Tag: South Africa

Remembering Mandela and the Movement Against Apartheid

In 1987, I was a high school sophomore and somehow, no doubt through rock music, became aware of the anti-apartheid struggle. As it was for President Obama, the movement to end apartheid was my political baptism. It’s what got me engaged and interested in global politics. I remember going to the Texas A&M campus and participating in meetings of Students Against Apartheid. I joined rallies to encourage the university to divest from any investments in U.S. companies doing business in South Africa.

Hearing of Nelson Mandela’s death today brought all those memories back and prompted me to look through my closet for some mementos of that time (pictured above). Far more eloquent words have been said and written elsewhere about what Mandela meant to South Africa and the world. Like most people, I simply admired his tenacity and willingness to sacrifice his private life for a cause bigger than himself. His passing also led me to wonder about what role, if any, that external movement had in bringing about apartheid’s end, a question for which there are ought to be a social science answer. Continue reading


Part II on the AIDS Crisis and Learning from History: Lessons from South Africa

In my last post, I profiled the Origins of AIDS, Jacques Pépin’s masterful study of how the virus that causes AIDS in humans originated in chimps and then jumped to humans and later took off as a result of a complex series of events involving local populations uprooted from traditional practices, the spread of prostitution, and widespread use of injections to fight infectious diseases, among other factors (see Donald McNeil’s compact summary review in the Times).
If Pépin’s book is of a scholar/detective sifting and sorting evidence to advance an argument, Geffen’s book represents the history if somewhat impersonal memoir of the experienced social pugilist. His efforts remind the world of the achievements of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), the South African AIDS advocacy campaign that challenged the government of Thabo Mbeki to provide antiretroviral  (ARV) therapy to those suffering from AIDS.

Geffen is one of TAC’s longtime leaders, and this book chronicles TAC’s clashes with both the South African government and a series of quacks and denialists who sought to promote anti-scientific remedies that likely contributed to the deaths of thousands of those suffering from HIV.

Geffen casts Mbeki (and his health minister) as villains in the struggle to extend treatment to those with HIV. For those familiar with the work of Nicoli Nattrass, William Forbath, the political cartoons of Zapiro, and others, Mbeki’s indulgence of AIDS denialism rings both true and familiar. 
Alongside retellings of the legal wrangling by TAC with the Mbeki government and the quacks and hucksters, Geffen peppers the narrative with stories of people who took the their advice rather than the guidance of the medical community. The examples of failed and ultimately fatal vitamin and garlic treatments are sober reminders of the price paid by so many. 
Geffen’s last chapter seeks to understand how it was possible that the African National Congress government, the movement of liberation from apartheid, could sully its legacy by embracing AIDS denialism. Here, Geffen engages a debate taken up in Evan Lieberman’s important book Boundaries of Contagion: “Why have some governments responded to AIDS more quickly and more broadly than others?” Geffen’s asks a slightly different question: “Why did Mbeki’s views on AIDS prevail for a while?”
Geffen writes: 

As president of the ANC and by far its most powerful member, Mbeki was able to impress his personal positions on the organisation. Despite an essentially democratic structure – branches and sectors elect their leaders, who in turn elect the organisation’s leadership at provincial and national level – the ANC has much within its culture that is anti-democratic and renders it vulnerable to and easily manipulated by the personal views of its strongest leaders (p. 193).

This argument, essentially about Mbeki’s leadership, is contingent upon the ANC exercising significant, largely unchecked, power over the country’s direction. As Geffen describes, the ANC possessed such status:

 The ANC together with its allies liberated South Africa from apartheid. It is recognized and admired as the liberator by about two-thirds of the voting population. This enables it to exert a powerful hegemony over South African society (p. 194). 

By appeals to African nationalism, Mbeki and his allies were able to stave off vigorous contestation from AIDS advocates for several years. Though TAC was ultimately able through the court system to push the South African government to change direction, the damage was done with at least two studies estimating that 330,000 plus deaths could have been averted with different policy.
This explanation – emphasizing the leadership role of Mbeki himself and the dominance of the ANC – fits my own understanding of the South African case as well as the Ugandan case where President Museveni took a much more aggressive stance in addressing the AIDS crisis.
Here, Geffen’s book intersects with the Lieberman book mentioned above. The recent issue of Perspectives on Politics features three (!) reviews on Lieberman’s book by Macartan Humphries, Eduardo Gomez, and Daniel Posner. While Geffen’s book is obviously limited to a single case and represents the work of an activist rather than academic, I found his answer more persuasive than the account, at least of the South African case, featured in Lieberman’s book. 
Through mixed methods including sophisticated econometric analysis, Lieberman attempts to show that the fluidity of ethnic boundaries explains the reason why some countries addressed AIDS more than others. Where boundaries are rigid, groups less affected fail to support policies to help out others, as they see themselves less at risk and those communities disproportionately affected by the AIDS crisis fail to mobilize, given their marginalized status. Where ethnic boundaries are weaker, there is a greater sense of shared fates.
Here, I share with Humphries and Gomez some of the concerns about Lieberman’s treatment of key cases and rival explanations. Humphries writes:

