Learning from History

One journalist's view of the anti-apartheid struggle

Nelson Mandela’s first rally after being released from jail. Orlando stadium, Soweto. 1990.
Photograph by Philip Littleton/AFP via Getty Images.

Long before I ever set foot on South African soil, I was there—perhaps not in person, but certainly in spirit. I grew up in the American South, and what I lived through there helped prepare me for what I witnessed when I went to South Africa. We, as Black people, were separated by an ocean, but our struggles for our rights felt much the same.

Along with Hamilton Holmes, I was the first Black student to attend the University of Georgia. Our admission to the school did not come easily: we were ordered admitted after a two-year legal battle. Once I was admitted, I drove the 70-odd miles from Athens to Atlanta on weekends to work with students at three Historically Black Colleges (Spelman, Morehouse and Clark Atlanta) that had begun demonstrations aimed at desegregating Atlanta. Their goal, as I once wrote, was “to take control of our destiny.” And so even before I went to South Africa or knew anything about the country or its many languages, I and so many of my contemporaries embraced the South African word ubuntu—“humanity to others.” Or put another way: “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

When I became a journalist, I used this approach—thinking of the humanity of others—to help inform people about what was going on in the country. If they got good information, I believed, they would strive to do the right thing. To that end, while South Africa was still under apartheid rule, I covered protests against the government that were held across the street from the South African Embassy in Washington, DC. These were similar to anti-apartheid demonstrations that were already taking place on college campuses around the country. The demonstrators were driven by reports from South Africa of horrific acts: Black smokers were sold poisoned cigarettes, Black protesters were dropped from airplanes into the sea, Nelson Mandela and his comrades were imprisoned for life, and fellow activist Steven Biko was murdered in police custody.

The author at Mandela’s home. Soweto. 1990. Photograph by Jacqueline Farmer.

And then I traveled to South Africa so that I could see first hand the issues driving the anti-apartheid struggle. It was in 1985, when even journalists—especially foreign ones like me—were viewed as the enemy by the white-ruled state. As I wrote in my book New News Out of Africa: Uncovering Africa’s Renaissance: “As an African American in journalism, I have experienced the ‘double consciousness’ phenomenon captured a long time ago by the activist historian W.E.B. Du Bois, to wit: ‘one ever feels his two-ness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.’”

But I was determined to do what I believed and still believe good journalists do, and what my colleague Jim Lehrer referred to as news that could be used—meaning news that could help people make good decisions about their lives. And so I traveled to South Africa to try to dispel the cliché that the country had become a land of the brutalizer and brutalized, Black versus white, good versus evil. And aside from Mandela, virtually none of those embroiled in the conflict were known by name outside South Africa. To be sure, what I initially encountered could have changed my mind had I not been determined to present a total picture. As I later wrote on one of my first visits to a Black township:

“We walked into a house where we were greeted by a tall, heavy-set woman who moved with a lumbering gait and had difficulty lowering herself into the chair in her tiny living room…she began to tell the story of how Black police agents had come to her place of business, an unlicensed bar known as a shebeen (prevalent all over the townships as the only places Black South Africans could go to socialize), and after a few drinks began taunting and eventually beating her, finally taking her to the police station. She said they never told her why, although they may have thought she was connected somehow with the anti-apartheid activists who were slowly but surely making the country ungovernable. She insisted she was not.

“As she told us her story, she showed us her scars—her large breasts blue and green from the bruises sustained during the recent beating, her head caked with dried blood from the many blows, her back bearing the scars of the sjambok, the long black rubber whip favored by the police in their confrontations with activists. Even though I had grown up in the American South, where I had heard of lynchings and other brutalities of segregation, I’d never seen the victims in the flesh. Now I was up close and personal with the raw sight of hatred’s work, and it made its way into my soul like a slow-burning fuse. Halfway through her story about the torture she endured, I excused myself to go outside and get hold of my emotions. I only made it as far as the kitchen, where I collapsed on the floor, unable to hold back the rush of tears.”

Despite this and other harrowing reports I heard from Black South Africans, I made it my business to also get the other side of the story. And so I sought out an Afrikaner who believed in and defended apartheid. The Afrikaner I interviewed was open to sharing his views with me—maybe it was because, even though I’m Black, I wasn’t a South African person of color. After our formal interview, he even invited me to his home for a barbecue—a braai, as it’s known there—so that I could hear from other Afrikaners in an informal setting. To an extent, it worked. Everyone was relaxed, enjoying food with wine from the host’s vineyard. I was welcomed at the dinner, but there came a time during the evening when the wine loosened tongues, and some- one made a joke about Black South Africans, known derogatorily as kaffirs—akin to the N-word in the US. I was there to report a story, but I also had my values to uphold. I looked at my watch and quickly stood up, shouting across the room to my slightly inebriated producer that it was time to go. Within little time, we were on the way back to our hotel, having what we needed to shed some light on some of apartheid’s people.

Elsewhere during this intense period, especially when we were covering demonstrations, the police were not as friendly as everyday Afrikaners. Although we were never physically attacked, we were—like the protestors—subjected to verbal abuse and threats. As with the US civil rights movement, which many whites joined and in some cases gave their lives supporting—one of the reasons I abhor racial generalizations—there were also whites in South Africa who didn’t back apartheid. These included George Death (pronounced Day-Arth). We hired him to assist us with our stories—for instance, getting around constraints that the regime had placed on reporters. Early on, as I wrote in The New Yorker, George “despised what his fellow whites were doing to his country’s 24 million Black inhabi- tants, denying them the basic right to be called citizens, and treating them as something far less.” The potential for civil war was ever present at the time. Journalists covering the crisis were routinely threatened with the prospect of imprisonment or deportation. The regime tried its best to ensure that there was no coverage of anything that didn’t support the status quo or that went against the prevailing belief by most whites that Blacks were incapable of running a modern country like South Africa. Despite the challenges, and thanks largely to George, we managed to produce a five-part series that won a Peabody Award, which praised our work for “providing background, texture, and nuance to a story that is too-frequently told only in terms of ‘black and white.’”

