Douglas Foster: Interview

Monday, April 22, 2013

South Africa is an afterthought to many Americans nowadays. Its relevance to world affairs receded into the past once apartheid was abolished and Nelson Mandela became the nation’s first democratically elected black president in 1994.

In his book “After Mandela,” Douglas Foster paints a complex picture of the political and cultural forces shaping South Africa since the end of Mandela’s presidency in 1999. Foster, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, spent parts of eight years in South Africa reporting on its ongoing transformation, including a full year living in Johannesburg in 2007. He interviewed hundreds of politicians, journalists, activists, health care professionals, educators, and young people about their hopes for the future of South Africa. What he came away with is a brutally honest account of the painful transition to democracy, the fight against a fearsome AIDS epidemic, and the struggle to catch up with a rapidly evolving world economy.

TriQuarterly sat down with Foster at his apartment in downtown Chicago to talk about what he calls “an urgent book at an urgent time,” not just for South Africa but the rest of the world.


TriQuarterly: As I was reading the book, I was thinking about what I already knew about South Africa, assumptions that I think a lot of people in America share. I had this image that first there was apartheid, then Mandela became president and it was over. But the book describes a very complicated transition phase.

Douglas Foster: I think for a lot of people, even people who pay close attention to global affairs, maybe “cognitive dissonance” is the best way to put it about South Africa. I think people have a couple of images in their minds. One is that amazing transition in the mid-90s. Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and for those of us who marched in antiapartheid demonstrations and grew up seeing images of him as a young revolutionary, that was an astonishing moment. And the other is the cataclysm, either the expected cataclysm that didn’t occur or the cataclysms that did occur in the shape of HIV/AIDS, or even up to the current day with the violence in the mines. And of course, the reality of any people is a lot more complicated than that. It’s somewhere between the poles of cataclysm and miracle, and that’s what I’ve tried to capture in the book.

TQ: What do you mean when you say there was an expected cataclysm? People expected that after apartheid fell, everything else would fall apart?

DF: The entire global press corps arrived in 1994 in South Africa to cover the election, fully expecting that there would be a bloodbath, and to a certain extent their expectations were pleasantly defied. Many of those reporters expecting to cover the kind of confrontation that right-wing Afrikaners had threatened if Mandela was elected president went off to Rwanda, where genocide was under way. There’s always a place to go to cover a cataclysm, and to be honest, when I went in 2004, I had no expectation that I would stick around South Africa to tell the story in this book. I thought I would go to the People’s Republic of the Congo or Burundi or someplace else; I’m a magazine writer, and the story of some active conflict would be of most interest to editors.

What I got seduced by was, first, seeing the tremendous change that was under way in the newsrooms, but then, as I was around political and cultural circles and around young people, it was seeing society being stitched back together again in really interesting ways. It was a struggle that I chronicled in a kind of upstairs/downstairs manner, of people trying to achieve this very high-end goal of a nonracial, nonsexist, nonhomophobic, more egalitarian society at the southern tip of Africa. Eighteen years in, that’s still the goal.

TQ: How successful do you think that experiment has been? By the end of the book it seemed like you were cautiously optimistic, but maybe you left feeling there’s a lot of work left to be done. In your final conversation with Jacob Zuma, he said some disconcerting things about limiting the freedom of the press, so where you might have been hopeful that things were moving in the right direction, you still had that bad taste in your mouth as you left.

DF: I think it’s very hard to be there or to see what’s happening in the country without having a sense of disillusionment, disappointment in the ruling party and in the president. Today, in the National Council of Provinces, the “protection of state information bill“ was voted out of that house, and that is an anti-media piece of legislation. The kinds of things that I was arguing about with President Zuma in our very last interview are things that concern people. A crackdown on press freedoms, rising disrespect for judicial independence, and failure to narrow the gap between rich and poor are the key indicators of a society in distress.

At the same time, what the book tries to make clear is that there was a great collision of world historical forces on one day in 1994. The very same day that democracy arrived, HIV tipped into a pandemic. And on that very same day the South African economy was hitched back up to a world economic order that was characterized in the mid-90s and the early part of the next decade by a worsening of income inequality everywhere. That was then layered over the inequalities of apartheid. So you see a system with leaders and citizens both under these tremendous stresses, and trying to move them in the direction of the promise of 1994.

