Ambassador Details South African History, Current Challenges

February 12, 2008

south african amb nhlapo

Presenting the annual Ruth First Memorial Lecture on February 11, Welile Nhlapo, South African Ambassador to the United States, recounted the turbulent history of his nation while paying tribute to an activist who worked to free it from apartheid.

Nhlapo said he and many South Africans drew inspiration from First, a white South African who was imprisoned and banished from the country for supporting the African National Congress and murdered in 1982 by a mail bomb. She "could have chosen the privileges of the white race [but] chose the path of struggle," said Nhlapo.

He detailed the country's struggle, beginning with the Atlantic Charter signed during World War II by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, which supported sovereign rights and thus gave hope to African leaders, and the Freedom Charter, a declaration of equal rights adopted by delegates from South Africa in 1955. The end of apartheid in 1994 was built on a foundation of activists like First, said Nhlapo, negating the notion that "a miracle happened in 1994. There was no miracle."

As for present-day South Africa, Nhlapo said that the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped overcome the legacy of apartheid, although he acknowledged many problems remain. The country needs to develop its "skill-based human capital," he said, as well as strengthen the judiciary.

"We need a criminal justice system that can respond effectively to the unacceptably high levels of crime in our society," he said.

For the future, Nhlapo looked forward to an event that will shine a spotlight on his country, when it hosts the World Cup soccer championships in 2010. South Africa will be ready to show how far it has come, he said.

"Ruth First would be smiling at the progress that is being made in our country," Nhlapo said.

In a wide-ranging question-and-answer session, Nhlapo addressed the HIV/AIDS pandemic in South Africa and what the country is doing to check the scourge, the country's relationship with neighboring Zimbabwe, and race relations, which he said are improving despite racial attacks from both white and black residents.

The event was co-sponsored by the International center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life and Brandeis's African and Afro-American Studies Department.