Q & A


South African Ambassador Barbara Masekela says, like all South Africans, she had no choice but to enter politics. It was her legacy and her duty. While in town for Kentucky State Universitys Southern Interdisciplinary Roundtable on African Studies, Masekela took a few moments to talk with Staff Writer Molly Williamson about South Africas past, present and future and how she helped shape it.

How did you first get involved in politics?

Everybody in South Africa was involved in politics under apartheid, because the majority of the people were oppressed. There were people even in the minority who were involved in politics because they could see that (apartheid) would lead to the destruction of South Africa. So it was not possible to grow up in South Africa and not to know that Africans were oppressed and not to know that they had no dignity given to them or respect for that matter.

I read in a biography of you that you stayed active with the African National Congress even after it was exiled?


I just wondered why you continued to stay with that organization?

I stayed with the organization because the oppression continued. It was the organization to which I felt I could identify with because it stood for nonracial, nonsexist, democratic South Africa. I knew that because the white people of South Africa, who are a minority, had been there for more than 300 years, that there was no way that you could throw them out of the country. The country belonged to them as well as it belonged to the African people. We had to work to make them understand that they were part of South Africa, and by dehumanizing the Africans, they were dehumanizing themselves as well. They were taking away from their own humanity. I stayed with the African National Congress because it is the oldest organization, and it has historically led the people of South Africa.

Was there ever a time where you thought that you should give up, that you would never win?

No. I was never going to give up because I went into exile. As I was in exile, I was not at home wherever I was. I felt that my home was in South Africa and I had a right to be there, and that I had to do something to make things change there and be part of that change.

I read that you are the first black woman ambassador for South Africa

Im not the first woman ambassador for South Africa. Almost 50 percent 45 percent of the ambassadors of South Africa are women. And in Parliament more than 45 percent of the representatives are women. In our cabinet, over a third of the women are ministers including the minister for foreign affairs, for health, for education, for housing, for public enterprises. We come from a tradition of women playing an active part in the active role in the liberation of South Africa. So its my legacy. I had no choice. This year, we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Womens March. In 1956, 20,000 women marched to Pretoria Union Buildings, which is like the White House of South Africa. They marched there to present a petition to the prime minister objecting against apartheid.

I read you worked as, was it the chief of staff for Nelson Mandela?

Yes, I was his chief of staff. I was also a member of the national executive committee of the African National Congress.

Yes, I was very privileged to work with him for four years and I am sure that whatever I am is in no small part due to what I learned from his life, from his conduct when he came out of jail. I think Ive been very privileged. But I was not the only one. I was the chief of staff, but there were three of us in Nelson Mandelas office. One became the speaker of our Parliament. She is retired now. And the other one is now a director general in the Foreign Affairs Department.

What do you think are the main issues facing South Africa right now?

The main issues facing South Africa now are issues that face all modern societies. They are issues of housing, of education, of an economy which can create jobs for our people, of equality for women in the true sense of the word, of continuing our ideas. For instance, the principles of the separation of the judiciary from the political aspect of things, the supremacy of law, providing water, sanitation for people, health. They are problems that every country is facing, but for us in South Africa, it is much more difficult because of the legacy of apartheid. For so many centuries and for so many decades, we were stopped from developing. So as a resolve to find that, we need scientists for instance, because there was never an emphasis on scientific education in South Africa for blacks. It was only the kind of manual labor and social service-type professions that were allowed. But people could not become engineers. It was literally not allowed. It was against the law.

So now we are facing a problem, because in a modern society which is technologically based, you need those things. You need the people who have that kind of training, and we are working on that as well.

However, I must say that we have done very well economically. We inherited a stagnant economy, and it has been growing consistently since the African National Congress came into power. In fact, it has grown much faster than we anticipated and South Africa has, for instance, replaced mining which was the main area of enterprise in our economy. Now tourism has overtaken mining and its development in all the other spheres as well. Of course, we are also playing a role in Africa, because we recognize we are part of Africa and we cannot grow alone and leave the rest of the continent out.

Is there anything else you want people to know about South Africa?

I want people to come to South Africa. Most people who have come to South Africa actually go back several times. Its a wonderful country. Its a country of promise. Its a country of justice. Its a country of very robust for instance, we have a very robust free press. There are no secrets in South Africa; everything is transparent and open the bad and the good.

What I want people to know about South Africa is that really the liberation of South Africa was in them for the most part, the effort of the people of South Africa, but in no small part it was also the people of the entire world international support against apartheid. The fight against apartheid is one that was taken up by everybody in the world and we owe it to the world to hold up the ideas of peace, justice, and democracy, and equality for all.

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