Looking for one last summer read? Try After Mandela, a book that chronicles the South African nation’s attempt to build democracy after Nelson Mandela, who became the country’s first democratically elected president in 1994. Mandela, 95, has been hospitalized since June 8 with a lung infection.
Patch spoke with Northwestern University professor and author Douglas Foster, who published After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa in September 2012. Foster teaches in Northwestern University’s magazine program and runs the journalism South Africa program, in which students report out of newsrooms in Cape Town and Johannesburg. The program was founded by former dean Loren Ghiglione in 2003. Foster and Ghiglione run the program alternate years.
Foster has been involved with the South Africa program since its start in 2004. It was in South Africa that he found the inspiration for After Mandela, which paints a picture of post-apartheid, democratic South African culture through Foster’s dialogue with South Africa’s younger generation, Nelson Mandela’s relatives and current president Jacob Zuma.
Foster reported in South Africa from 2004 to 2007, but did most of his depth reporting in when he lived in Johannesburg for a year, on research leave from Northwestern in 2007. He continues to visit several times per year.
“I try to check in with the six main ‘informants’ or six young people who thread the narrative of the book,” he said. “I call them ‘informants,’ but they’ve become obviously really close friends.”
The following interview has been condensed and edited.
Patch: The one-year anniversary of the book’s publication is quickly approaching. What can you say about the last year since it has been released?
Foster: It’s been kind of a year going around giving talks at everywhere from book stores to universities to journalism schools to church groups and the rest. That’s been a really interesting process of meeting your readers and also meeting this incredible network of people around the country who keep the culture of the book alive. You often get a perception … of people not reading serious work. Those events have been pretty packed with people asking really challenging, tough questions. And, getting reconnected with the circuit of people doing talk shows on regional NPR stations, you really get a sense of these communities of hundreds of thousands of people, both in rural and urban areas, who are intensely engaged in this conversation about what it would mean to have a nonracist, nonsexist society, and [they are] kind of interested in the South African experiment as something that can suggest something. It’s been pretty fulfilling after having been working on something for years, to get out and around and having a chance to talk about it.
Patch: As a magazine writer, you were probably looking for magazine-type stories when you took your students to South Africa. How did you decide writing a book was the route you wanted to take?
Foster: I actually thought that what I would do was take the students there for their first time and drop them off in South Africa and go off to Rwanda, Burundi or the Congo, where there might be magazine-style stories. I guess my perception, like the perception of a lot of people, is that the South African story was basically resolved, that the revolution had happened. Democracy had been established and there was kind of a predictable path toward solidifying that, and that’s not the kind of story that creates the kind of drama that yields magazine stories that editors are clamoring for. So I actually thought I wouldn’t find my journalism work in South Africa, that it would be a good place for my students to get trained as journalists…As I started spending time in the newsrooms with my students, I began to see how complicated the transition to democracy… was proving to be. I kind of got seduced into telling that story. First I thought I would do a couple of magazine stories, but then it became a bit bigger than what you can do in newspaper or magazine stories.
Patch: I know there is limited freedom of the press. How were you received initially as a journalist reporting in South Africa?
Foster: It actually was a very free situation for me. I got a significant amount of time with major leaders and spent probably more time than any international reporter, maybe even domestic reporter, with the current president, Jacob Zuma. I would say I was treated quite well, and people were open and really opened doors for me.
Patch: Why do you think openness in reporting came easily for you?
Foster: Maybe partly because I wasn’t publishing all the time, so people realized that if they were spending time with me, they were spending time on a project that was going to be done carefully and overtime. That might have been part of it. I think the other part of it is that people do have a sense in South Africa that the story of what’s happened there has a lot of international interest. So of course there’s some interest in having that story told well in the outside world.
Patch: Before you arrived, what sort of background on South Africa did you have?
Foster: Really just a general understanding. I did the kind of crash course that correspondents go through when they’re getting ready to go someplace new. So I had been reading about the country for a long time. I was the editor of a magazine called Mother Jones for almost six years, and we published a lot. So I had edited a lot of pieces, but I hadn’t been there until I went in spring of 2004.
Patch: What do you think helped your understanding most? Was it your immersion that gave you a full picture?
