Medill professor shares book on post-apartheid South Africa

David Friedman, Reporter

As part of the Gertrude and G. D. Crain Jr. fall lecture series, Medill Prof. Douglas Foster discussed his book, “After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” on Thursday with students and the public. He spoke to nearly 50 people in the McCormick Tribune Center Forum.

“I first became aware of South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s,” Foster said. “As a college student in the mid 1970s, freedom in the United States became linked to the Apartheid government in South Africa.”

In his book, Foster crafts a narrative of frustration and hope in South Africa. Through the lens of six young South Africans, Foster details the economic and social challenges that persist 18 years after the end of Apartheid. He describes the story of South Africa today as a tale of multiple perspectives.

“It’s kind of an upstairs-downstairs drama that unfolds,” Foster told The Daily before the event. “I tried to get as close as I could to understand what was happening among the black elite, particularly the most powerful decision makers within the African National Congress (and) the vantage point of a new black president. I also wanted to be able to look at the story from the bottom up.”

Foster first visited South Africa in 2004 with a group of journalism students who went there for their journalism residency. Although he initially intended to visit other parts of the continent, Foster was so fascinated by South Africa that he decided to spend his entire time there.

Investigating social conditions in a society as complex as South Africa’s is a long-term, intense process, Foster said.

“You not only have to talk to people but observe them over time, which is a complicated dance that involves figuring out who will allow you in to allow you to tell the story with breadth and depth,” Foster said.

Medill junior Gabe Bergado, who attended the talk, said it was exciting to hear the fleshed-out version of the stories in his book.

“I’m not too well versed in South African issues, but I am really interested in the topic, and I thought he was super compelling,” Bergado said.

Over the years he spent in South Africa, Foster said he was surprised to find that 57 percent of people under age 25 thought their lives would be better than those of their parents.

“What really stuck with me was that despite terrible constraints and all the reasons to feel bitter or disappointed, many kids still had an optimism that we don’t even see here in the United States,” he told The Daily before the event.

Initially, Foster intended to write a series of magazine articles, but the stories he researched had such depth that eventually they became a book.

“What I set out to do was to chronicle what happens after societies erupt and how people stitch their countries back together,” Foster said. “If somebody had told me I would write a 580-page book on South Africa when I arrived at Northwestern, I would have laughed, but it’s good to have hard-to-achieve ambitions sometimes.”

At NU, Foster teaches between four and six courses a year, including a magazine sequence, feature writing and a capstone course in narratives. He is also the adviser for the Medill Equal Media Project, a journalism enterprise focused on LGBT issues.

“I think journalism is an opportunity to help people understand others across race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and age,” Foster told The Daily. “Journalism is all about being able to successfully describe what it is like to be in another person’s shoes, then bring that experience back to an audience.”