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As Obama Arrives, Reflecting on Change in South Africa and Iconic Leader Mandela

June 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Concerns persist over the deteriorating health of former South African President Nelson Mandela as President Barack Obama begins a visit there. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, special correspondent for NBC News, joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the legendary leader's legacy in South Africa, and how democracy has shaped that nation.
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JEFFREY BROWN: For more on South Africa and Mandela, I spoke a short time ago with former NewsHour senior correspondent and now NBC News special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

Well, Charlayne, welcome back to the NewsHour, as always.

First, tell us a bit about Nelson Mandela, how he’s seen in South Africa today. What is his role there?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, NBC News Special Correspondent: Well, thank you for having me, as always.

You know, Nelson Mandela remains the icon of the world and the icon-plus in South Africa. He really is the father of the nation in so many ways. I mean, he represents everything that a young democracy strives for that his own country hasn’t yet come to, but they’re striving for it. And so he lies in what I understand is a fairly peaceful situation.

He responds from time to time to his daughter. I spoke with Zindzi Mandela a couple — yesterday, day before yesterday, and yesterday. And she was very excited, because he was very emotive. When she said that Barack Obama was coming to South Africa, he actually opened his eyes and smiled. I think he sleeps a lot.

I have had an elder parent and mother-in-law, and I understand that as someone who’s almost 95. He will be 95 in July. So he’s had some challenges and — but he’s also had probably the best medical care for a geriatric patient, if not in South Africa, if not in the world. So, you know, someone else might have succumbed to the kinds of challenges, medical challenges, he’s had a while ago.

But because he has — and I’m told he has a renowned geriatric specialist working on his case — he continues to go up and down, but right now he’s stable and even some say as of yesterday he was improving.

JEFFREY BROWN: Charlayne, you have covered this country for a long time. You have lived there. For those of us that don’t follow it day by day, year by year, as this is happening, with Nelson Mandela and as President Obama is there, what is South Africa? Where is South Africa now in its evolution from apartheid days? How would you describe it?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, I would describe the whole continent where democracy is new.

I mean, South Africa will only be 20 years old in its democracy next year, and they take baby steps. And, sometimes, as you know, with baby steps, they stumble and fall. And so, on the one hand, there has been an increase in the middle class. There’s been an increase in the standard of living. There’s a smaller number — proportion of people at the bottom, in part thanks to government social grants and child care for the poor people.

There is a — an increase in the middle class, and you can see that when you go to South Africa. When I first went there in ’85 and again in ’90 and ’94, there weren’t many apartments. Most people were wealthy enough to have houses, houses with fences, of course, but houses or nice properties. Now you see a lot of apartments, which suggest that there is a growing middle class, and these apartments are being built to accommodate them.

At the same time, you probably have read about the street demonstrations where young people and others are demonstrating because of a lack of basic services. So you do have the same thing we had in America when our riots broke out in ’68, two societies, one black, middle class and starting to go up. Whites still for the most part prosper, although you do now have some on the street begging, as you have other beggars. But most of the beggars are on the streets are immigrants from other countries, particularly Zimbabwe, where they’re running from a repressive government.

But you also have in the rural areas people who are still struggling to get decent water. I know of a study that they recently did on sanitation and clean water, which is just devastating. I mean, so many people in the rural areas don’t have those basic amenities. So you have a country that’s divided into two, and not unlike our own, you have people at the bottom who are worse off and people at the middle and upper who are better off.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and speaking of our own, what about relations with the U.S. or how the U.S. is seen? How is President Obama’s arriving there — has arrived. How he seen? How is the U.S. seen now these days?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I think most South Africans really still love the fact that a black man is president of the most powerful country in the world.

I think they would like to see more engagement. I think you have a young group who will protest, as you probably reported, but the majority of South Africans, I think, really do respect the president and hope that he will lay out some of the things that they would like to see happen between the United States and South Africa.

They want more engagement with the country because it’s falling behind in terms of investments and things of that sort. So I think that’s what they’re looking for. But, generally, they’re going to embrace him, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, thanks so much.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Jeff, for having me.