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The Angryindian Interviews: Ridwan Laher


Editor's Note: I just wanted to say that this was an interview I wanted to do for a long time and finally got around to it. This brother works out of South Africa and keeps IIN and Indigenist Intelligence Review readers in touch with Mother Africa through his blog, Fatima & Ahmed's son Ridwan Laher. (Mr. Laher far right with Mr. and Ms. PudgyIndian)

I find his spirit refreshing in a world of blog-journalists primarily concerned with scoops rather than qualitative investigation of what they see about them. Mr. Laher's perspective on race, gender and justice issues I find is always worth a daily visit. I strongly suggest you make his blog a part of your daily RSS/XML reading.

On with the Interview... - The Angryindian
1) Tell our readers a little about yourself…

I was born in Johannesburg in 1964. I grew up under apartheid in the city of Kimberley where my family moved in the early 70s. My politics formed under the influence of Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) leader, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, who was a close family friend. Sobukwe was at the time "banished" under "house-arrest" to Kimberley after spending six years on Robben Island as a political prisoner. Sobukwe's influence led me to pursue a higher education in Political Science in the US. In 1997 I was earned a Ph.D. in Political Science at Howard University in Washington D.C. Since then I have taught Black Studies, African Studies, and Political Science at universities in the US, South Africa, and India. In 2006 I was awarded the Nelson Mandela Professor and Chair for African Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, India. During my time at JNU I started my blog (Fatima and Ahmed's son Ridwan Laher) as a means to document some of my thinking on politics, origins, and identity.

2) As a South African, where do you see the present-day African National Congress going? Many observers perceive a radical abandonment of principle from the founding creed of the ANC, how do you view this critique?

I have never been a member of the African National Congress (ANC) so I speak as an outsider. Nonetheless, I voted for Nelson Mandela in 1996 as an act of liberation. I was living in Baltimore (Maryland) at the time and travelled to my hometown to vote. I was not alone among Africanists. I was not entirely square with the manner in which the ANC (and others) had negotiated the end of "official" apartheid but I viewed my vote as a symbol toward change. That was the last time I have voted. Since then I have grown disillusioned with South African politics and the domineering role of the ANC. Let me be clear, the ANC was never a radical movement at its core but I supported its democratic and populist impulses. Unfortunately, the ANC now exhibits a decidedly undemocratic momentum that is a threat to our largely democratic constitution. I think that one has to worry about the manner that the ANC blurs the line between party and state. The ANC can be found to be contradicting the independence of the judiciary, for example. The party has also of late interfered in the manner that the state broadcaster (SABC) does its business. We are witnessing a disturbing trend in ANC politics, one that is authoritarian and focussed on elite interests that run counter to the more populist politics that Mandela represented in 1996. There is, therefore, substantive reason to be worried about coherence of the ANC but more so, to be worried about the democratic future of South Africa. I think that many folks across the races would have liked to see a viable and credible opposition party emerge in the last 14 years. That has not happened and puts us somewhat in the same predicament of Zimbabwe where Mugabe's ZANU-PF bears the responsibility for the undemocratic unravelling.

3) What is the perception of the United States in SA and has there ever been a public interest in addressing the U.S. role in support for the Apartheid regime and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela?

The South African public in general have not moved to hold the US accountable for its support of apartheid and the CIA's role in the eventual imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. There have, however, been a few interest groups that have moved sue US companies for their role in supporting apartheid. Currently there is a civil case in a New York court that seeks financial redress from companies like Ford, IBM, GM, Aetna, Chase Manhattan, etc. The ANC and the South African government oppose the lawsuit. President Mbeki has been quite vociferous about his opposition to any action, anywhere, that would seek to redress from companies that did business with apartheid South Africa. It is apparent that Mbeki is worried about investment and market development. My position is that there must be a greater accounting of who benefitted under apartheid. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) did not deal comprehensively with the need to derive a greater truth about apartheid. The TRC for the most part ignored the players in the economy, both national and multinational, who advanced the interests of apartheid. For this reason, there are many who have ostensibly escaped scrutiny of any kind. This is the glaring reality of the terms that led to the negotiated end of apartheid in 1996.

4) How do you evaluate the mainstream SA news media?

The mainstream media in South Africa is not unlike their counterparts in the US or Britain, for example. In fact, much of the media is owned by the same companies that publish news in those two countries. The poor quality of news reporting is made worse by the fact that the majority of South Africans do not read or have access to print news of any kind. The state broadcaster (SABC) runs several channels and provides daily newscasts that are of questionable value. I have noticed that the SABC news functions as an outlet for the ANC to promote their positions. There is a credibility issue that has hardly disappeared from the time when the National Party used the SABC to communicate its apartheid interests. The Mail & Guardian is one newspaper that provides a healthier mix of reporting and analysis from a liberal viewpoint. The Sunday Times has also of recent become more aggressive about pointing out government graft, nepotism, etc. Still, the mainstream media is not what one would call a vibrant and dynamic watchdog.

5) Do you see independent SA journalism making more room for bloggers or are Internet journalists restricted amongst the "alternative" media?

Internet journalists are not restricted by the state or mainstream media. I would hasten to add though that blogging in general is a rather small activity in South Africa. Part of the problem is the cost of going online. Blogging is an elite activity that is dominated by white bloggers who proliferate where any South African issue is discussed. Take for example the Mail & Guardian's "Thought Leader" forum that hosts invited bloggers to post on South African issues. First of all, the vast majority of invited bloggers are white and what you are more likely to find are posts that deal with white anxiety issues such as crime, violence, and emigration. Even the commentators are mostly white and the result is that the forum deconstructs into very familiar racialized politics. The average Black South African is poor and increasingly removed from the formal functions of the state and, therefore, very unlikely to have a voice among the South African blogging community. The government has been slow in making the cost of telecoms in general to be accessible to all. This is depressing and in essence keeps blogging very much a white (and elite) activity.

6) Racial/ethnic violence has been a factor in SA news many times this year. How has the ANC addressed this shameful issue in post-Apartheid SA?

It is sad but true to note that the ANC, particularly President Mbeki, was slow to come to terms with what happened to migrant workers. In fact, the state did not even seem to know that there was a storm brewing, so to speak. A few leaders from the ANC went to the various afflicted areas and called for calm. Their intervention did little to stem the violence against migrants. Many in the white communities wanted to see the violence as "Black on Black racism". It was not a matter of racism in my mind. What we are witnessing are growing terms of destitution. Those who attacked migrants did so because they believe that their livelihoods are being stolen. This is very much a matter of who eats and who does not. That the violence took on racial and ethnic patterns is important but it is not the deciding motivation. Even now the ANC-led government is found to be floundering on the issue of migrants. Tent camps have been set up to house migrants and the conditions are appalling. The government wants migrants to register themselves but many are fearful that such an act will lead to immediate deportation. I think it would be fair to say that most South Africans would rather have migrants deported. It is a worrying reality that the general pulse is decidedly anti-migrant, anti-African migrant to be exact. The government has done little to address this inhumane attitude toward migrants who seek work and refuge here.

7) What are your plans for the rest of this year as far as your online career in blog-journalism?

I want to improve the interface of my blog to allow for more interaction. To do so I would need a more sophisticated tinkering with the Blogger format. Other than that I will keep aiming posts at issues of humanitarian concern.

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