Thus I think whether you should be cautiously optimistic depends on your framing. It may be “They promised peace, jobs, and justice—that’s what Mandela promised in the campaign of 1994, that was the slogan—so wait a minute, where are the jobs? Where is the justice? Maybe they do have peace.” With this framing I think you come out with one answer. If you come at it with a more nuanced framing that incorporates the unexpected challenges that were faced by the incoming leaders, then I think you can have a certain measure of cautious optimism that even these principles, these standards, and these goals still survive eighteen years in.

TQ: It seemed to me that, at least after Mandela’s term was over, the African National Congress (ANC) ossified immediately, that some of the revolutionary zeal fizzled or turned into a different type of energy. Is that fair?

DF: I don’t think so. It’s often presented as if there were these five miraculous years of Mandela, and then came Thabo Mbeki, his successor, and that’s where the revolution went off the rails. That in fact is the case that Jacob Zuma and his supporters made in 2007, 2008, and 2009 about why Zuma was needed. The fact is, there was a lot of continuity between Mandela and Mbeki. Mbeki had served as a kind of prime minister under Mandela from the beginning. So I don’t think you can say there was this stark turning point at which an ossification was visible.

I think there were certain ossified qualities of the party right from the beginning. It had been a party in exile. Its leaders had largely been in prison, in frontier states as guerrillas, or like Mbeki, who was in exile for nearly thirty years in London, disconnected from their own people, used to operating in a Marxist/Leninist kind of top-down manner. There are certain qualities of the party that then continue, and there’s a struggle to adapt to these new conditions, to return to the bottom-up representative shape that it had before the exile years. I think that’s a struggle that’s ongoing. I would say there are backward-looking forces within the party, and there’s a fight at very senior levels, including at the top now, between people whose outlook is primarily shaped by what they did in the struggle years and those who are more oriented to thinking about the future.

TQ: One of the big themes in the book, and one of the most troubling parts to me, was the Mbeki administration’s initial antiscience, denialist position on the AIDS epidemic. Why do you think that happened?

DF: Well, I had to struggle a lot with that, because the entire orientation of the book is to try to understand what the forces were that led people to make decisions, even if they seemed to me crazy in their consequences. What was the logic of Thabo Mbeki’s developed argument that HIV did not necessarily lead to AIDS, that what he was seeing in South Africa was not HIV? I can tell you what the internal logic was of that decision making. First, the conventional wisdom of epidemiology is hard to grasp. It’s difficult to understand why an epidemic that was primarily characterized in other parts of the world as a syndrome that was primarily transmitted through male-to-male sex, through IV needle use, or from sex workers should suddenly appear in a very different form at the southern tip of Africa, primarily transmitted through heterosexual sex and not through sex work avenues. That raised a question mark in his mind: why should it be like this everywhere else and then be characterized this way here? I think that raised hackles and suspicions that the long history of white people trying to control the sexuality of black people was somehow implicated.

My ability to wrap my mind around that was helped by having been in communities like San Francisco during the first two waves of the epidemic in the United States, when very similar arguments were made by leaders in the gay community. The coverage in gay weeklies would raise the question whether this was a CIA-developed microbe, whether this wasn’t a federal effort to demonize sex. So what I saw in South Africa when I went there, not just among leaders but widespread, with people saying, “Oh, AIDS, that’s the American initiative to demonize sex,” had a kind of resonance.

Then there was a practical pressure that heightened the sense of being horn swaggled into doing something, which was a quite accurate totting up in the late 90s of what it would cost South Africa, given antiretroviral medication costs at the time, to treat the country’s way out of the epidemic. If you just priced it out it would’ve been much of the national budget to do it. That’s before prices came down as a result of pressure from organizations like the Treatment Action Campaign. There was a kind of background suspicion heightened by things in popular culture, such as John Le Carré’s novel The Constant Gardener and the film, raising questions about the way the international pharmaceutical companies treat Africans as guinea pigs. In a way it was two plus two plus two equals eleventy-eleventy, or some remarkable number. It’s a hard exercise to do if you’re somebody like me who has lost lovers and friends to AIDS, but there is a logic train that led to this really unfortunate conclusion on Mbeki’s part that he was being pressured by the CIA and international pharmaceutical companies to do something that would derail the capacity of the government to do anything else.

