|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
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
Emery traces his interest to several personal
experiences, including conscription in the South African
“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?
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?”
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.
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.
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.”
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
“Because Mandela and the other political
groups were willing to negotiate, South Africa was changed,” he
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
“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.
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
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