Former U.S. ambassador to South Africa James A. Joseph

The only American ambassador to present his credentials to President Nelson Mandela offers his unique perspective on South Africa’s transformation.

James A. Joseph has served in senior executive or advisory positions for four U.S. presidents, including as ambassador to South Africa—the only American ambassador to present his credentials to President Nelson Mandela. He's currently professor emeritus of public policy at Duke University and founder of the United States – Southern Africa Center for Leadership and Public Values. An ordained minister, Joseph taught at Yale Divinity School and the Claremont Colleges and is the author of three books. He also chairs the board of the Foundation for Louisiana (formerly the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation), established in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.


Tavis: James Joseph was ambassador to South Africa when Nelson Mandela was elected its first Black president. They worked together for those first months of reconciliation and renewal, giving Ambassador Joseph a unique perspective on the transformation that that country is undergoing.

Ambassador Joseph joins us tonight from Duke University, where he is a professor of public policy studies. Mr. Ambassador, good to have you on this program. Thank you for your time, sir.

James A. Joseph: Glad to be with you.

Tavis: Let me start by asking you a question that I asked Nicole Lee just a moment ago – your thoughts about the president’s trip to Africa. There are all kinds of people offering comments on it, but I’m anxious to hear yours.

Joseph: Well first of all, a visit by the president of the United States to any country is the ultimate form of diplomacy. It in this particular instance is an exploration of areas of mutual benefit.

But I am so pleased that he went to Africa, because it’s an opportunity to showcase the continent. Much of the focus on Africa is on its stereotypical past – the pathology of the poverty.

But this is a continent that is on the move, and it’s very important to have a big, traveling press that gets to see and hear all the sights and sounds of the new Africa.

Tavis: I take your point about the value and the benefit of a visit of a U.S. president, and yet this trip lasts so many days, it’s over, President Obama is back home here in the U.S., and China keeps on coming. They keep on coming, they keep on coming after his brief visit. So if Africa as a continent is that important to us, then why are we running second to China?

Joseph: Well, the truth of the matter is that we were once running second to the European countries, particularly those countries who have citizens who settled in in all places in Africa.

So it’s good to see a recognition on the part of the business community and the government that this is a continent worth pursuing, worth establishing relationships with.

Economists are now projecting that the growth areas for the future, the place of future markets, the potential for trade, all tend to be in Africa. So I’m pleased that there is finally a recognition in the United States of the potential of the continent.

Ron Brown, when he was the secretary of Commerce in the time when I was ambassador to South Africa, kept saying to American business, come, let’s look around. There’s going to be a great opportunity for trade.

But folks tended to focus on the stereotypes, and we saw pictures of starving kids rather than new democracies being formed.

Tavis: So U.S. business takes China seriously. Everybody here wants to get into that country. What’s it going to take for U.S. business these many years after Ron Brown’s posting at the Commerce department, after his death, for that matter, what’s it going to take for U.S. business to take Africa seriously now and beyond?

Joseph: Well, I think when you have the think tanks, the economists around the world, all doing forecasts of what growth is likely to take place over the next decade in Africa, it’s beginning to get people’s attention.

And certainly the fact that China observed that before our business community is also something that’s going to accelerate our engagement with the continent.

Tavis: As I mentioned at the top of this conversation, you were ambassador, our ambassador to South Africa at the time of Mandela’s presidency. How have you, if I can ask, how have you been processing over these many days the vigil for Mr. Mandela, the immense media attention on his health and what the future will bring.

As one who has known him and worked with him and served in South Africa, how have you been personally navigating these weeks?

Joseph: Well it’s been difficult times. One recognizes that all life at some point comes to an end, but here’s a man who’s such an icon, who’s contributed so much just by his being there, in addition to all the things he’s done, that one becomes very concerned when it looks like a period is coming to an end.

But I tend to look around and say what are the things that he contributed, what are his legacies, and I hear people talking about all sorts of things. But for me, there are three things that I particularly will probably be emphasizing for the rest of my life, and I hope historians will as well.

Of course, the first is what he demonstrated about the potential of the human spirit, the capacity for forgiveness, the commitment to reconciliation. The second is what he demonstrated about leadership. At a time in which the focus was on influence in relation to power, he came around and demonstrated that leadership is not so much about what you know or even what you do, it’s about how to be.

So for him, leadership was a way of being, and I’m particularly pleased that it began with respect for the humanity of the adversary – something that Martin Luther King tried to teach us as well.

But it included much more than that. It included a social intelligence about diversity need not divide. It included even a spiritual intelligence. He wrote a letter to Winnie Mandela from prison in which he said that he took care of his spiritual needs by 15 minutes of meditation every day, and he advised people to do the same.

I liked his insight when he said a saint is a sinner who keeps coming back.

Tavis: So if your first point, and I take it, and your words are so powerful. If your first point is about the human spirit and the second remembrance or reflection is about leadership, the third would be what?

Joseph: The third is that Mandela was also an astute politician who made the profession seem noble. We tend to think of him as a moral leader and we focus on his value, but what we fail to recognize is that he was also a great negotiator.

He stood strongly for what he believed in, but he knew when and how to compromise as a matter of strategy, something that our whole world needs to look at today.

Tavis: I talked to Nicole Lee earlier in this show tonight about how she assessed the tightrope, as it were, the political tightrope President Obama had to walk while in South Africa, given the deteriorating health of Mr. Mandela, and she offered her thoughts about how she thought President Obama had done in that regard and gave him high marks.

Let me close our conversation by asking you beyond that, since you know the South African people so well, say a word to us about why we keep reading that they are troubled.

I think I understand it, but shed some light on why you think they are troubled by this death watch, as it were, by people not letting him, Madiba, as they call him, letting him go, and the media camped out at every place trying to find out when that moment that will come has come.

Just say a word to me about how you perceive the South African people, how they’re navigating this moment, and what troubles and ails them at this difficult time.

Joseph: Well, it’s human nature that the possibility of losing a legend affects people in very serious ways. But the South African people are a plural people, and so it’s very difficult to talk about the South African people.

Some of the people in South Africa are worried about what happens after Madiba goes. But I’ve been hearing that since he finished his first five years, and South Africa’s economy has continued to grow, and new leadership has emerged and new leadership is emerging everywhere.

I have over the last decade been running a leadership training program as a partnership between Duke and the University of Cape Town, and I’ve had 140 graduates of that program. They are some very outstanding young people.

They are beginning to surface as members of parliament, as mayors, et cetera, and so I am very optimistic about the future of that country.

Tavis: What, to your mind, is ultimately the abiding legacy of his role as president, and how does that impact our relationship, the U.S.’s relationship, with South Africa well into the future?

Joseph: Well, one has to keep in mind that anybody who follows an icon like Mandela is automatically diminished in stature, and so we keep looking for another Mandela.

But a man like that, a leader like that, comes around not once in a generation but probably once in a century, and so we need to recognize that here was an extraordinary person, and that the people who follow him will be human beings just like us.

Mandela was too, but there was something very special about his ability to transcend his humanity. As a matter of fact, part of his attractiveness came from the elegance of his humanity and the calmness of his temperament. We will find other leaders, but finding another Mandela, not just in South Africa or that continent, is very difficult in the world.

Tavis: There’s only one Mandela, there’s only one James Joseph, and I’m honored to have had the James Joseph on this program tonight. Mr. Ambassador, always a delight to talk to you. As the world waits and watches and prays it’s good to have you on to share your particular insights about this nation, about these people, and about this remarkable man. So thank you for your time, sir.

Joseph: You’re most welcome. Delighted to be with you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: July 2, 2013 at 3:44 pm