap between myself and the sister that comes after me is 8 years so, like most black young people, you look after your siblings. Again, from that early age I had the responsibility to look after those younger than me. So, I just find that comes naturally to me.

Nelson Mandela

I do believe I’m gifted in communication so, I can communicate and talk to people and reach out to people in a manner that over the years – I think being a Soul City, I managed to sharpen it as a craft and not only something that I’m good at. Before I became the CEO, I was the senior manager and then the executive for media at Soul City. So, from Soul City 5 – 12, which is about 7 series. I was the overall person responsible for all the Soul City television processes, which is a very complex process.

It’s not only about writing scripts but it’s about making sure that the research that has been conducted is incorporated in a story that is compelling. That viewers would like to watch, and Soul City has done very well. I’ve also done ‘The Rise Talk Show’ for young women and girls which, for me, it lights up my spirit and my life because it’s a platform where an intergenerational conversation, with young women about the issues that they are facing. I really believe that like in the sustainable development growth, unless we fight gender inequality we will not enjoy the kind of development that we want to enjoy globally.

In a little way, it’s a way of saying to young women, your feelings are affirmed. You should not live in a society that limits you. You should not live in a place where you could be raped by getting into a taxi. You should not have limitations because you are disabled or you are poor. For me, it feels like a life mission but using media as a platform to fulfil that mission.

Lebo, what gets you angry? I can just pull out of the air, blessers, for instance. The HIV prevalence among young girls. The options that some have of finding a sugar daddy or going into prostitution because there’s no employment. What really gets you angry and what you’d love to change?

What gets me angry is inequality especially, because I think in SA the inequality is created. I do think that at the core of what we have, and there’s HIV and others. Unless we are genuine, whenever we are given any position in life, to make changes to the lives of those we are meant to serve and those much more vulnerable. I think we are really, for me, doing a huge disservice and I think committing a time. I say this because things like sugar daddies, blessers, HIV infecting more young women than it does. The violence in communities – inequality is at the root of all of those things. I do think that the dream that many people sacrificed their lives for, and some of us, including myself, got into a NGO or Civil Society Work. Is that we believed that we all agreed that the apartheid era was evil and we were going to work to reverse it.

That’s 20 years later – inequality has grown. That you can get into a community and they failed at the clinic. They have failed at the local Municipalities. They have failed and there’s need to the call because in fact, we’ve got so much power if we were willing to turn the tide around. You know so, for me yes, there are social issues. Like addressing social wrongs that they also exist because somewhere, somehow somebody is not doing what they are supposed to do.

Our Policies and our Laws – even around things like a same-sex marriage, homosexuality, are perfect. Our constitution is perfect. Who or where are those people who were supposed to make it real? For a child in a rural area, for a woman who is single – for anybody else so, that inequality that goes unabated because we have stopped caring and we only want to line our stomachs. I must say, nothing angers me like that, in the world.

But surely, we have the power as individuals to change that. Is it a question of education? Is it a question of the normal people just being too easy going?

You know, yes, we do but, and I think in a lot of ways in this country, a lot of poorer people and those that one could see as less educated has actually been agitating around the issues much more than my fellow black, middle-class people, quite honestly. On one level, I understand what that means. You want to get on with your life. You want to put your children in the best schools. You want to move away from the concentration camps that townships were meant to be. You want to advance in your life, and it can be too much, trying to do that and I think we became complacent.

I think we became complacent in saying, “Well there’s a democracy and then there’s people in power. When the police fails me, I’ll get private security. When the Health Department doesn’t work or my local clinic work then I’ll get medical-aid when this happens.” But I think the problems are knocking closer and closer to home and I know, even myself there are times when I just like ‘I am doing enough – all that I am doing is more than enough.’ In trying in my little corner at Soul City, to make the world a better place.

But to use a famous phrase that has been used recently, ‘when you join the dots you realise that in fact, your activism has to come up.’ Even about issues that you think somebody else has to deal with. How my local public clinic works should be as much my business as any other thing. How the police work should be my business because we are not in isolation. I think complacency is beginning to shift and I think what is in the broader political space is beginning to have other people saying, ‘We need to wake up.’

I think it’s going to take us, as a black middle-class, to understand that when people are blocking the roads and they are speaking about service delivery. We shouldn’t be Tweeting and say, ‘Oh my God, why do they burn tyres?’ But we need to understand that what we sit and watch around money is going all over – it’s what then results in a lack of service delivery. It’s then what result in all of these uprisings and it affects us all.

