Farai Chideya, Host:
I'm Farai Chideya and this is News & Notes. In the 1980s and early 1990s, an increasing number of Americans watched and sometimes supported the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. Very few Americans got to see the struggle early and up-close. One of them was Frank B. Wilderson, III, who became one of just two Americans to be elected to the African National Congress. He's written "Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid." Welcome to News & Notes and congratulations on the American Book Award that you got. Dr. FRANK B. WILDERSON, III (Author, "Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid"): Thanks, Farai. It's great to be here.
CHIDEYA: Yeah. So, you know, this book starts out and you know, you're someone who has a literary side as well as all of your life experiences of practical politics, I'll put it that way. And this book is very literary. So, how did you decide to, first of all, approach your story at all and then to put it in this kind of this writing that's very vivid?
Dr. WILDERSON: Well, it's often said that the book wrote me in that I went to South Africa in 1989 on a Jerome Foundation grant. I won a lot of money in creative writing awards. And one of them stipulated that I finish a novel that I was working on about two black guys from Dartmouth, people I'd gone to school with, and one had gone to Morocco to be in the Peace Corps in some way, and one who'd gone to South Africa as a journalist, and so this was going to help me complete that novel. When I got to South Africa, however, I found that the reality on the ground was so surreal and so different, even though I'd studied Southern African politics at Dartmouth College that I couldn't fit into a novel. So I had to - I just kept a journal and I ultimately knew that there was something important going on here and that I was witnessing it. I did not know at that time that I'd become a member of an armed insurgent group, I'd be an elected official of the ANC, that I'd be there for five years. I just knew that this context that I was encountering could not be forged into the novel that I had thought. So I just kept a journal for five years and ultimately, in 2002 or 2004, it became a book.
CHIDEYA: Let's go into your book. You start out with a journalist calling and tracking you down and saying, 'Oh, Nelson Mandela, by the way,' thinks that you're a threat to national security in South Africa. What was that about and how you know explain to us the context for that.
Dr. WILDERSON: I can only hit the high points, because it's very long (laughing) and complicated story.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. WILDERSON: But, in point of fact, there - close South Africa watchers will know this and others may not know this. When Mandela came out of prison in 1990, a rift that was already brewing began to actually manifest itself in the ANC. From - simplistically put, those who want to push forth with the Socialist revolution, in other words, wanted to take over the commanding heights of political economy, not just have the vote, personified in my book by Chris Hunney(ph), that's kind of a not a very complex way to do it but it allows me to get into some of the more complex issues. And those more behind Mandela who felt that political economy in terms of capitalism should remain as it is basically, except there should be more access to the facts from it. And when you're having a political debate between people at a roundtable, that's one thing, but when you're having a political debate inside an armed wing (laughing) of a liberation struggle, things get pretty dicey.
CHIDEYA: And you didn't want that armed wing to sort of fade into the background of history.
Dr. WILDERSON: I did not.
Dr. WILDERSON: Because we were insurgents for an ethical reorganization of civil society and political economy. And in this day and age it's too easy to mark that kind of activity as a pure terrorist activity. And I needed to tell the story from the inside in a different way. A lot of people in (unintelligible), which is the armed wing or the spirit of the nation, sided with Mandela and Mbeki and they're - those people, because they didn't feel like they could get a job outside of the army or the intelligence agency. They didn't have skills. And so, someone - for practical reasons, and some stayed out, for political reasons like myself.
CHIDEYA: You also, you know, not - you didn't just love South Africa as someone who politically was there, but you also built a life there. What was it like for you as an American to be, you know, in a place that was not your place of birth or your place of upbringing but for which you clearly have so much love?
Dr. WILDERSON: Complicated. People who were white treated me with the same type of derision and racism that they treated black South Africans. And then they would hear my accent, and especially if they are British, and not if they were Afrikaans, if they were British, they'd changed overnight and they want me to then tell them, you know, how wonderful it was and if there's anything I'd like. So, I became like the master of the one liner: "Is there anything you like about this country?" 'Yes, an airport with daily departures.' (laughing) something like that. And so, it was very gratifying to be welcomed into a struggle that for the first few years I was there, it was truly about total liberation, not simply about a Western-style of democracy and to be judged on my capacity to contribute to that by black South Africans and righteous, white South Africans and Indians. That was gratifying but living in apartheid South Africa, and I used to say every day was worst than the day before.
CHIDEYA: So how did you become a member of the ANC, an elected member of the ANC, as an American?
Dr. WILDERSON: So, I worked in two capacities and they often came together and they were not supposed to come together. One was as - so we, but sure we've been recruited into underground activity and there was supposed to be a firewall between the other in which I eventually became - it would be like being on the executive committee for the Democratic party of Harlem or West Hollywood or something like that with place called "Hillbrow." And eventually, I rose to become on the executive committee for the ANC, not just of Hillbrow, but of the entire Johannesburg sub-region. I was teaching at the University of (unintelligible), I'm a critical theorist in my other hat at the University of California, Irvine. And I was teaching comparative literature, a critical theory course on Foucaud, Graham(ph), Edward Said, people like that. And I was only working one day a week and I was waiting tables. My ex-wife was a member and she was a law student. And someone came to the door to collect dues in 1991, and I said, you know, I've got a lot of time and I've been a political activist in the states, do you accept people who were not born in the country? And he said: "sure, come to the next meeting." And I came to the next meeting - as I said, a space the size or maybe West Hollywood, got into a lot of debates and finally, Albie Sachs' son nominated me in a general election for the executive of the branch and I rose up on terms on committees and elected officials, positions on that side and I was involved in another world, as well.
CHIDEYA: Do you feel that people really trusted you? People who were within - the more critical side of the movement, end apartheid, and to build a new South Africa? People who didn't buy into as you said…
Dr. WILDERSON: Mm hmm.
CHIDEYA: …South Africa - they just perhaps let a few people into higher economic strata.
Dr. WILDERSON: Yes and no. And this is the part of the book that really moves back and forth between my sense of not having spent time with the four or five comrades who I am actually working very closer with someone on my - some of whom are my students in the day time, not having gone to the frontline states to train in insurgent camps with them, being brought in at a later point, and them having a history, me not having a history. And so, there's always - I was always being deployed and never fully brought into the entire picture.
CHIDEYA: When you look at South Africa now and we were just talking about it earlier today on our Africa update, there's such a question about the fork in the road that faces the nation even at this point. And those questions you've raised about whether or not a post-apartheid era should bring people in - many people into greater economic empowerment or whether it's enough to just sort of change the faces in the game at the top. How do you think South Africa is doing?
Dr. WILDERSON: Very poorly and this isn't just my thinking, you know, a great scholar and activist I think they're (unintelligible) from South Africa who's written a lot. Possibly if there's - unfortunately, one doesn't want to say I want apartheid South Africa back. I want a partition state. Yet, one has to also see that the sellout of the Mandela and Mbeki regime has brought about a worse economic condition than what people had before. And with rampant AIDS, there's been a complete kind of compromise formation to International Monetary Fund, GAT and the World Bank. And what is most problematic is not just the policies but the fact that mass mobilization has been demobilized, that's what I see is the biggest problem.
CHIDEYA: All right, well, we couldn't let you go without getting some full-on controversy on the air. And so, this is just a little teaser for a big book. Frank, thank you.
Dr. WILDERSON: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: That was Frank B. Wilderson III, he's a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of "Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid" and he was here with me at NPR West. ..COST: $00.00