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In 1968 she enrolled for a medical degree at the University of Natal, where she became involved in the South African Students Association (SASO) and was a founder, with Steve Biko, of the Black Consciousness Movement.  In 1976 she was detained under the Terrorism Act, and from 1977 to 1983 she was banned to Tzaneen in the Northern Transvaal.

She has a PhD in Social Anthropology, a B Com degree, a Diploma in Tropical Hygiene and a Diploma in Public Health. In 1996 she was appointed Vice-Chancellor of UCT.  In 2000 she became a managing director of the World Bank, based in Washington, DC, a post she held until end of 2004.

Dr Ramphele has served as chairperson of many boards and is a founding trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation since inception in 1999. She was a founder of the Open Society Foundation for South Africa and the Citizens Movement and is Co-Founder of ReimagineSA. In October 2018 Dr Ramphele was appointed co-president to The Club of Rome and is Chair of the Desmond Tutu IP Trust.

She is the author of several books and publications on socio-economic issues in South Africa, including A Passion for FreedomLaying Ghosts to Rest and Conversations with my sons and Daughters. Her latest book, Dreams, Betrayal and Hope, is her analysis of  ‘the state of the nation’ in South Africa.

Dr. Ramphele has received numerous national and international awards acknowledging her scholarship and leading role in spearheading projects for marginalised people in South Africa and elsewhere.