Foster: That’s my method. I go in as deep as I can for as long as I can with some study in advance but without deeply fixed ideas about what it is I think I’m going to find. What I like to do is really pay attention to what surprises me, given what I’ve seen published or broadcasted on a place and to see where the gaps are between that kind of understanding and what I find on the ground. So that was very much the method of getting in as deeply as I could with as many young people from diverse parts of the country and very different backgrounds, not just racially, but in terms of class. And then really try to tell the story of what it’s like to live in an emerging democracy in a developing country from their point of view. That was the goal of the book.
Patch: Along the same lines, it seems that although you are a journalist, you had to kind of step into the shoes of a historian to give readers an accurate and complete picture of South Africa and its history. Was that a difficult transition or one that you could easily slide into?
Foster: That’s a really good question because I’m no trained historian. I’m really just a journalist whose been doing this work for 30 plus years. I think this thing that you do when you want to make sure that you go in deep, and that you’ve got the context and the framing right, is that you go in a and look at something, do as much reading and talking to experts as you can. You look at trends of what’s actually happening on the ground, whether that’s economic data or the rest. Then you go and see it, and in the periods where you’re not traveling around or living with the people you’re reporting on, you’re kind of testing what you’ve seen against those experts. … And then you give those experts, those historians or scholars a chance to talk back to you…. It’s a matter of constantly identifying or disproving the things that you’ve seen before because the idea of immersion journalism is to try to add value to the historical record and to allow people to question existing storylines about a place, to challenge them and then to give a human face to others who turn out to prove true.
Patch: Is there someone you did not speak with that you wish you had in your reporting and research?
Foster: I spent an awful lot of time trying to get the former president, Thabo Mbeki, to sit down with me. I saw him on many occasions and twice spoke to him informally. But I think in the end, since he was ousted and Zuma prevailed, that I’m not sure that would have added all that much [to the book]. So I wanted it; I tried very hard for it, didn’t get it. I think probably the most disappointing thing in retrospect was that by the time I arrived in 2004, that was the year that Nelson Mandela himself decided that he would no longer sit for informal interviews because he found his memory playing tricks on him, and he didn’t want the pressure of being interviewed. So while I tell the story of the Mandela family through his grandsons, and certainly I spent a lot of time around him, I wasn’t there early enough to get that kind of Mandela reflection. But what made up for that in large part was being so close and hearing the story from the grandsons who were living with him. This is kind of astonishing to say in a long project like this, but there’s really nobody else who turned me down.
Patch: What was your best, most enlightening experience?
Foster: I think it was being in the more remote parts of the country and doing group interviews with young people and having so many surprises in those interviews. I would go into an interview thinking, this group of young people is going to have progressive ideas about cultural issues, say choice in terms of reproductive rights or crime and punishment. They would be very conservative, thinking that the South African state has gone too far in the direction of giving rights to young people and very hard on crime. And then you’d go away and realize that they’re living in high crime rates and their sense of the protection of constitutional rights had protected criminals. They are in a position of living in high crime communities. So there are things like that, where I had to really second-guess my own assumptions about where people would end up, either politically of culturally. That ended up giving me a pretty well rounded picture of what the next generation is likely to do with freedom.
Patch: What do you hope your American readers, who perhaps have a limited perspective of South Africa, will take from reading your book?
Foster: There’s a whole group of readers in Texas I’m now in communication with who have read the book, and they see a lot of similarities between their own situations, particularly Latinos in rural Texas, with the challenges for young people in South Africa. I hope people will come away with a better-rounded sense of what it’s like for 70 percent of the world’s population, living in developing countries, to actually try to get traction and join the kind of world that we imagine for them. I would hope that they would come away from the book with a much better understanding of HIV/AIDS, which arrived on basically the same day the democracy did, complicated the drive and the construction of a robust democratic state in South Africa. [I hope] that people would have a sense of sympathy and understanding about that massive trauma of South African culture. And I hope [readers] would come away thinking that we all have a stake in the success of that vision to create a nonracial, nonsexist, non-homophobic, more egalitarian country in the southern tip of Africa. And there are actually some lessons for us in terms of the way South Africans are pursuing that dream if we share the same values.