How Bill Cosby saved South Africa

Posted by stephanie on Apr 24th, 2009
Apr 24

The other day I had the privilege of sitting down and chatting with Dave Steward, current executive director of the FW de Klerk Foundation, former UN Ambassador, and former Director-General in the Office of the President under FW de Klerk (basically the Chief of Staff for the prez).  FW de Klerk was president of South Africa from 1989-1994, and is best known for engineering the end of apartheid in South Africa (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 alongside Nelson Mandela).  Therefore, Mr. Steward played an intimate role in the government that ended apartheid in South Africa, so you can imagine how much of an honor it was for me to meet him.

The FW de Klerk Foundation was established in 2000, and its goal is to promote peace in multi-community states and to maintain the constitutional government.  The Foundation sees the key to the peace in the 21st century as accommodating cultural diversity in states, especially in an increasingly globalized world.  The main work of the Foundation is done through its Centre for Constitutional Rights, which was established three years ago to support and uphold the South African Constitution, monitor developments, test legislation with regards to constitutionality, inform people of their constitutional rights, put together coalitions, and offer pro-bono legal advice for constitutional matters.  It works to uphold the legacy and goals of FW de Klerk’s administration.

In our discussion of South African history, politics, and freedom, Mr. Steward and I were in agreement that freedom and democracy, though used interchangeably by many, are in fact, not the same thing.  Mr. Steward used the example of Hong Kong to illustrate his point that while not a democracy, Hong Kong has quite a free society, especially when looking at it economically (it is ranked #1 in terms of economic freedom in the world).  Mr. Steward believes that free societies are those that allow for the most individual freedom, which in turn leads to more personal empowerment.  The measure of a society’s freedom is the sum total of the citizens individual freedoms.  In fact, his definition of freedom is “the maximum ability for individuals to take decisions with minimum interference from the state or other outside forces within the framework of the law.”

Mr. Steward went on to describe South Africa as a 5-tiered cake, based on its diversity of socio-economic statuses and multi-racial communities.   The first-tier is made up of around 13-14 million South Africans.  This group includes the black populations still in the tribal homelands operating under tribal institutions and laws.  The second-tier includes around 4 million people.  This includes black and colored workers on white-owned farms.  The people in this tier live in large communities (a farmer’s family can have up to 100 tenant workers) and have low wages.  There is a paternalistic relationship between masters and workers.  The third-tier consists of 12 million South Africans who are first-generation city dwellers.  These are the township dwellers, many who live in the shantytowns.  These people come to the city looking for economic opportunities.  The fourth-tier is the urban working class—families who have lived in the city for a couple of generations.  They are more educated, have jobs, and higher expectations.  This group is more politically motivated than the third-tier, and more integrated with western culture.   The fifth-tier of South African society consists of 6-7 million people who live to a first-world standard.  This is now composed of about half white and half non-white populations.  This tier has experienced rapid change since 1994.

To put this into perspective with the major South African political parties, the ANC has wide-appeal across the country, but Jacob Zuma in particular appeals to the Zulu population, which is the first-tier of South African society and one of the largest segments.  The DA appeals to the upper layers of society, but Mr. Steward believes they have a growth ceiling of 15-20%.  COPE is a new political party for this election and has support among the Xhosa supporters and supports of the former president Mbeki.

An important point that Mr. Steward made is that that changing economic relationships change outmoded social and constitutional relationships.  During the FW de Klerk stage of South African history and the time preceding it, there were great socio-economic forces at work in the country.  The end of apartheid did not come over night, or was the result of one incident or event, but began a few decades before the official end came under FW de Klerk.  In the 1970s in South Africa there was rapid economic growth within the country that brought black South Africans into the economy.  The gap changed from the enormous share of the economy belonging to the whites to a much smaller divide that resulted in changing power relationships.  There were also huge developments in education, and by 1994 there were more black kids in university than whites.  In Steward’s opinion, apartheid was destroyed by ordinary citizens making their own economic decisions, which was more effective than international sanctions.  Also, the introduction of the Cosby Show to South Africa changed many people’s view of the relationship between white and black people, and showed a different model than many people were used to.  The Huxtable family is quite impressive, but who knew they played such a big role in ending apartheid in South Africa?

Another important factor to the end of apartheid was the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The National Party (the party of FW de Klerk) didn’t do in 1980 what it did in 1993 because of the concern about the communist affiliations that the ANC had.  The NP did not want South Africa turning into a communist state, so many of the policies that it wanted to enact had to wait, but were quickly put into motion after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Steward grew up in a diplomatic family, spending much of his childhood in Canada and the UK, which he believes definitely shaped his view of the races and why he helped to end apartheid in South Africa because he didn’t grow up with the same ingrown hatred of many, whether from the Anglo-Boer tension or tensions between different races.  It is always interesting to think about how much of who we are is shaped by who we were and where we came from.  We can learn from who we were and change, both for better and worse. Different ways of life and upbringings can also help change and shape those when they become exposed to them.  I think that South Africa is learning from who it was and changing for the better.

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