But South Africa remains puzzling. One would expect that if there were any place where the effects Lieberman describes would not be determinative, it would be in a case in which the affected group was both a large majority and in control of policymaking (pp. 875-876).

Gomez echoes this view: 

While he provides evidence showing that state capacity and the presence of NGOs is insufficient for predicting policy responses, it is hard to say the same for political leadership. The dismissal of AIDS leadership fell on President Nelson Mandela’s avoidance of the issue in South Africa, Thabo Mbeki’s interest in AIDS prior to election, and then his avoidance of it once in office, notwithstanding ongoing political support. In Brazil, Lieberman claims that aggressive policies predated Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s political leadership. Yet this is factually incorrect. Prior to Cardoso’s and the World Bank’s loans in 1993, there was no aggressive AIDS program. Thus, leadership under Cardoso, at the presidential and bureaucratic level, was important for reform (p. 878). 

In Lieberman’s view, leadership is unsatisfying because: “The relationship between cause and effect is so close that they are almost indistinguishable” (p. 19). However, one can identify differences in state structures where personal rule is possible. As Robert Jackson and Carl Rosberg argued in their classic article “Personal Rule: Theory and Practice in Africa,” many newly independent African states lacked institutionalized checks on individual leaders. While that portrait has started to change, it is still a recognizable feature in many African countries. Though South Africa possesses more of the societal and institutional checks than the rest of the continent – an independent judiciary, a free press, and a vigorous civil society – the ANC’s legacy as liberator and Mbeki’s privileged position within the party gave him significant scope to pursue an idiosyncratic agenda for several years.
While social scientists tend to dislike individual level explanations in favor of more domestic structural and international systems level explanations, one cannot understand critical cases like South Africa without bringing in agency and leadership. For that matter, we can’t understand PEPFAR without acknowledging the role of President Bush and his personal interest in the problem. Here, I’m reminded of the piece by Dan Byman and Ken Pollack in a 2001 issue of International Security, “‘Let us now praise great men: bringing the statesmen back in.” The challenge is to recognize the conditions under which leaders may exercise agency. The structural impediments  to action vary by country and circumstance. Sadly, in these tough economic times, the scope for more aggressive efforts to address the AIDS crisis appears much more circumscribed than it was just a few years ago.
Leaving this more theoretical social science question aside, Geffen’s book supports the notion that the Mbeki government did the wrong thing when it could and should have done something different. It is heartening that the Jacob Zuma government did an about-face on AIDS and has dramatically changed course to extend ARV therapy, support male circumcision, and enacted a host of other measures to treat and contain the epidemic.

Visas and scholarship

Sarah Duff (who has contributed to this blog before) had a very interesting piece in the UK Guardian this week on the hurdles scholars in developing countries have to face in order to engage with scholars in the developed world. Rather than focusing on whether or not the visa system is fair, she describes exactly what she must do in order to present a paper in “the West” how this impacts on the development of her research:

I describe the expensive, time-consuming, and often quite invasive procedure of applying for a visa to explain why they influence my work. Because my American visa is valid until 2015, I jump at the chance of attending conferences in the US. Next year, I hope to present at a conference in Australia, but I will only attend if I manage to secure travel funds that will cover the cost of the visa (another £65). I recently presented a paper at a conference in London via Skype because I had neither the time nor the funds to apply for a British visa.

Given what we hear in the media (and how Europeans complain to me of lines at US airports) it’s interesting here that the US system (which can provide up to a 10 year visa) is almost enlightened by comparison. Certainly it is fairer to scholars who are trying to network and get their research noticed.

