South Africa

Gwen Ramokgopa: A life of resilience and dedication to public service

As the 1970s and ’80s in South Africa posed significant challenges, ANC treasurer-general and public health specialist Dr Gwen Ramokgopa pushed through oppressive forces to enter into the medical and political spaces. Ramokgopa was born in 1962, coming from humble beginnings in Atteridgeville, Pretoria.

“I lived there, schooled and even got married there,” she said. “I have a very high affinity for Atteridgeville because it made me who I am – including the struggle against apartheid, really wonderful teachers against all odds, the passion for excellence.

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“Many (important) people, including Judge Dikgang Moseneke, came from there.

“Everybody had a certain belief that they could overcome the depression, oppression and exploitation of apartheid.”


Growing up in a family of seven, Ramokgopa described her family and community as closely knit.

“I’m maybe one of the fortunate families, because at home, my mom cooked, and my dad as well. My mom changed the light globe, did gardening, washed dishes, and my dad did the same. The chores were shared and we grew up in that way. So there was little sense of discrimination.

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“The sense of community was amazing. When you had a function at home, you placed a white flag on your gate and people knew there was a party, and if there was a funeral, you put ash on your windows as a sign of mourning.

“There would always be generous support. That has really made me who I am. My family also believed every child must achieve their full potential, regardless of gender, and that every child is unique.

Gwen Ramokgopa: A life of resilience and dedication to public service
African National Congress (ANC) treasurer-general Gwen Ramokgopa speaks to The Citizen newspaper in Johannesburg, 12 August 2023, about herself. Picture: Nigel Sibanda

“Despite the small house we grew up in, it was always full, especially over holidays. The cousins would come, and the kitchen would be a bedroom at night.

“It was a wonderful background. The schools I went to had teachers who really invested in excellence and never gave up.”


Ramokgopa completed her primary education and part of her high school education in Atteridgeville before relocating to Limpopo.

“Back in 1977, when there were protests and schools were suspended by the regime, we tried to boycott formal classes that were teaching an apartheid education and ran parallel schools.

“That is where the Congress of South African Students model came from. I was teaching biology and mathematics to my own class. We were very organised but when schools were suspended, my father decided to move me.

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“So I went to Rambo High School, did my junior certificate, and then matric at Phiri Kolobe,” she says.

“Living in Limpopo was different. We cooked on the floor, I carried water on my head and lived in rondavels.

“It was where I was inspired to be a doctor. After matric I went to Medical University of Southern Africa.”

Ramokgopa journey has not been easy because “there is no medicine without politics and no politics without medicine”.

“There was no life outside the quest to tenaciously end apartheid in our lifetime. So in terms of politics; it was really about how the governance of a community or a nation is and to enable that nation to thrive.

“That’s just how I relate to politics and within it. There are economic, education and children issues. So I relate to it from a developmental perspective,” she said.

“In 1990, I went to do my internship as a doctor and had to decide which route to take. I felt that I’ll be more at ease with public health, to look at the underlying causes of illnesses and doing preventative medicine, research, looking at health policy, health systems and health economics.

“I worked for the Independent Development Trust, which was part of the transitional government processes where we built clinics and reached very remote areas … to make sure their primary healthcare programmes were running.

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“I was asked to come and assist with the Gauteng health department, initially as a medical advisor to the MEC and later being the MEC for health until 2006.”

Ramokgopa has served in several other government portfolios, including as the first female mayor of Tshwane from 2006 to 2010 and deputy minister of health from 2010-14.

During the #FeesMustFall student protests, she was chancellor of the Tshwane University of Technology and in 2017, returned as MEC for health.

Gwen Ramokgopa: A life of resilience and dedication to public service
African National Congress (ANC) treasurer-general Gwen Ramokgopa speaks to The Citizen newspaper in Johannesburg, 12 August 2023, about herself. Picture: Nigel Sibanda

“I think I’m the longest-serving MEC, and it was a privilege to have been a deputy minister of our country,” she said.

Ramokgopa does a lot of work through the Dr Gwen Ramokgopa Foundation, but says her most important work was being a “vehicle to serve the nation”.

“I see my involvement in the ANC, in particular, like anyone being involved in church or society. It’s been my backbone and pillar to achieve so many things and a community that has a very indelible legacy. That is inspirational,” she said.

Ramokgopa’s hobbies

What does she do to unwind?

“I enjoy jazz music, being at church but also having time to relax with my family… I try to be present in all areas,” she smiles.

“I read a lot, I must actually start writing.”

She said young people should remember the world is their oyster and they should strive to be the best they can be.

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“They must not give up on themselves. We must appreciate, especially as black people that our work has been undermined for centuries and we must look beyond those who define us.

“We must define ourselves for ourselves. We live in a monetised world. We must learn to monetise the land,” she said

“Young people have an opportunity. They must focus on being productive to ensure the African renaissance we need.”