|On South Africa's|
Rebirth and Reconstruction
[An Interview with Ambassador Sheila Sisulu]
by Mary K. Mewborn
It has been less than a decade since South Africa officially broke free from the political, social, andeconomic constraints of apartheid. Yet in that scant period, much has been done to right past wrongs andset South Africa and its population of nearly forty-five million people on the road to equality andprosperity for the next century. Perhaps a prime indicator of just how far South Africa has come topromote “human rights, healing, and hope,” is the appointment earlier this year of Sheila Violet MakateSisulu as South Africa’s Ambassador to the United States. Mrs. Sisulu’s personal history is the story ofSouth Africa’s struggle, and her government’s vision for the future has been made all the more viable byvirtue of her presence here in our nation’s capital.
For those who believe that if women ruled the world, it would be a far better place, Ambassador Sisulucertainly adds credence to their argument. The mother of three, Sheila Sisulu would save all of Africaone child at a time, translating improved education and youth development into economic and socialwell-being for her country, and for the continent as a whole. As evidence that Madam Sisulu iswell-suited to this quest, consider first that she is by nature a diplomat, a leader and a caring,compassionate woman who has spent her professional life “focusing primarily on education and on a broadspectrum of youth development issues.” Secondly, her mission’s goal is largely geared toward promotingthese same social issues as the necessary prerequisites for achieving her government's broader objectiveof becoming ever more competitive in the global economy. Add to this the widely accepted premise that itis through the leadership of a strong and prosperous South Africa that Africa itself will thrive.
Clearly, Ambassador Sisulu has her work cut out for her, and yet she appears undaunted by the magnitudeof the task at hand. Perhaps this is not so surprising however when one considers all that she and hercompatriots have already achieved since the African National Council (ANC) was first founded. A child ofapartheid, she was born within weeks of the passage of the historic legislation which defined andseparated Whites, Coloreds, Indians, and Africans. As a young girl, she would leave her homeland toattend boarding school in neighboring Swaziland before matriculating to the University of Lesotho.Ultimately, she would obtain an Honors in Education from Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University andmarry into one of the new South Africa’s most politically prominent families. Her mother-in-law isAlbertina Sisulu, a stalwart of the resistance movement, and her father-in-law, Walter Sisulu, is widelyregarded as Nelson Mandela's mentor.
As the Ambassador points out, in the fields of education, youth development, job creation, and health, “aserious backlog exists,” as a legacy of apartheid. High illiteracy rates, which she estimates to be atnearly fifty percent for South Africa’s adult population, have resulted in staggering unemployment. Tohelp address these needs, Ambassador Sisulu reports that “South Africa’s labor organizations andemployers have each pledged one billion rand,” to train and re-skill workers. To further combat a 30%unemployment rate, last November, Nelson Mandela staged a national summit on job creation, calling for acomprehensive and integrated strategy to increase employment opportunities and develop new businesses. Asa result, the South African government is presently reviewing its Labor Relations Act to determine if itin any way impedes the establishment of entrepreneurial endeavors. In addition, the U.S.-South AfricaBinational Commission has sought to advance new employment opportunities in South Africa via increasedtrade, U.S. investment in labor-intensive industries, and the efforts of its Committee on Human ResourcesDevelopment.
Clearly all of these actions are significant. However, in listening to Mrs. Sisulu offer solutions to hernation’s woes, it quickly becomes apparent that it is the non-governmental organizations, “the organs ofcivil society” and the work they do to meet the needs of the poor, sick and disadvantaged, which are ofparticular personal interest to her. Specifically, she mentions her desire to see the growth of moreorganizations such as the U.S.-South African Fund, and South African Partners, both of which are based inMassachusetts, the sister state to one of South Africa’s provinces in the Eastern Cape.
