Leigh Barrett, interviewed by KJ Wetherholt, MIPJ:
First, give us some background on your experiences growing up in South Africa during the time you did--both personally, and then in a political context--also being during apartheid.
There’s an old curse of unknown origin but we can put it on Confucius since he doesn’t seem to mind, that says: May you live in interesting times. A true understatement.
I grew up in South Africa when people were finally starting to recognize that apartheid wasn’t quite what it was originally meant to be: an economic policy designed to lift the white Afrikaners out of poverty after WW2 – which saw them siding with the national socialism policies of Germany, and the English-speaking South Africans clearly on the side of the Allies. It was a continuation of the old battle lines drawn during the Anglo-Boer war of 1880, and compounded when the British interned Afrikaans women and children during the second Boer War 10 years later. Approximately 25,000 women and children died in unsanitary conditions while the British undertook a scorched earth policy – devastating to the Afrikaners, who were largely farmers. The enmity ran deep.
Many people think apartheid was purely white vs black, but it was much more complicated than that. As an English speaking SA, my education cost my parents much more than my Afrikaans counterparts – from primary education through university. One could get a job in government, but to have a career you had to be able to speak Afrikaans – something I probably could have done, but never wanted to. While the policies didn’t extend nearly as far as the racist laws that subjugated the black South Africans, I grew up knowing that nothing was equal.
My parents employed staff – gardeners, housemaids, nannies – so I grew up in what was considered a fairly typical, upper-middle class, white, suburban environment. My grandfather had been a game ranger, so my mother had grown up on game reserves, speaking Zulu as fluently as any Zulu person, and building a natural connection with that culture. Despite that, she still served the gardener tea in an old jam tin. I never understood that, and it was probably my first real awareness as a child that something wasn’t quite right with this picture.
When the riots erupted in the mid-70’s, despite my protection in white suburbia, it was hard to ignore the nervousness that started to sweep through the nation. South Africans are not a fearful or paranoid people by nature. But from that period onwards, there was a quiet understanding that the country was going to change, and it was really just a matter of when and how long it would take. Even more nervousness existed in the uncertainty of what the result of that change was going to be.
It took 3 decades, which really isn’t that long in historical terms, and during that time, we all changed. What had been generally accepted reality to most white South Africans slowly became intolerable. In any situation, awareness usually grows almost imperceptibly. When most white South Africans were once able to see the potential upside of “separate development” – a policy that encouraged specific tribes to all live together within their traditional tribal regions, culture, language - with the movement that was happening it became clear that unworkable, impractical policies were in place. South Africa, while traditionally containing those tribal regions, was a multi-ethnic nation that could not be separated from itself.
What impact did growing up in South Africa have on your perspective in terms of both domestic and international events?
One of the advantages in SA media was an openness to viewing what was going on in the world. Every news broadcast on press, radio or television, headlined with world news. It was one of my major shocks when I came to America to see just how insulated and isolated many average Americans are from the world. It’s really not that easy – it takes effort – to get a wide-ranging world news here, unless you’re able to tune into BBC, or other international outlets. I call it the “snowglobe effect”. The rest of the world is “out there” somewhere – apart, separate, other. I still think that is why the events of 9/11 were so shocking to Americans, and while the rest of the world was horrified, most were not especially surprised. A lifetime of viewing America from outside that snowglobe, we knew not everybody in the world was in love with this country, and we’d had our own experiences with America to understand how US policies are not always beneficial to those not in America.
From trade policies that benefit the wealthy country and usually shortchange the country of origin to the enormous warmth and generosity of Americans who open their hearts and pockets for those in disaster situations, there is a kind of schizophrenia – and most people do understand the difference between “America” and “Americans”. The people are not the policy, and the policy is not the people. I think that is evidenced in the number of Americans who have made South Africa their home – it’s a very welcoming country to immigrants from everywhere, and that adds to the world view of the people since we’re exposed to so many different cultures.
What would you say were your most important experiences as a broadcast journalist in South Africa?
I started in TV news on a program called “Network” – it was an extension of the 8pm half hour news broadcast that allowed us to go more “in-depth” on some of the current events. Co-producing a documentary on “Aids in Africa” – this was in the 80’s, when HIV/Aids was a fairly new phenomenon – was illuminating. We had the incredible privilege of being invited to film the first patient to knowingly die of Aids in the country. He was unable to speak, but his doctor, an incredible warm, caring man, spoke on his behalf, and the bond they had still brings tears to my eyes. We followed that experience up by interviewing health ministers from a variety of African countries – and almost to the person, received the same response: there is no such thing as Aids and there are no homosexuals in Africa. I find it remarkable to think that that attitude still exists in many places today.