George proved invaluable to our team, and he and I developed a great working relationship, to the extent that we referred to each other by nicknames: he called me Ace, and I called him Dr. Death (which he didn’t mind). Not long after our departure, George decided to move on to another profession. But first, he took on one more assignment where trouble was brewing, this time between rival Black South Africans. I was back in New York, about to go on the air, when I got a call from South Africa: George had been caught in the middle of a fight and was stabbed repeatedly with a machete. He died several days later, his nickname now his fate. Like so many other South Africans, he sacrificed his life while fighting peacefully for change.

When Mandela was released from prison, I returned to South Africa. Jacqueline Farmer (my producer) and I jumped on a flight to South Africa within 48 hours. Not long after we arrived, along with dozens of journalists from all over the world, we had secured an interview with Mandela at his house in Soweto. And because of the relationships we had nurtured since 1985—thanks in part to Dr. Death—we were granted one of only two half-hour interviews with the national hero. Ted Koppel of ABC News got the other one. All the other journalists got 10 minutes.

I asked to be last, and when my time came, I was eager to get something from Mandela that no one else had. And since the dozens of journalists there were all eager to get a scoop, I decided to briefly share my experience with our own version of apartheid in the United States. But as soon as I told him that I was a witness to the US civil rights movement, before I could go into any detail, Mandela’s expression changed. He started beaming—I hadn’t seen him smile like that all afternoon—and he quickly interrupted me: “Well, do you know Miss Maya Angelou?” Before I could respond, he went on: “Why, we read all of her books while we were in prison.” I had a scoop!

It was the beginning of an exciting time. It looked as if South Africa would become a model democracy, not least because Mandela’s party, the African National Congress (ANC), had adopted a constitution that went beyond even our own in the United States. South Africa, for one, was the first nation in the world to legalize same-sex marriage and guarantee equality for gay and lesbian people, many of whom I had gotten to know while covering their challenges. Although white South Africans were generally Black South Africans’ worst enemies, Black South Africans also had their own internal conflicts. And in the case of gay women, some Black South African men—despite the law—were especially vicious, raping and in some cases murdering lesbians in an attempt, they claimed, to “correct” their sexuality. (I detailed these issues in a piece for The New Yorker, “Violated Hopes,” that later became a book.)

I didn’t know about these issues at the time, and given that South Africa still seemed full of promise, my husband Ron and I moved to the country in 1997. My husband became the head of J.P. Morgan’s office in Johannesburg, and I left NewsHour and worked as the chief (and only) African correspondent for National Public Radio. It was a thrilling experience, as many of the people now in charge of the country were those I had kept up with. Before our arrival, my husband had set up a program that brought young Black South African professionals to the United States to give them some experience in integrated settings and teach them about advanced banking modalities and US finan- cial systems. Many of them had become friends with whom we reconnected in South Africa. I even learned some Zulu.

Over time, however, the bright light of this new democracy’s promise began dimming, not least due to the inequality that still plagued most Black South Africans. Many remained stuck in Black townships, living in dire poverty. The ANC, meanwhile, was beset by internal dissent that eventually led to the 2008 ouster of President Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor. Mbeki’s successor, Jacob Zuma, fared no better. Tainted by charges of corruption, he, too, resigned in 2018, then served time in prison. South Africa’s current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, faces his own crisis, having been accused of covering up the theft of millions of dollars in cash from his farmhouse. But Ramaphosa adamantly denies any wrong doing, saying: “Some are casting aspersions about me and money. I want to assure you that all this was money from proceeds from selling animals. I have never stolen money from anywhere.”

Not long ago, I got a letter from a professor friend who left the US to teach in South Africa and who is usually a South African booster: “South Africa these days is not for the faint-hearted.”

South Africa’s troubles have been exacerbated by COVID-19—no country in Africa has recorded as many cases and deaths during the pandemic. Violent crime has been rising at an alarming rate as well, affecting all levels of society.

All this is distressing, without a doubt, but I have faith that the younger generation will be able to transform South Africa for the better. As the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” And we have seen signs of hope, both in South Africa and the US. The younger generation is, in fact, picking up the baton, taking to the streets to peacefully demand changes from those at the top. Countless young activists are making what the late John Lewis so perfectly described as “good trouble.”

I often think of the words of a journalism professor I had at the University of Georgia, long ago. During the first meeting of his class, he quoted Hegel: “The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” As I have grown older, I have come to believe that those words were a challenge: a challenge to build on what it is that our ancestors left for us, to find a common purpose for the future. Ubuntu will prevail. Let us all hear its call: “I am what I am because of who we all are.”


Charlayne Hunter-Gault

Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a journalist with more than 50 years in the industry. Her print and broadcast work has been featured in The New Yorker, NBC, The New York Times, PBS, NPR and CNN. She is the author of five books, including the forthcoming My People. She has won two Emmys and two Peabody awards.

Joburg, Jozi, Joni, Joeys, Egoli—few Johannesburg residents actually call the city by its full name. Instead, a testament to its multifaceted nature with its many neighborhoods, communities and histories, this massive metropolis also answers to many monikers. Let us take ...

Related Content