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South Africa's Barbara Masekela: The struggle isn't over yet
The Washington Diplomat / September 2005

By Larry Luxner

In the 1960s, when Barbara Masekela joined the violent underground struggle against South Africa's apartheid regime, she couldn't have dreamed that someday, after 27 years in prison, fellow activist Nelson Mandela would become president of a democratic South Africa.

Or that Mandela would write a best-selling autobiography entitled "Long Walk to Freedom," in which he would graciously acknowledge Masekela for her invaluable help in putting the book together. Or that he'd appoint her ambassador to France — a position that eventually led to her current job as South Africa's top diplomat in the United States.

"In a sense, we were always practicing to be diplomats," says Masekela. "Like all South Africans, I was politicized by apartheid, and I grew up during a tme when the African National Congress was not yet banned, when there were rallies in the townships. I used to see Mandela and many others — Walter Sisulu, Robert Sibukwe and Oliver Tambo."

Masekela was born in Limpopo province, north of Johannesburg. She left South Africa at the age of 22, growing up in exile in Zambia, Great Britain and the United States.

In 1960, the apartheid regime banned the ANC, though it continued to function from its exile headquarters in Lusaka. In fact, Zambia became almost a second home for Masekela, who rose through the ranks of the ANC while speaking out on the need for international sanctions against the South African government.

In 1973, the future diplomat took a break from politics, teaching in the English department of Rutgers University. Nine years later, she went back to work full-time for the ANC. When Mandela was finally released from his Robben Island prison, she became his chief of staff, remaining in that position until he was overwhelmingly elected president in 1994.

In addition to her native Sotho language, Masekela is fluent in English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu and French.

"It's wonderful that we had an organization such as the ANC," said the ambassador, who recently spent an hour with The Washington Diplomat, discussing her life in the anti-apartheid struggle and its achievements.

That struggle is painstakingly chronicled in Mandela's book, which has been translated into dozens of languages and has inspired millions of people around the world.

"We made South Africa ungovernable," Masekela said. "The South African economy came to a standstill thanks to the activities of South Africans, black and white, from all walks of life. Those people were tortured, held in detention, beaten up and executed. During the apartheid regime, people were hung from buildings and thrown from helicopters."

Many of South Africa's 44 million people are too young to remember what it was like during the worst years of apartheid, when the country's white elite ruled over the non-white majority, which included not only blacks but also "coloreds" and Asians. Until 1994, when Mandela dismantled those laws, South Africa's neighborhoods, classrooms and all public places were segregated. Mixed-race friendships were rare, and income disparities between white and black people were horrendous.

"The end of apartheid was due to a number of factors, but [international] sanctions helped tremendously," she said. "They deprived South Africa of financing that would have prolonged the struggle, because the regime would have had even more sophisticated ways of repressing the people."

Today, the scars of apartheid can be found virtually everywhere you look in South Africa. Most large companies are still owned by English- or Afrikaans-speaking whites, who often reside in upscale neighborhoods of Johannesburg or Cape Town that remind one of a typical California suburb. The vast majority of black people, however, are likely to live in sprawling townships that lack electricity, running water and adequate health-care facilities.

An estimated 10-12% of all South Africans are HIV-positive, and unemployment hovers around 30%. In the Eastern Cape — by far the poorest of South Africa's nine provinces — joblessness has reached 42%.

"This is the reality that our government has to deal with," said the ambassador. "You can't perform a miracle. We have the money, we have the will, but nobody can build five million houses in one year."

Complicating the situation, Masekela said, is mass migration from rural areas.

"In places like Cape Town and Johannesburg, the government moves people out of squatter camps into what we call Reconstruction and Development Program houses. The following day, those places that were emptied are occupied by new people coming from rural areas. It's very said what is happening. But because we have freedom of movement, we cannot stop people from coming to the cities. As a result, our hospitals, clinics and schools are overcrowded."

Yet all is not gloom and doom in this country, which produces most of the world's gold and represents by far the largest economy in Africa.

In fact, GDP has grown an average 3% over the last decade, and this year is expected to rise by 3.5%. The country has become a leader in automotive manufacturing, with BMW, Daimler Chrysler, General Motors, Ford and Volkswagen all producing cars for both the domestic market and for export.

Earlier this year, GM announced it would build a Hummer factory in Port Elizabeth, a coastal city that will also benefit from construction of one of Africa's largest deepwater ports within the next two years.

"When I compare the time I was ambassador in France to now, it's like a sea change — and not only in terms of the deepening of our democracy," she said. "Although it isn't enough, and we are far from finished, we are providing social benefits to people, grants for children, for the disabled. We have extended the whole safety net, and all from our own budget. We don't have major debts, and we haven't had to borrow money. We have been able to collect more taxes than we have ever imagined."

She added: "One area of progress that is not usually discussed is freedom — freedom to go where you want, travel in your car or bus without being stopped by policemen. All that is another kind of freedom."

