TOPICS > Nation

Marcus Mabry

August 3, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now, foreign correspondence, another in our occasional series of conversations with reporters based overseas with American news organizations. Tonight, Marcus Mabry, the South Africa Bureau chief for Newsweek. I talked with him earlier today.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you for being with us.

MARCUS MABRY, Newsweek: Thank you for having me.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve written a lot about what you called South Africa’s experiment in national healing, referring to Bishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Has it produced truth and reconciliation?

MARCUS MABRY: Well, I think we have to say today to a large extent that TRC has produced a great deal of truth, much more truth than we ever had before in the history of South Africa and this very blood confrontation that threatened to rip the country apart and plunge it into civil war before Nelson Mandela and F.W. DeKlerk made peace. Reconciliation is a tougher nut to crack. So far, we haven’t had reconciliation. We’ve had very small examples of individual victims of human rights abuses coming together with the murderers of their family-of their sons and husbands.

We’ve had two or three of those only. And we’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of cases of human rights abuses and human rights violation perpetrators. So far, we’ve had very little reconciliation on an individual basis. On a nationwide basis a recent poll shows that most blacks and most whites in South Africa are more divided than ever, so we can’t say that we’ve actually even started down the road to reconciliation, which is the best that even Tutu hoped for, for starting.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think the commission made that situation worse?

MARCUS MABRY: It’s hard to say. There are a lot of people who do blame the commission for making it worse. I think it’s unfair to do that. I think we have to really keep in mind why the commission came about in the first place. There was never meant to be-certainly it was never meant to be a body that would bring justice to victims, because former violators-people who belonged to the apartheid security services were able to apply for amnesty and, if granted it, families who were victims of their evil had no recourse whatsoever afterwards. So it wasn’t meant to bring justice.

What it was, was a compromise, a political compromise between the warring ANC on the side of the liberation struggle and the apartheid state. There was no victor in this war. And as Tutu told me, we-the only alternative we had was a general amnesty, which is what the white security forces wanted, or a total civil war that would have destroyed the country. And he said this was the best we could do. He said, no, it’s not satisfying, no, it’s not justice. But it was a political compromise. And the TRC has gone a great deal toward at least creating a space for peace, which will allow South Africa to continue for the foreseeable future anyway.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: When you look at South Africa now, living-now-living there, do you see blacks and whites at loggerheads?

MARCUS MABRY: I do. It’s, I think-

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Does that surprise you? I mean, did you expect that?

MARCUS MABRY: No. It doesn’t surprise me. And I think, you know, quite frankly, I think coming from America and being an African-American, it doesn’t surprise me at all that blacks and whites would be at loggerheads. I think in our own nation we have been dealing with these issues for a much longer time than South Africa has been.

South Africa only in the last four years has been a democratic society. And so, of course, it’s going to take time for things to change and for blacks and whites even to feel comfortable talking to one another. Certainly generationally I see signs of hope in that young South Africans, black and white, are now in the same schools. They now sing the same songs. They cheer the same sports teams now. And that was never true before in the 300-year history of South Africa. So I think that’s a positive development. I think generationally we’re seeing a difference already, but we’re nowhere close to reconciliation amongst older people.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve written about whites emigrating in increasingly large numbers. Why are they emigrating? Why are they leaving?

MARCUS MABRY: Well, they’re afraid. They’re afraid of what the future holds. The very important thing is they’re not afraid of what’s going on in South Africa now so much. Often white South Africans do tell us crime currently is a problem for them. But it’s really not that fear of crime that’s driving them to England and Australia and Canada and the U.S.. It’s particularly among white South Africans that fear that the future does not hold promise for them, and-

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mean economically?

MARCUS MABRY: Economically. They’re afraid that affirmative action, which is taking hold in South Africa today, will completely rob them of opportunities for advancement in whatever careers they have. The astonishing thing about that, though, for me as a correspondent who was based in Western Europe before coming to Johannesburg for three years in Paris is that I knew many people with phenomenal degrees, mid 20’s, early 30’s, in Paris, who were unemployed. The unemployment rate for people 18 to 25 in France is 25 percent. I know no young white South Africans who are unemployed. So it really is a fear of the future. It’s anticipatory fear, rather than one based on current reality.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And when you talk about affirmative action, you’re talking about state agencies and corporations trying to get more black Africans into positions?

