James A. Joseph, the former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, brought the crowd to their feet for a standing ovation at the conclusion of an address that outlined lessons the United States can learn from South Africa on race and reconciliation. Wednesday’s talk was held in Albright Auditorium as part of the President’s Forum Series, the Engaging Differences colloquium on diversity and civic responsibility, as well as the HWS celebration of Constitution Day.
In his introduction, President Mark D. Gearan told the audience that he’d met Ambassador Joseph when the Peace Corps, of which Gearan was then director, was being introduced in South Africa, after the end of apartheid.
Ambassador Joseph reminded the audience that in a country accustomed to having people “bully, bluff and buy” their way into leadership positions, former South African President Nelson Mandela showed there was another way. Mandela was freed from prison in 1990, after 27 years, and was elected president of the Union of South Africa four years later.
He demonstrated what Ambassador Joseph called “soft power,” based on moral fortitude and contrasted with the “hard power” traditionally imposed with military force and weapons.
The four elements of Ambassador Joseph’s reconciliation plan, which he said would bring about a paradigm of healing, included:
* An individual rebalancing of self – starting with the decision to forgive, and ending historical illusions with a reminder that being “mistaught is worse than being untaught;”
* A communal reconciliation, recognizing people’s need to be bound in community and the importance of including everyone in the circle;
*A cosmic or spiritual reconciliation, based on the belief that “we are not here alone;”
* Political reconciliation – a peaceful coexistence that doesn’t need the same level of intimacy, and uses “brains, not blood,” according to Mandela.
Warning the audience that there is no simple set of steps to follow, the Ambassador frequently made reference to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up after the end of apartheid. He noted that one of the roles of the South African group was to allow people to tell the stories of what had been done to them, and that differences between groups need to be acknowledged before the reconciliation process can proceed. He said reparations need to be part of any serious effort at reconciliation, but the word still deters discussion in many arenas.
“In South Africa, race is still a problem – but it is on the table and under the public microscope. In the U.S., it is under the table,” Ambassador Joseph said.
His remarks covered a broad sphere of topics, ranging from the need to make democracy work at home in order to spread it abroad, the challenge of finding ways to sustain the powerful feelings of community that developed after the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, the growth of the Communist Party because it was the only one open to blacks in South Africa, the leadership exhibited by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the hope that it engendered among South Africans.
Students, faculty and members of the larger community were united in appreciating Ambassador Joseph’s powerful insights and proposals, and asked several lively questions.
Colloquium organizer Alejandra Molina, assistant professor of Spanish and Hispanic studies, was amazed at the ease with which the ambassador linked personal, local, national and international issues.
“Race, class, poverty – he addressed it all, tying America and South Africa. The optimism he talks about seeing in South Africans – I can see that in him. He believes in social change and that is the best message to give to these students.”
Phil Johnson, who teaches history at Geneva High School, agreed it was an incredible experience. He said his students “had 50 lessons put together in one evening,” a sentiment echoed by many.
Justin Bauer ’07 said the Ambassador’s closing statement stuck with him: “I want to be me without making it difficult for you to be you.”
Representing the United States in South Africa from 1995 to 1999, Ambassador Joseph received the Order of Good Hope, the highest honor the nation bestows on a citizen of another country, from President Thabo Mbeki, who was vice president under Mandela.
A professor of public policy studies at Duke University, Ambassador Joseph is founder of the United States-Southern Africa Center for Leadership and Public Values at Duke and the University of Cape Town. His third book, “The Changing Role of Ethics in Public Life,” is nearly complete.
The President’s Forum Series, established in the winter of 2000, is designed to bring a variety of speakers to campus to share their knowledge and ideas with students, faculty, staff of the Colleges, as well as with interested community members.