What I’m Reading: Outsmarting Apartheid

Before reading this, I already suspected that South Africa would be an interesting case study in the Fulbright Program–their history, politics and culture make their international relationships both challenging and vital, especially during the four decades covered by this book. I also already knew the story of Amy Biehl, an American Fulbrighter who was tragically killed in South Africa, and I included her in my book chapter on Fulbright women. I could see why South Africa merited its own volume of Fulbright stories, and now that I’ve read it, I suspect there are even more out there just as fascinating.

My favorite interview was with Klaas Skosana, a Cultural Assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria during the late 1990’s. He has a great perspective and picked up on so many themes that other interviewees (and other studies of exchange diplomacy) touch on, too. In addition to his work at the Embassy, he also went on a short-term exchange to the U.S., a month-long ‘study tour’. I’ve always been a little skeptical about these brief visits, and wondered how much participants can really get out of them. His reflections on that short visit, though, are not in isolation–they are a part of a larger body of experiences and knowledge about international relations and intercultural communication. That brief trip may not mean a great deal in and of itself, but it needs to be understood in that bigger context.

“Personally, I benefited from the study tour, and it was only thirty-one days. But it is like I spent years in the U.S., because I was exposed to various parts of the U.S. I knew that when I was walking down the street of Washington, DC, the chances of meeting somebody who had a PhD were great…I saw a list of people that I sent to the United States and what positions they are occupying today, and I think they all have positive things to say about what they have seen in the U.S. You take what you can from a country. You cannot focus on everything about a country, but fix your brain on a few aspects, and you will remember them forever…I think that the U.S. intervention was commendable, and it did, in many ways, ‘outsmart’ aparthaied because it exposed people to various perspectives.”

Whitman D (ed) (2014) Outsmarting Apartheid, Albany: SUNY Press, p. 296

This book was a long-neglected read–according to my Amazon account history, I bought it in February 2015! It’s been sitting in my bookshelf’s section for “This will be useful for revising and publishing my dissertation” books, and I hadn’t read it because I’ve made little progress on that project over the past four years. But it’s never too late–as my finally reading this book shows, as long as you’re still breathing, there’s always hope for neglected projects.

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What I’m Reading

born a crime

I recently finished reading Trevor Noah’s memoir, and it is crazy. He was interviewed about it on Oprah’s Supersoul podcast, so I knew a bit about his story–starting with the meaning behind the title. He was a mixed race baby in apartheid South Africa, which criminalised interracial relationships, so he was “evidence” of his parents’ crime. It feels very outdated, reading about these anti-miscegenation laws today, but it wasn’t that long ago–he was born in 1984! I knew he was young, but I didn’t realize he was quite that young–and I think I also didn’t realize how recent (and crazy) apartheid was. Watching Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, it all felt very long ago–but he only died in 2013.

Trevor Noah’s voice comes through clearly–he’s brilliant, insightful, funny, down-to-earth, and just comes across on the page like he does on The Daily Show. This clip captures a lot of the flavor of the book:

It’s full of stories from his childhood and what they meant in terms of shaping his life and worldview. His mother comes across as the heroine of the story–you find yourself rooting for her, laughing at her sense of humor, feeling amazed at her determination and drive. She’s an amazing woman.

The book’s also made me want to learn more about South Africa. I have a book on the South African Fulbright program, Outsmarting Apartheid, on my shelf that I haven’t gotten around to finishing, but it’s a particularly interesting case study. When the US government was distancing itself from apartheid-era South Africa in other ways (i.e. imposing sanctions), they still maintained educational and cultural exchanges. It’s a great example of exchange diplomacy being used to work around the official government channels and reach the people directly.

In my research on Fulbright women, I came across the story of Amy Biehl, a law scholar and activist who worked with the African National Congress during the transition to democracy. She was tragically killed in political violence, and now having read Trevor Noah’s description of the townships, I can better understand what happened and why. It doesn’t make it any less painful or tragic, but it’s important to recognise that this kind of violence wasn’t exclusive to Amy. She wasn’t necessarily targeted for being white or American or an ‘outsider’, as I’d assumed. Noah describes widespread violence in the townships, with fighting taking place amongst different groups of locals, too. In-fighting was one of the ways the architects of apartheid controlled the majority population. If you fight amongst each other, you won’t fight those who are keeping you down–a good lesson with continued relevance for class warfare, activist movements, etc.