The U.S.-South African Fund works with micro-lending institutions which, like New York-based SharedInterest, offer low-interest loans to groups of small-business people in South Africa. These moneys arethen used as collateral to secure larger loans with which to promote small-business development such ashome-based childcare. The dire need for low, or at least standard-interest rate loans, was driven home ina recent report by the South African Institute of Race Relations which shows that within South Africaitself, the average microlender charges a 2,000% annual interest rate. In consequence, the WashingtonPost reports that “South Africa’s Black majority is sinking in a sea of debt,” with almost 70% of theirincome going to service loan payments.
One area of particular concern to both the U.S. and South Africa is the HIV/AIDS epidemic which hasravaged much of the African continent. While South Africa’s rate of HIV infection is far less than manyof its neighbors, with between 8- 14% of South Africans thought to be HIV-positive, it is neverthelesspainfully clear to Madam Sisulu and her countrymen, that, to quote a popular South African expression:“The witch is in the house.” In other words, there is no time to lose in fighting off this evil intruder.Not only is the spread of AIDS a serious health issue, but as the Ambassador notes, “It is also aneconomic and social matter.” Consequently her government, “has taken decisive steps” to eradicate thedisease through the creation of Partners Against the Spread of Aids, a joint action committee comprisedof public and private-sector organizations.
South Africa’s newly-elected President Thabo Mbeki originally chaired the campaign to combat the spreadof AIDS as then-Deputy President. Now Deputy President Zuma has assumed the mantle in the battle tocurtail the epidemic. Both the Deputy President and the Ambassador herself would have it known thatSouth Africa is serious about addressing this matter, and even more serious about addressing it inconjunction with our neighbors.” To this end, South Africa hosted a meeting last month of all fourteenmember nations of the Southern African Development Community, to discuss the creation of a unifiedstrategy to prevent the further spread of the virus that causes AIDS.
To abet South Africa in this urgent action, the U.S. Congress is currently considering providing onemillion dollars to assist with AIDS programs in Africa. Further, Ambassador Sisulu “welcomes” theinitiative by Representative Barbara Lee of California, which would allow for even more resources toprevent AIDS. “We require all the help we can get,” the Ambassador acknowledges, and further emphasizesthat the spread of this costly disease must be held in check if South Africa and its neighbors are to beself-sufficient global players in the world economy of the next century.
The ongoing quest for economic self-sufficiency on the continent, is spearheaded by South Africa’s driveto expand its private sector, to grow and redistribute wealth, create new businesses, attract foreigninvestment, and increase exports. The Ambassador is therefore pleased that the U.S. Senate recentlypassed an African Trade Bill. However, she notes that in its present form, it contains one majordrawback”. Specifically, with regard to textiles, she would very much like to see a lessening ofrestrictions governing which fabrics may be most profitably traded with the US.
Also, with regard to U.S. efforts vis-à-vis Africa’s development goals, the Ambassador alludes to “theUnited State’s willingness to act as a partner,” in support of her government’s quest to find peacefulsolutions to the problems plaguing sub-Saharan Africa. Many of South Africa’s regional neighbors areexperiencing economic strife and civil unrest, and there is a need for financial assistance andpeacekeeping measures to stabilize much of the region. That helping to resolve the political and economicproblems of its neighbors is in South Africa’s own best interest, is underscored by the fact that sincethe end of apartheid, “South Africa has become a magnet for illegal immigrants seeking refuge from war,hunger and poverty,” according to the Ambassador.
Ultimately, Ambassador Sisulu wants Africa increasingly to move away from the “begging bowl syndrome” andfor South Africa to inspire good trade relations, such that a combination of “trade with aid” will helpto redress the backlog in education, health care, and private-sector expansion caused by apartheid. TheAmbassador is quick to express her gratitude to the Clinton Administration for its commitment to pressureCongress for debt relief for South Africa's poorer neighbors, and for its efforts to limit cuts inforeign-aid packages. So too, she is quick to subtly promulgate a world view in which mutual concerns andshared interests render us each, our brother's keeper.
| On November 9, 1999, South Africa's Cape Times announced a commitment by Sarah Ferguson to help construct newschools and medical clinics in rural South African communities throughout the country.The project will be carried out by the Duchess of York's charity, Chances for Children. |