However, the point I want to raise is (writing as a Western academic) more selfish. While Duff’s article suggests the way that these expensive and complicated visa systems have an impact on scholars in the developing world and how they do research, it seems clear to me that these systems are also affecting, if not damaging, research in the West. If scholars “in the West” cannot get access to scholars in the developing world, surely this is also affecting our ability to carry out research and exchange information and ideas as well. Yes, of course there is the internet, Skype, online journals, etc. The research is there if you look for it. But don’t we learn more at conferences when we have better global representation and views? Additionally, aren’t our students (who may not have large grants /funds to travel) better off when they can meet with and speak to scholars from the developing world? These things just seem self-evident.

Given recent trends in the West, I don’t expect this visa situation to be changing any time soon. But I think it is important for scholars to consider the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the absence of voices from the developing world because of their inability to engage and network is affecting the way both groups of scholars carry out research.


What you should know about ‘Right to Know’

While WikiLinks is dumping information from the US military all over the internets, the South African government is taking some rather disturbing steps to ensure that citizens, citizens and pretty much everyone in between will not have the right to access any information deemed a threat to “national security”.  What kind of information threatens national security? Well, according to the “Protection of Information Bill”, pretty much whatever government (local, regional, national) decides. It’s a dangerously vague bill that could possibly do great harm to South Africa. I don’t think I need to go into great detail why so much government control over information is a bad thing. I’m not an African politics specialist, but I’ve been chatting about it with my very cool historian friend Sarah Duff, who gave me the following run-down of the main issues below that I thought I would share with Duck readers as this story, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of attention outside of South Africa. If nothing else, how could you possibly resist a movement with a logo of a crumpled vuvuzela?

Last month the Minister for State Security, Bheki Cwele, announced to the Ad Hoc Committee currently steering the controversial Protection of Information Bill through the South African Parliament that ‘secrecy is the oil which lubricates our democracy.’ While not only an icky choice of metaphor, Cwele’s positioning of secrecy at the heart of South African democracy runs counter to the ideals embodied by our Constitution, and is also ‘against the spirit of 1994’, as struggle veteran and former cabinet minister Kader Asmal remarked last week. If it is passed in its current form, the Protection of Information Bill will empower state employees – in government departments, parastatals, local government councils, and state agencies – to classify all and any information as secret without having to provide reasons for doing so.

This Bill has been introduced on the grounds that South Africa’s ‘national interest’ needs to be better protected by allowing the state to make ‘sensitive’ information secret. But partly because of the Bill’s very vague definition of ‘national interest’, it is clear that its reach is far wider than ensuring South Africa’s security. (It is also debatable whether South Africa needs this legislation when other laws, such as the Promotion of Access to Information Act, make allowance for the classification of sensitive information.) By allowing government officials to classify all state-held information, by increasing the penalty for being in possession of classified information to imprisonment to up to 25 years, and by refusing to include a ‘public interest’ clause, the Bill will have profound implications for the work done by journalists and whistleblowers. In fact, the Bill is unconstitutional, as it contradicts Section 32 of the Constitution which enshrines the right to access information.

Although the media has drawn attention to the Bill’s potential to stifle freedom of speech and expression, the Bill’s impact will be felt by all South Africans, and will have a disproportionate effect on those people who rely heaviest on the state for support. It was for this reason that the Right2Know Campaign was launched at the end of August. Representing more than 400 civil society organisations and 10,000 individuals who have signed the Campaign’s petition, Right2Know campaigns against the introduction of what we call the Secrecy Bill: a piece of legislation which will transform South Africa into a secretive and paranoid society. Our week of action against the Bill was launched with a silent march to Constitution Hill on 19 October – to coincide with commemorations of ‘Black Wednesday’ when, in 1977, the apartheid government banned three newspapers on the grounds of the protection of the national interest – and will culminate with marches to Parliament in Cape Town and the Durban City Hall on 27 October. Our branches in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban have put on a range of seminars, workshops, cultural evenings, and even a symbolic funeral for free speech.

Political commentator Richard Calland has described Right2Know as ‘very remarkable, and very significant’, and the Campaign has made political waves. During his second presentation to Parliament on Friday, Cwele condemned the campaign’s actions and giggled nervously as Right2Know campaigners lined the walls of the meeting room. But he turned a deaf ear to the Campaign’s concerns. We only have one chance to stop this Bill, and from preventing South Africa from becoming a society of secrets. We will make ourselves heard loudly – so that not even the deafest government can ignore us.

For more on Right2Know, see www.right2know.org.za and check out their twitter here


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