TQ: What was the tipping point for his administration? Because suddenly there was this very widespread program where the drugs were available in all the clinics. Is it because they couldn’t withstand the international pressure anymore?

DF: I think international pressure cut both ways. Some of it helped, and some of it was very damaging and made Mbeki dig in more. He figured that if there was such a loud clamor from the US and Western European governments, maybe his analysis was correct. The change was largely due to the bottom-up efforts of doctors, nurses, health promoters, the Treatment Action Campaign (one of the most successful cases of civic organizing in the history of the world), and Médecins Sans Frontières. It was individuals and networks of doctors, nurses, and health promoters, who after all had worked on a plan as far back as 1992 to take on the disease before it tipped into epidemic proportions. Many of those people just doggedly kept at it and raised money to do what the government wasn’t doing until 2004, the same year I arrived. The other thing was that there was a concerted move within the party. Nelson Mandela wasn’t president any longer, but he certainly made an effort both publicly and within the party. Lots of other members, including people on the national executive committee, kept insisting, “This is crazy. We’re losing support, we’re losing people, our people are dying.” There was a rising sense of urgency as people’s families were affected.

TQ: Where does the effort stand now under the Zuma administration? Have they continued to make strides, or has it stalled?

DF: Since 2009 there have been big strides. There’s a visionary minister of health, Aaron Motsoaledi, who, despite tremendous constraints in terms of resources and public health system infrastructure, has been able to ramp up the proportion of treatment. There’s still tens of thousands of people in desperate need of being on medication who aren’t on it, but when I arrived in 2004 there were zero being treated from public funds and public health clinics. There’s some indication in the surveys of young people now that the rate of new infections has leveled off, so finally there may be a point where people can begin to develop a strategy of treatment plus prevention and have some sense that those prevention efforts will start to have an effect.

The scale of the epidemic there and in the United States really can’t be compared. We’re talking about 15–16 percent infection rate in the population in South Africa. That means walking down the street and counting every sixth person to begin to imagine the scale and scope of the challenge on that front. Being there is a little bit like seeing scaled up to a national level what we experienced in places like Chelsea and San Francisco and neighborhoods that were heavily populated by gay men. For people who lived through that period and were in the central nodes of the epidemic, I think there is a sense of what it would be like. It was always people’s greatest fear that it would tip into a generalized epidemic, that we would see that kind of scale and scope to it. And I think that’s another place where we need to have some humility in judging the ways in which the South African government and the people reacted, because after all, we didn’t look so good in the early years and the scale of the challenge was significantly less.

TQ: One of the other major sections of the book dealt with the struggle between Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. What was behind the conflict between those two and their leadership styles, and what did they represent to the country?

DF: There’s a couple different ways of slicing it. One is to think of Mandela as having represented the group of leaders who had been in prison. Mbeki represented the group of leaders who had been in exile, and Zuma represented the group of leaders who had been on the front lines in the guerrilla forces, who had been actively promoting an armed overthrow and had been in military organizations. In addition to that there are some differences between Mandela and Mbeki on the one side and Zuma on the other. They were highly educated, professional Xhosa-speaking people. He was an uneducated goatherd as a child, who came from very poor conditions and didn’t have much schooling. Zuma learned to read and write on Robben Island, in prison. So I think there’s a class difference. There’s certainly an ethnic difference in the sense that he’s the first Zulu-speaking leader to rise to the level of president of the party and the country since liberation, and that has some implications for how they’re seen. What played to his benefit was that Mbeki was seen as a quite clever, smart, intellectually oriented leader who quoted Yeats and Shakespeare, while Zuma knew how to dance, knew how to sing. He was a leader that looked more like me if I’m out there in a village or a township.

