RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Next week, South Africa will go to the polls. It's a milestone election, coming 20 years after the country's first free election in 1994. It is also the first general election since the death of Nelson Mandela last December. For academics Katherine Newman and Ariane De Lannoy, this was an important moment to assess South Africa.
They've written a new book called "After Freedom: The Rise of the Post-Apartheid Generation in Democratic South Africa." Katherine Newman joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
KATHERINE NEWMAN: Thank you for having me, Rachel.
MARTIN: You have chosen to paint a picture of South Africa now through the perspectives of seven people. What experience, what perspectives were you going after?
NEWMAN: We wanted to understand the generation that was born under apartheid but whose adult years had been spent in a new democracy. So these seven people are in their thirties now. They will be the generation that inherits the richest and yes, most unequal, country in Africa. And it was their perspective that we were trying to capture across the lines of race and class.
MARTIN: You spent a lot of time in the book talking about not just race as a social stratifier, but literally the color of someone's skin. Could you explain the difference between someone in South Africa who is black and someone who is colored and what that means in that society?
NEWMAN: The term colored was invented by the apartheid regime to describe people of mixed race background. And they were given a more privileged position than black Africans under apartheid's race laws and its labor market restrictions. They became a community that adopted the mother tongue of the whites, the Afrikaner language. So they don't speak African languages, for the most part.
They often look to my eyes, as an American, exactly like other black people. But they don't speak those languages and they definitely do not think of themselves as black and in fact would recoil at being described that way.
MARTIN: You mention that emerging black middle class in South Africa. I'd like to focus in on a few of the characters who you profile in this book. Can you tell us about Amanda, who is part of this emerging black middle class?
NEWMAN: Yes. Amanda was born in the town of Port Elizabeth, which is toward the eastern side of the country. Amanda and her sister were among that group that got access to what were called model sea schools, and as a result, Amanda got a good education. She's fluent in four languages. And today she works in an NGO in Cape Town that addresses problems of public health which are very severe in South Africa.
But she would be seen as striving, upwardly-mobile middle class, where Thandiswa, who was the other black woman I worked with extensively, lives in a shack settlement of 500,000 people on the edge of Cape Town, a population that was largely deported out of the center city when the apartheid segregation laws came in. And she has never received anything like Amanda's education. And hence, their pathways in life have divided. And they would have almost no overlap.
MARTIN: Can you tell us about another character in your book, Brandon, a young, white South African? How has his life, his perspectives changed in the new South Africa?
NEWMAN: Brandon is a very interesting person who I - Ariana and I initially approached because we were looking for a way to insinuate ourselves into the far right, right wing community among the Afrikaners. He is, he's self-identified as an Afrikaner. He speaks that language. His English is pretty, pretty weak. It would be hard to communicate with him in English over the long run. But he is searching for a way to think about himself that is distinguishable from the extreme right background he comes from.
He has family members who I would describe as veering on fascist in their attitudes, who would like to turn the clock back, who think it was a big mistake that apartheid was ever ended. And now works in a fairly modest job, blue-collar kind of job, and he's not likely to do any better than that because in the past, his skin color would've guaranteed him an affluent future and today it won't. Today, the fact that he's not well-educated means that he's facing some significant barriers in the labor market.
MARTIN: Would you mind reading an excerpt of the book where you actually quote Brandon's brother?
NEWMAN: So we were talking with Brandon and his brother Mark. And actually, Mark was the person I had first hoped we could make as our central informant, because we knew he was very far right. Brandon is more skeptical about that point of view. But this is Mark speaking, then, the far right person. And he says, well, one-on-one, I love black people.
But as a race, I kind of hate them because they're always cocking everything in my opinion. That's the way I perceive it. Like before they were allowed to walk around everywhere, we didn't have crime. Now they're always just robbing people. I'm also struggling with how I feel about the natives.
MARTIN: Was that exceptional...
NEWMAN: No, that was mild.
MARTIN: ...In the comments that you got?
NEWMAN: No, I would say that was mild. And one of the reasons I wanted to get to know Brandon is that we took him along to - on a fieldwork visit to the Eastern Cape, which is the real stronghold of the white farmers who are notoriously right-wing. And it was important to have him with us because I don't think these people would have given me the time of day. They would've been very, very suspicious had I arrived without an Afrikaans-speaking person at my side.
And with him, we were able to learn more about their point of view, which was armed and dangerous. I mean these people are really, they really are armed. And they have extreme, I would call them almost Nazi-like viewpoints. Brandon is not like that. And most of the white youth of his age group aren't either. It's not entirely unlike the way younger Germans in the 1960s were struggling with how to come to terms with the Second World War.
MARTIN: So is that progress, then, despite the kind of vitriol of those comments? You say that, actually, that's perhaps just something that these young people have to work through. This is the process with coming to terms with a new multiracial, multiethnic, democratic South Africa.
NEWMAN: I wouldn't want to relieve them of the obligation of looking very closely at the past and at the present. But I do think 20 years is a relatively short time. We still felt it was a momentous period and worth looking at. But if you think about what the Jim Crow South was like in the U.S. 20 years after the end of the Civil War, it was different but not the other side of the moon.
So the question of what can we expect people to do, how far from the past they could come, that's a moral judgment rather than a sociological one. But I can't say that people like Brandon looked just like his parents. They really are questioning, asking, thinking, trying to find their way toward a different world. But it will probably take several more generations before we get there.
MARTIN: Katherine Newman is the James Nap Dean of the Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the new book "After Freedom: The Rise of the Post-Apartheid Generation in Democratic South Africa." She joined us from our studios in New York. Katherine, thank you so much for talking with us.
NEWMAN: It's my pleasure, Rachel. Thanks for your interest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.