It was horrifying t hear, chilling and was realy put into perspective years later when President Thabo Mbeki swallowed the total gumph put out by some “scientists” about the disease. It helped set SA back decades in treating the millions of people who had it, and were dying from it.
Another important experience that I usually prefer not to think about: At that time in our history, suspected informants in the black townships could be accused of collaborating with the government, without any evidence whatsoever. Mobs would gather, place a car tire around the person’s shoulders, pour gasoline over them, and set them alight, and then chant and cheer as they burned to death. It was called “necklacing”. It harkened back to the days of burning witches at the stake, and the idea that humanity has evolved so little when it comes to mass hysteria isn’t particularly comforting. If that wasn’t bad enough, realizing that our cameraman’s presence, filming these events, would only encourage the mob, was incredibly disturbing. We frequently had to debate the ethical and moral thing to do: as a news reporter, do we film it, even if we know it’s staged for the benefit of the camera; or do we walk away? And at what point do we walk away? What is the human obligation, and what is the media’s obligation, to try and stop a person being so brutally killed in this way? I’m not sure anyone has ever been able to answer that dilemma yet. There are a few images that remain with me to this day, and that portfolio includes a human, regardless of guilt or innocence, dying such a horrific death.
Several people who are now among the South African diaspora, such as Andrew Feinstein, a former member of the African National Congress (ANC) who now lives away from South Africa, having written a book about the international ams trade, The Shadow World, now is very critical of the ANC post-Mandela. What are your views about the ANC and its current trajectory? What lessons can be learned or are important that are relevant to Africa now?
The path of the ANC leadership has been a fascinating lesson in how things can go terribly wrong if you’re not paying attention and not sticking to your original principles. When Mandela became president, a lifetime of moderating his views in preparation for that role meant he came into office with the necessary goals: to reconcile a broken country, and to build it up again. He was able to lay a foundation for that, even though he was in office for only a year. His successor, however, Thabo Mbeki had a completely different history and while his pro-business policies were needed, he also seemed to relate entirely to that sector, to the neglect of the majority. Affirmative action meant a lot of professional whites, who were in a great position to work with him to continue Mandela’s efforts of reconstruction, were pushed aside. His policies increased the number of black millionaires (awesome for them!), but the vast majority still lived in poverty, waiting for their lot to improve, waiting for services, waiting for housing – and getting increasingly frustrated.
He angered all those he really needed – especially the very powerful trade unions. When he was kicked out of the party leadership in 2007, and Zuma rose to the role of president, the situations had rapidly become one where, if anyone wanted to get ahead, they had to befriend the right people. Jacob Zuma doesn’t seem to have any defined goals, he’s claimed he is a reluctant president, and the powers that be are getting quite nervous that they can be ousted by that very vocal majority that kicked Mbeki to the kerb.
The old white, apartheid government may have done a lot of things wrong in terms of racial policy, but they got a few things right: building a strong infrastructure of education institutions, especially in those former homeland areas where rural folk now have an opportunity to attend. Also: a strong business and manufacturing sector where, even though business leaders know they have to be buddies with the government to do anything, they also know that SA has a need for international investment if the country is to continue developing. They are in an excellent position to put pressure on the government to do the right thing.
SA has changed dramatically since the days I would walk around Johannesburg, seeing graffiti splashed across the walls that read, “One settler, one bullet”. But it will be up to civil society – the people, and business – to ensure that even if the ANC remains in government for the next 4 decades, as the apartheid government did, the country keeps heading in the right direction. There’s a good example of the abuse of power on the northern border – Zimbabwe is a mess. I don’t know a single SA who can look at their northern neighbor, and not feel determined to do whatever it takes to set a different example.
You live in the United States, but I know you still warmly consider yourself still truly African. What has your experience been as a resident of the United States in having to watch American politics, and what is our view of what America's role should be, for instance, in Africa?
The differences between the parliamentary system and the US-style presidential system are vast and obvious. The parliamentary system means the party in power gets to choose the president. It’s still a popularity contest – albeit on a small, more partisan level, and it clearly opens the door to cronyism and corruption – as well as a level of fear that you can be removed from office at any time if you don’t toe the party line. On the other hand, the US elections seem to focus more on the personality of the candidate and less on where I think it truly matters – the legislature. At the end of the day, for me as a Permanent Resident, US politics and especially the election, is fascinating and highly entertaining. But then, I am extraordinarily nerdy.
As to America’s role in Africa: I would dearly love to see Africa less dependent on global superpowers, but that’s just not happening. America and China are approaching the continent from two very different directions – and I don’t believe either is helpful to Africans.
America for too long has viewed the continent as a basket case, where one can throw money at it in the hopes that progress will be made and people’s lives will be changed.
China, on the other hand, is recognizing the economic value of the continent, and is utilizing that to great effect, mostly to benefit China.