Indeed. You spoke about inequality and many have identified unequal access to education as being where it all starts. Now clearly, a lot of your whole ethos is focussing on education, on giving people an equal beginning, if you like, into this life’s journey that we have. What do you see, with your experience and from your background where do you see changes being able to be made on that very critical area?

My view firstly, is that education is not only about what happens in the classroom. By the time a 7-year-old gets into a classroom there is so much…  You are already dealing with either advantage or disadvantage. You are either dealing with somebody who walks into a proper infrastructure or by virtue of being born poor walks into an infrastructure that is there but in fact, the quality of education that they get there is poor.

education

I’m fascinated by community work and what happens at local levels, in the most microscopic manner. One of the projects at Soul City that I was involved in was called [Quanda 0:25:27.4], which was because we use media as our vehicle. It was a community makeover show and the terms of the show was what would happen if communities came together to make their areas…? If people got together to make their communities look better, work better, and see it better. And we chose those 3 very deliberately because a community that works better means that all he councillors are doing what they are doing. Make sure that there is an interface between what the state provides, in a community – police stations, clinics, schools, and what the community needs are.

So, how are we able, in a community, even in the first thousand days of a child’s life, which are the most important, to make sure that we know who is vulnerable, we know what their nutritional needs are. We know that by the time gets into grade-1, they are not getting into a school with a hearing problem that was not diagnosed or a learning disability that was not diagnosed. We know that in a school they are able to identify a vulnerable child and in that community, they know who they need to go to, to make sure that vulnerable child is catered for. How do we then, inside the school make sure that we are not only dealing with a teacher, a chalkboard, if that’s what they are still using, and textbooks. But we are dealing with this child as a whole.

We recognise, as a community, that these schools are ours. What happens in that school is important. One of the projects that we do at Soul City is a parenting course. In fact, let alone sexual education. Let alone when people need you to talk to them about sex and about their body parts and stuff. It’s very important that parents know how to parent. More so, now that we’ve got single parent households where even the biological parent has so much pressure on themselves and they have such little time to spend with their children so, how do you support that?

For me, it’s an important aspect of education. How do we make sure that young people when they leave school, are children at 14h00? We know when you are a mother and you are working because of apartheid spacial planning, 20kms or more away from your home. You know what’s going to happen between 14h00 and 17h00. What is happening in our communities that makes sure that we’ve got funds for an unemployed young person, who is good at maths. To look after 10 – 15 primary school kids and give them some extra lessons.

So, for me while we are talking about education. We will need to work community by community. For me, if I was Government, rather than have the most competent people a National Government and have anybody else who can get onto a list and get into Local Government. I would reverse it. I would make sure that the strongest people are at Local Government because when your community changes, when street lights are replaced, when parks are there, when litter is collected, when communities work together.

Now, we do social cohesion, like a project. We have an event and we give people t-shirts and we call it Social Cohesion. Social cohesion is they makes the things that are there work. And that for me will…  Because then you will build on it. Then you will say, ‘Okay, how do we support the teachers who’ve got 50 kids in a classroom?’ That new methodologies can be used. What can schools in poor resource settings do?

We do Soul Buddies at Soul City. We give the schools materials. The clubs in Provinces like Mpumalanga and Limpopo, KZN thrives because in rural schools the post that they get from Soul City, those books, are almost the only other additional learning material that they get. Where they not only use it in the Soul City Club but they use it in their school and stuff like that. So, how do we make it work in such a way that we contribute all of those things for the betterment of this child’s education, in its broadest sense.

Lebo, you’ve touched on what’s happening around the world. It sometimes feels that for us, in SA or for South Africans that it is – we have problems that are different to everybody else’s. But clearly, where you’re identifying is something that we’re seeing sweeping the world so, you’re ahead of your time like your father was and you are making a difference. I guess that’s the beauty about SA, is that the contribution that one can make, when you commit yourself to it, as you’ve done, it can be immense. Just to close off with. Are you still hopeful that we have a country that is going to thrive into the future, provided we get our basics, right?

Without a doubt and I think that’s our only choice. I don’t think we’ve got the luxury of sticking our heads in the sand or be all doom and gloom. I think we need to be awake and I’m very thankful to the media and publications like yours, BizNews, and for everybody who fights for media freedom. I think we need to continue being engaged. I think the fallacy we had about democracy was, you know that day when Mandela came out of prison or when he became president and we thought, ‘Oh it’s all over – now we can all go on our daily business.’ It’s not yet over and therefore, we cannot give up.

Lebogang Ramafoko, it’s been a privilege chatting with you. Thank you for the time you gave us today. She is the chief executive of Soul City.

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