Women have also made big strides since the advent of democracy in 1994. According to Masekela, 45% of South Africa's cabinet members are women, as are 50% of the country's diplomats. "But Africa as a whole is very progressive in this area," she said. "Eight of the 14 women ambassadors now in Washington are from African countries."

As ambassador, Masekela has traveled throughout the United States, given over 40 speeches and met with local community leaders, politicians, academics and church leaders from coast to coast. She's also made several appearances on Capitol Hill and recently hosted a party to celebrate the inauguration of nonstop service by South African Airways between Washington and Johannesburg.

"The relationship that the United States has with South Africa are guided by the positions of President [Thabo] Mbeki, who is a great advocate of African unity. He shares his views on democracy, good governance, accountability and transparency with his colleagues in Africa. I always say to people that our country cannot be divorced from Africa, no matter how progressive or economically advanced we are. We cannot continue to grow without Africa."

That's why Mbeki — whom Masekela said "has always spoken out very strongly against bad governance and corruption" — had no choice earlier this summer but to fire the country's deputy president, Jacob Zuma, a lifelong ANC activist whose reputation was tarnished after a Durban court accused him of having a "corruptible relationship" with his close friend Shaikh Shabir.

Shabir, a prominent South African businessman, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for allegedly bribing Zuma, but is appealing the sentence.

Mbeki is also a leading voice in calling for debt relief. At the recent G-8 conference, he asked wealthy countries to forgive Africa's debt.

"We in Africa should be able to solve our own problems, but the debt is not a problem we created ourselves," said Masekela. "It is recognized that, in hindsight, there was no framework for the manner in which aid was given. It was given at the whim of the donor countries. They set up their own conditions, and Africans had no say in the matter. Granted, some African countries squandered the money. That's why it is very important to have democracy, good governance and accountability."

One country clearly lacking in all three is neighboring Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe seems to be pursuing a path diametrically opposed to the peaceful reconciliation espoused by Mandela and Mbeki. White-owned farms have been taken by force, with land redistributed to Mugabe's cronies and political supporters. Zimbabweans who oppose Mugabe's policies risk being jailed. Foreign journalists have been expelled for reporting on the repression, which has thrown Zimbabwe into chaos amidst widespread food shortages and suffering.

Yet Masekela said South Africa "would never send troops" to oust Mugabe, who was overwhelmingly re-elected in a contest viewed by many observers as rigged from the very beginning.

"We believe it is in the hands of the people of whatever country to solve their own problems," she said. "We would never impose our will on another country. Instead, we think it is better to build peace than extend violence."

Masekela said she wasn't aware of recently published reports that a South African arms dealer had been authorized to supply the Zimbabwe Air Force with spare parts for helicopters used to disperse public protests in Harare, the capital city.

"We are doing what we can," she said. "More than two million Zimbabweans live and work in South Africa. We would not like to see any kind of war breaking out in a country next to us. My president has been, in his way, trying to convince the parties in Zimbabwe to work out a solution. We wish the best for Zimbabwe, because they're our neighbors. If they are successful, we can be too."

Closer to home, Masekela defends a program known as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), which seeks to address the wrongs of the past by giving non-white South Africans preference in job hiring. It also requires that all new companies be at least 25% black-owned.

While BEE has turned some black entrepreneurs into millionaires and created jobs for thousands of economically disadvantaged people, it has also drawn widespread criticism from well-educated whites who say they can no longer find decent jobs in either government or the private sector despite their obvious qualifications.

Addressing those complaints, Masekela notes that "white people in South Africa have never suffered from hunger" and that now, they're suffering together with black people for the first time.

"It's unfortunate, but under apartheid, all South African businesses were exclusively white-owned. You didn't have black-owned barber shops or cafes because we were not allowed to own property or run businesses. Everything was owned by whites. In fact, one of the legacies of the past is that black people were required to do unskilled labor, but a modern economy needs people with skills. A year ago, we had 300,000 jobs in the IT sector, and there was nobody to take them."

Masekela says BEE is an essential part of Mbeki's economic program, and that "if there is no black economic empowerment in South Africa, there will be a revolution, and this revolution will destroy those who have property. Whatever has been achieved in South Africa is thanks to the courage, patience and confidence of our people."

These days, Mandela, who recently celebrated his 87th birthday, has slowed down considerably. As with all heroes, he's a hard act to follow, even though Mbeki has generally earned high marks for his handling of social issues and the South African economy.

Somewhat delicately, we asked Masekela what will happen to all this progress when Mandela dies.

Her short answer: life will go on as before.

"People sustain their appreciation for modern-day leaders because they hold onto the romanticism of an icon. Mandela is our icon," she said. "He's the father of our nation. He became the symbol of freedom, and he was able to lead reconciliation. We love him, we respect him and we trust him. But he hasn't been president for six years, and the country has made tremendous progress — everybody agrees on that. Therefore, while Mandela has a hallowed place in our society, he's the last person who would say that he did it all alone."

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