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South Africa and Apartheid Are Used As a Lesson in Political Dynamics
Sociology professor Alan L. Emery uses personal experiences to help shape apartheid teachings.

February 2, 2006
by Valerie Orleans

While growing up in South Africa, Alan L. Emery was a witness to apartheid. Although he lived in what he calls a liberal family that opposed the system, it was hard to escape its effects.

Today, the assistant professor of sociology studies South Africa's democracy and its challenges. “I was interested in how this movement, with organizations such as the African National Congress [ANC] and others, shaped the outcome that now exists.

“What puzzles me about the South African movement,” he said, “is how it lost the military battles but won the political war.”

He believes that while the state held the balance of military power, the use of might undermined its exercise of political power, in part, by legitimizing the work of pro-democracy forces in the eyes of the world. “When military power is used in defense of illegitimate goals — such as defending institutional racism and colonialism — it attracts attention that is helpful to that movement, especially if the movement is making universally legitimate demands for democracy.”

Because of the attention, other nations began to exert influence in the form of sanctions and public pressure, he added. This led white South African political leaders to question apartheid's morality.

Emery traces his interest to several personal experiences, including conscription in the South African Army.

“In the military, you are expected to simply obey orders — not ask questions — and carry out commands, even if you disagree with them,” said Emery ruefully. “It's similar to the military tradition in America. So now I was a part of a regime whose ideas were in conflict with my own.”

Being “inside” the apartheid state was a different experience, he admitted. And perhaps that's what politicized Emery even more.

And then there was the impact of his nanny. “I was brought up by a black nanny, as were most white children my age,” he said, bringing up an interesting paradox: How could families entrust their children to somebody who is treated like a third-class citizen with no rights?

“And then how can these women and other domestic workers love and take care of the children of the people who oppress them?” Emery asked. “These black women, who were treated so poorly, were being asked to provide care to a new generation of young whites who may grow up to abuse them...or their children. How can a system like that be sanctioned?”

When asked about the influence of Nelson Mandela, Emery places the former South African president in the context of the ANC. Although he was one of many ANC leaders, Emery believes that Mandela — through the adoption of nonracial ideology — wasn't perceived to be as threatening to whites.

Mandela had influence because of his personal background of being descended from a long line of tribal leaders, said Emery.

“In African tradition, chieftains sit down and discuss problems and issues together. In that tradition, Mandela was able to keep the ANC together during the violent negotiation process.

“He was also able to outmaneuver more radical factions within the ANC that hoped to continue armed struggle against the state. Members with more utopian views of what was possible urged the complete overthrow of the government.”

Finally, Emery noted that the white ruling party trusted Mandela. At one time, he was an architect of armed struggle but he used his negotiating skills to bring political parties to the table.

“Because Mandela and the other political groups were willing to negotiate, South Africa was changed,” he said.

Today Emery uses his experience and research to help students understand these kinds of political dynamics. “I try to encourage them to become critical consumers of political information.

“For many of our students, particularly those who grew up in America, their framework for thinking about politics is nationalist,” he explained. To become a critical political analyst, “they need to be able to step out of that framework. They need to become social scientists, to appreciate how a similar cause might have similar effects in different political systems.

“That is why my classes have material from many different cases: South Africa, United States, the Middle East. Once they take a more comparative approach, they can appreciate the value of scientific — as opposed to nationalist — analysis of politics.”

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