TQ: It seemed like there was a level of fear of what would happen if Zuma became president, that he would mismanage the country or take out retribution on the people who opposed him. Do you think those fears have come to pass? Has he done things to justify it?

DF: No, the fear that people were going to be frozen out was largely eliminated with the selection of a very broad-based cabinet. I think the big fears about Zuma that have relevance still are the ones that were always there: the corruption allegations were never adjudicated. He’s continued to make decisions that seem to favor direct relatives. There’s a huge controversy over new construction at his homestead that I describe in the book, of substantial amounts of money supposedly to increase the security there. There’s the construction that will cost, I think, two billion rand, of a village right outside of his home village. That is the kind of decision making that you generally haven’t seen from the top in the ANC before, and it makes people think of the ways in which liberation movements have gone off the rails in other parts of Africa, and other parts of the world too. People sometimes talk about it as an African phenomenon, or they’ll say, “I’m afraid South Africa will go the way of Italy.” The model in some ways is more Berlusconi than anybody in Africa: the mixing of personal interests and public resources, that kind of corruption.

TQ: One of the other conflicts that was very apparent throughout the book was generational. This is definitely not unique to South Africa, it’s happening everywhere, but young people there have very few opportunities for better education and better jobs. You interviewed a lot of young people and made a point to seek them out. Do they have any prospects? Is it getting better for them, or do you think it will?

DF: There’s no question that things have gotten better. Two million blacks have moved into middle-income status in eighteen years. It’s not enough, but it’s not nothing: the emergence of what President Mbeki’s adviser used to call the “patriotic bourgeoisie,” meaning a new emerging black middle class. The problem is that the South African economy operates in a global system that is unsustainable. China produces most of the textiles. Brazil produces most of the agricultural products. India is doing most of the service, including call centers, and the United States is consuming almost everything, based on debt. Obviously unsustainable, every piece of what I said, but what it leaves is 70 percent of the population in the world, in the developing countries, with a dilemma: where is their place in that economy?

You asked, are there enough opportunities? No. Seventy-five percent of black college graduates don’t find a job in their first year. That’s a sign of a huge potential explosion, that people follow the rules, do what they’re told, get a good education, get prepared for the new economy and the rest, and then there’s no payoff. So there are structural constraints that are creating tremendous pressure for this new generation. Half the population is twenty-four and under. Forty percent of the population is eighteen and under, and for that generation coming of age right now, it’s right there in their faces.

TQ: Given that situation, I would think that would be, if not the most urgent problem that they’re facing, one of the most urgent.

DF: It is absolutely the most urgent.

TQ: But what is the outlook for South Africa now? I asked before, has this project been successful? Maybe the answer is “we don’t know yet, they’re still in the middle of it.” Given that situation with young people and the world economy, what kind of path is South Africa on right now?

DF: I think the hopeful part is that the goals of the revolution are still widely embraced. In the last five years the number of young South Africans giving “South African” as their first identity, as opposed to “Zulu speaking” or “white,” are up. The level of optimism that their life will be better than their parents’ lives is up. So in spite of the structural constraints that create a very narrow funnel to success, there is this hope, expectation, and determination among the young to achieve their goals. It’s not as if large numbers of young South Africans have said, “We’ve heard about these goals for eighteen years, we’re not getting close enough, and therefore I’m going to embrace a different kind of goal.” There hasn’t been a push for a black nationalist state in which whites are pushed into the sea and finally pay a price for apartheid. You’re not hearing those kinds of things except from a very small number of people.

I wouldn’t want to pretend that the crushing constraints aren’t there. There’s an international need to look at not just this place but the kind of pressure that people in all developing countries are being put under, if we want the shape of the globe to be better five years from now than it is right now. That’s part of the reason for feeling that this is an urgent book at an urgent time. We’re quite rightfully concerned by the level of unemployment in the United States and the ways people were devastated by the financial crisis of 2008, but in the circumstances people face in a place like South Africa, 10 percent unemployment would be heaven. We have to think about how to foster a certain kind of growth that allows for social mobility and expanding opportunity around the world, not just expanded opportunity for ourselves.