Tzaneen, South Africa — Dr. Mamphela Ramphele has turned her political ''wilderness'' into a well-tended ''garden.'' Even the South African government, which banned and banished her to this northern rural district in 1977, must be privately impressed by her success in helping this impoverished black community lift itself by the bootstraps.
Dr. Ramphele was the girlfriend and political associate of ''black consciousness'' leader Steve Biko. In the year he died in police custody, a massive government crackdown on the black consciousness movement resulted in Dr. Ramphele being banished here, far from King William's Town, where she and Biko had been most active.
She is also banned, meaning she must get a permit to leave the Lenyenye township where she is assigned to live. And she cannot be quoted by the press. The government is not obliged to give reasons for her banning, which was extended last year to 1984.
Blacks in Lenyenye and the surrounding area might be secretly pleased that Dr. Ramphele is being forced to stay on. She has founded a thriving community health center, which is proving to be vital as this area faces a bleak winter of insufficient food due to drought.
The Ithuseng (help yourself) community health center is embued with the spirit of black consciousness. And although none of its projects are of a political nature, the overall success of Ithuseng points to the continuing influence of black consciousness, long after its force as a black political movement has waned. (The ascendant black political force now is the externally based African National Congress.)
The philosophy of black consciousness, articulated forcefully by Biko, emphasizes black (nonwhite) self-reliance and self-respect. It excludes involvement by whites, but adherents claim that is due not to an antiwhite bias, but to recognition that blacks must achieve their own ''liberation.''
That spirit of self-reliance is strong in Ithuseng. It runs a number of self-help projects in Lenyenye and the surrounding black villages, including literacy classes, a child-care center, and the promotion of cottage industries and local gardening to provide local sources of revenue.
When Dr. Ramphele arrived in Lenyenye in 1977, close friends say she felt ''anger, anger, and more anger'' at her own banning, followed by the death of Biko, the father of her young son, Hlumelo. (Hlumelo reminds his mother to get a legal permit when she leaves the area because his father's arrest and subsequent death stemmed from his violating provisions of his banning.)
But close associates say Dr. Ramphele soon told herself: ''As long as I am here, I might as well do something positive.'' There was much to be done. The government health clinic for Lenyenye's population of 10,000 was small, with a staff of only two nurses.
Dr. Ramphele, a medical doctor, set out to build a new clinic, raising private donations of about $80,000. Ithuseng takes care of some 40 to 80 calls per day from local residents.
Although Dr. Ramphele's opposition to the government remains as deep as ever, her anger has been replaced with a positive, ebullient attitude.
She appears even to have won respect from her legal overseers. Initially, close associates say, the police used to threaten patients who came to Dr. Ramphele. That harassment has stopped.
Dr. Ramphele was initially assigned to live in a run-down four-room house that friends say was ''not fit for habitation.'' Dr. Ramphele protested to the magistrate and she was given a new home - one of several being built to house the local police force. Dr. Ramphele now lives surrounded by policemen, whom friends say she gets on well with. Friends say she boasts at having the safest house in town.
At present Dr. Ramphele's primary concern is the devastating drought that threatens to create serious food shortages this winter.
Blacks in the fertile Tzaneen Valley are used to growing crops to supplement their food purchases, but this year much of the crop has withered, leaving them with nothing to supplement their diets.