MARCUS MABRY: Absolutely. Both private sector and public sector companies, state bodies, trying to rectify the damages of the past. And I think white South Africans so far are blessed by the fact that black South Africans are so far behind educationally that there’s not really a threat immediately of a huge white unemployment problem at all in South Africa.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Are you overall optimistic about South Africa’s future?

MARCUS MABRY: I am. I mean, the honest answer probably is that I go back and forth, you know. One day I’m optimistic; the next day I’m less optimistic. I’m least optimistic because I see so much pessimism among South African whites, especially young white South Africans, who actually have greater opportunity now than they did under the days of sanctions. They can study anywhere in the world; they can work anywhere in the world, and bring those skills back home. But I think if they are afraid to stay in the new South Africa and if they all leave because they believe the country is going to hell in a hand basket, then that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And that, I think, is my biggest source of pessimism. But at the same time, I see the incredible miracle that’s happened in South Africa and pretty much there today, just the fact that South Africa still goes on about its business as a country, as a united country with a president like Nelson Mandela is a miracle. And I think if they can pull that off, then maybe they can pull of anything.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I noticed in your writings that you’re pretty optimistic about Africa as a whole. I know it’s hard to generalize, but you see good news elsewhere too, don’t you?

MARCUS MABRY: Well, I think the amazing thing about Africa, and I think the president certainly made this point in his recent trip to the continent, Africa has a chance now that it has never had in its history, in its entire history, post-colonialism, post-slavery. Africa is now at a point where the majority of the countries on the continent are democratic.

Two-thirds of them have liberal economic systems. They still have high tariffs and things like this, but they’re all committed to liberal democracy and capitalism. We’ve never been here before. When African states gained independence 30 years ago, it was a time in which the U.S. and Russia were battling for ideological primacy on the continent. And we had many states that went down the road of disastrous socialist economics. Today, no one is talking that way, no one.

They really-they’re begging for foreign investment. I was at an economic conference in Namibia a few months ago, and you hear former revolutionary guerrilla warriors who believed in fighting for the people now telling you what we must do is break the unions. Now I don’t want to advocate union busting, but what I think that shows is a phenomenal shift in the mentality of Africans, and Africans from presidents down to people on the streets, they want to join the global market. I think that’s an incredible sign, a positive sign. People no longer are waiting for aid. They want trade. They don’t want a handout.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You covered in Nigeria the death of General Abacha and also the beginning of the new government of General Abubakar. Are you optimistic that there will be elections in a Nigeria, this giant in Africa with so many problems will pull out of some of those problems?

MARCUS MABRY: Well, I think I’m becoming increasingly optimistic that Abubakar, this new leader who’s been in place since the death of Abacha, wants to move Nigeria on a democratic path. It’ll be something-it’s hard to do, because he doesn’t govern Nigeria alone. There’s a provisional ruling council, which is a military body, which really is very divided, and they will decide what course Nigeria takes. I’m confident he wants to lead Nigeria down the right road. And if he gets the support from Washington and from London and from other western capitals, he may be able to do it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Congo was in the news or is in the news today. There seems to be flare-ups of fighting that could presage civil war maybe. Does that worry you in Congo?

MARCUS MABRY: It does worry me in Congo. It’s the third largest country in Africa, and it’s right in the middle of the continent. It’s the same size as America East of the Mississippi. It’s an incredibly rich, important linchpin in whatever happens in Africa. Kabila, currently in power in Congo, started his revolt in the East, and in eight months swept across the country and overthrew Mobutu after 27 years. The current problems are starting in the East. We have at least one army battalion in open revolt against Kabila today. There’s a huge risk there that Kabila may be swept away by the same winds that blew him into power in the first place.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You like covering Africa, don’t you? I could tell from your writings.

MARCUS MABRY: I do. I love covering Africa. I cannot think of a better job at Newsweek or anywhere in our business today. It is on the verge of so much change. There’s so much human drama that happens there almost every story we write from Africa is literally a matter of life and death, and that’s passionate stuff, and I think it’s an incredibly important job-the responsibility to try to bring that to the outside world.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you very much for being with us.

MARCUS MABRY: Thank you for having me.