On one hand, China is improving infrastructure in those countries where it’s doing business, but that also comes with the record of complete disregard for human rights. Recently, that’s resulted in several instances of workers fighting back against Chinese mine owners. China should be very wary of indulging to deeply in economic colonialism – Africans have some experience and memory of that, and I don’t see it being tolerated for long on a grassroots level. African governments may welcome China’s involvement, but I think they do that at their own peril.
If America ever dreams of keeping its position as an economic power in the world, I think it’s time for a change in attitude towards the continent and a serious expansion of trading, investing and working with the African nations. As it continues to develop (with many countries doing better than many western powers in terms of GDP growth), the continent will become a much more important battlefield for America and China.
You also spent time as a music DJ in terms of world music. What role do you 1) think music currently plays in the international sphere, and 2) what roles do you think it should play in the best of all worlds?
One of my favorite films is the award winning, “Amandla – a revolution in 4-part harmony”, detailing how music in South Africa inspired political change. In the film, Sifiso Ntuli says: ”You can give someone a long, political speech, but it’s when you finish singing a powerful song, that you know exactly where they’re coming from.”
In SA during apartheid, music became the organizer. It mobilized communities. It was the people’s voice. South Africans are largely a spiritual people, and we tend to break into song at the slightest provocation.
It means that even after 14 years in America, I still get funny looks from people as I do my shopping. I stand in line for lunch at the café and notice people looking at me as I sway to the music in my head, or have to remind myself that it looks weird when my lips are moving as I walk through the building and I’m not talking to anybody. I’m singing.
When I started introducing world music to my radio audience here, I realized very quickly that simply throwing odd, unfamiliar sounds at them wasn’t going to work. The first time I played some Tuvan throat singing, I received threatening phone calls. So, I focused on educating. Whenever I knew I was going to play something that was “outside the box”, something that would sound very foreign to the average listener more familiar with rock/pop genres, I would take the time to give some background to what they were about to hear. I would talk a little about the culture, the instruments, the country and its history.
Suddenly, instead of threats, I was getting calls from listeners in tears, telling me how the same music touched their soul.
Information and education opens ears and minds, and hearts to unfamiliar cultures - what else can music achieve?
Speaking as a journalist, and knowing that sometimes music has both cultural and political foundations that are important, what current issues in the international sphere do you consider truly important that are not getting enough coverage?
My first level of interest has always been in the protection of those who are unable to defend themselves: children and animals. In many cases, the lack of respect some groups have towards those who need greater protection IS cultural. In future podcasts, we’ll be looking at the issue of child brides, female circumcision, as well as animal rights, and the environment. Another issue that I’ll be focusing on is borders: do we need them? Can we live without them? What value do they have in a 21st century world?
A question I’ve been asked recently is whether legislation can change culture. I think there are enough examples around the world where that does happen, and it’s certainly worth a closer look.
What music do you think has been the most compelling at least in your experience, when it comes to offering a different perspective of a particular cultural group or particular political cause?
For me personally, being introduced to the wonders of Tuvan throat singing was mind blowing. The skill of one singer, producing 3 notes at the same time, in an effort to reproduce the sound of the wind blowing over the Siberian tundra, or the music of a waterfall, is astounding. The Mongolains say this is where harmonic sounds were first revealed to humans, and certainly getting lost in those extraordinary, spiritual sounds makes that easy to believe.
In terms of politics generally, I have to go back to South Africa and the way music played a massive role in the revolution. The great jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim said: “South Africa was the first country to fight a revolution in 4-part harmony”, an analogy to the walls of Jericho falling to the singing of the people.
Lastly, in terms of (the podcasts), what do you hope for them, and what do you see as the mission?
What I’m learning as I look at what each show should cover is how much is NOT covered by general media. There are massive gaps in news delivery, with so much attention placed on politics, and so little on humanitarian affairs. I hope we can change that in some small way. Going forward, some of the issues we’ll be looking at will include the role of photojournalism in the world. They’re frequently the people who are covering child brides, human trafficking, incarceration, environmental issues, rather than news journalists. Also, an examination of the issues facing some of the indigenous tribes of the world is something I’m particularly enjoying, and again, it’s not something the general media is looking at. Another long terms subject is the role of social media in our lives: from the role it’s played in changing governments to the very personal. I also want to go deeper into PTSD and other mental health issues that often result from man's continuing inhumanity to others.
Another topic I’m looking forward to examining is globalization and how physical borders may not be the direction of the world’s future as we become increasingly globalized. It's of personal interest to me since I've been away from "home" for so long, I wonder where it is, or if I even have one. Perhaps it's in my head.
Lots to cover, and I sincerely hope listeners will join us for the long, and very interesting, ride.