The young are still out­side look­ing in

For­mer US am­bas­sador to SA Pa­trick Gas­pard says lo­cals are more up­beat about the coun­try than they were two years ago, but are still wor­ried

CityPress - - News - MONDLI MAKHANYA [email protected]­

When Pa­trick Gas­pard of­fi­cially left South Africa in De­cem­ber 2016 af­ter a three-year stint as US am­bas­sador, the thick and rough fin­gers of state cap­ture were gripped tightly around the coun­try’s neck. He has been back in his ca­pac­ity as pres­i­dent of the Open So­ci­ety Foun­da­tions (OSF), the in­ter­na­tional phil­an­thropic or­gan­i­sa­tion founded by Ge­orge Soros, and was in town this week for the 25th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions of OSF’s pres­ence in South Africa.

When he talks about the coun­try he left and the coun­try he has re­turned to, he is both buoy­ant and cau­tiously re­flec­tive.

He says that when he talks to South Africans to­day, there is a sense of op­ti­mism and a be­lief that the coun­try now has a gov­ern­ment that will be re­spon­sive to the chal­lenges and needs of the cit­i­zens.

“When I talk to peo­ple in the coun­try, there is a hope­ful­ness that there are bet­ter days ahead,” he says.

“There is also a per­sonal sense of pride” among South Africans about the roles they per­son­ally and col­lec­tively played in bring­ing about change through the daily ac­tivism that had not been seen since the end of apartheid.

“But then there are things that haven’t changed, such as the stub­born in­equal­ity and the eco­nomic ex­clu­sion of many young peo­ple. There are far too many young peo­ple who are on the out­side look­ing in.”

And, he adds, an up­turn in deci­bels of “pop­ulist rhetoric that is not in keep­ing with the non­ra­cial, demo­cratic ethos”.

He adds that South Africa is not alone in this. The feel­ing of ex­clu­sion and of be­ing left be­hind is driv­ing pop­u­la­tions around the world into the arms of pop­ulists. The im­pact of the 2008 global crash and un­even re­cov­ery from this has ex­ac­er­bated this ten­sion be­tween the haves and have nots, and be­tween in­sid­ers and those deemed to be out­siders.

The un­even­ness of the re­cov­ery “has deep­ened con­tes­ta­tion be­tween the work­ing class and the busi­ness elites”, and has en­cour­aged raw na­tion­al­ism in Europe and acute xeno­pho­bia in coun­tries like South Africa, which at­tract large flows of mi­gra­tion.

And what makes this worse is the fact that it is play­ing out in the in­stant world of so­cial me­dia, where it is easy to “drive po­lar­i­sa­tion and to drive hate”.

Gas­pard be­lieves that it is time the world ac­cepted that the ben­e­fits of glob­al­i­sa­tion, much hyped in the past two decades, did not re­ally ma­te­ri­alise for all.

Where the poor were told to be pa­tient and eat their spinach so that ev­ery­one would get stronger, “they did not grow stronger”. In­stead, they just keep on eat­ing the spinach.

“The elites on the left and the right must ac­cept that glob­al­i­sa­tion did not work,” he says.

It is in this chal­leng­ing en­vi­ron­ment that the OSF hopes to make a dif­fer­ence, says the vet­eran po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist and cam­paigner.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion that be­gan with Soros be­ing af­fected by apartheid’s ef­fects on South Africans on his first visit here in 1979 is now a global move­ment that is ac­tive in 144 coun­tries. From ini­tially is­su­ing grants to en­able black stu­dents to study at uni­ver­sity, its work now spans var­i­ous sec­tors – from health and sup­port­ing in­de­pen­dent me­dia to em­pow­er­ing ac­tivism among vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties and pol­icy to bricks and mor­tar de­vel­op­ments.

Be­cause the work of OSF was seeded in South Africa and con­cep­tu­alised by lo­cal ac­tivists, the model has been “du­pli­cated and repli­cated” in other re­gions.

“South Africa has been a bea­con for the en­tire Open So­ci­ety net­work around the world,” he says.

Be­cause the work of the OSF has in­volved sup­port­ing ac­tivism, pow­er­ful en­e­mies have not been in short sup­ply. Even in South Africa, where the OSF has been in­volved in sup­port­ing health ac­tivism and in­de­pen­dent me­dia, there have been dark mur­mur­ings about the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s true in­ten­tions. In other parts of the world, the spot­light falls on Soros, who is viewed as a mys­te­ri­ous Keyser Söze-type fig­ure.

Soros and OSF’s most vi­cious crit­ics in­clude Don­ald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Vik­tor Or­bán – the strong­men of the US, Rus­sia and Hun­gary, re­spec­tively.

The crit­i­cism is a topic Gas­pard rel­ishes in deal­ing with, ar­gu­ing that the work of the OSF will al­ways at­tract en­e­mies among the pow­er­ful.

“If you are in­volved in try­ing to cre­ate eco­nomic ad­vance­ment and op­por­tu­nity for the poor, in fight­ing for the rights of mi­nori­ties, and if you are in­volved in cre­at­ing agency for peo­ple to ques­tion elites … it is likely you are go­ing to pick up en­e­mies among those who be­lieve their hold on power is im­per­iled,” he says.

He in­sists that the at­tacks on Soros and the OSF are re­ally si­lenc­ing the voices of “av­er­age cit­i­zens who are fight­ing for rights”.

A glut­tonous con­sumer of news, Gas­pard is an ar­dent be­liever in the cen­tral­ity of me­dia in build­ing and sus­tain­ing democ­racy. Since tak­ing over as pres­i­dent of the or­gan­i­sa­tion, he has strength­ened its fo­cus on build­ing me­dia ca­pac­ity in the coun­tries that the or­gan­i­sa­tion works in.

Part of this stems from his ex­pe­ri­ences in South Africa, where he wit­nessed the role the me­dia played in ac­ti­vat­ing so­ci­ety against the rev­er­sal of the coun­try’s post-1994 demo­cratic gains.

“In­de­pen­dent me­dia proved to be in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant and vi­tal in the past sev­eral years when the value of ser­vant lead­er­ship seemed to have di­min­ished and self­ben­e­fit was at the core … Jour­nal­ism fired up the demo­cratic imag­i­na­tion of the peo­ple,” he says.

Gas­pard says that, among the prime mea­sures of the OSF’s suc­cess go­ing for­ward, will be when “there is a thick layer of civil so­ci­ety that has cre­ated a plat­form of cit­i­zen in­volve­ment”.

“That would a good time to close the door.”

But, of course, that time is far, far away.


CAU­TIOUSLY OP­TI­MISTIC Pa­trick Gas­pard says there is a pos­i­tive vibe in SA, but stub­born in­equal­ity is still a stum­bling block

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