Jere Van Dyk Interviews Charlayne Hunter-Gault

June 21, 2006

JERE VAN DYK: Good morning. I'm Jere Van Dyk. Welcome to the Carnegie Council.

This morning we have a special guest with us, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, known to a great many of us throughout the country as the longtime correspondent on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Before that, she was a correspondent for The New York Times. Most notably, perhaps, she was the first person to break the color barrier at the University of Georgia in 1960, ending segregation at that university after 176 years.

She has a new book out, New News Out of Africa. This morning we are going to talk with her about Africa. We are very fortunate to have with us Charlayne Hunter-Gault.


JERE VAN DYK: In your book you say that Africa today is as unknown to Americans as black America was to Americans before the 1968 riots. Why?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I think part of the reason is, Africa is not unknown, but it's known only in a particular way. In the book I talk about the prism through which most of Africa is viewed: death, disease, disaster, and despair. Yet Africa, a continent of 800 million people is a multifarious place, many different cultures, ethnicities, eccentricities. There is a lot more to it than that. It is all of the above, to be sure, for a variety of reasons, not all of which have to do with the Africans themselves. But it's a dynamic place, and it is a place in motion and transformation.

JERE VAN DYK: Transformation. In your speech this morning and in your book, You talked about, "a new wind" in Africa. What is this new wind?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1960, out of South Africa, talked about a new wind blowing across the continent, heralding then the end of colonialism and the beginning of independent nations in Africa.

Now I think there's a second wind blowing across the continent, where progressive leaders are calling for an African renaissance. Right now it's more of a vision and a slogan than a reality, but there are principles and things being laid down that will help achieve that renaissance, not least being changing the character of, and even the way, African governments do business. There are some that aren't corrupt. There are some that have got their houses in order. But again, for a variety of reasons, many of the countries on the continent are poor. They can't make it alone at this point, in part because of the incredible debt that they owe to the West.

So now Africans are saying, "We want to take control of our destiny. We want to get our fiscal houses in order. We want to get our governance in line with standards all over the world that respect human rights and freedom of the press, et cetera, and we want to recognize the potential that is there among so many of our people, which has been smothered or stymied or otherwise held back, for a variety of reasons." Even today there's widespread corruption on the continent.

JERE VAN DYK: Is there more corruption there than there would be in another country, in other parts of the world?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I don't know. There is corruption. But I have to say—and this is a thing that I think Americans either don't know or would like to forget—a lot of that corruption was aided and abetted by the West, including America during the Cold War.

JERE VAN DYK: In what way? Give us some examples.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: During the Cold War, America was concerned about the advance of communism, and in Africa in particular—well, all over the world, but Africa was certainly one place. So they propped up all kinds of despots and pirates and dictators, as long as they stood as bulwarks against communism. In the process, these dictators took advantage of their people.

Africa is a rich continent, with many different kinds of resources, all the way from elements that go into computers to gold and diamonds and oil. Yet many of the leaders, because of this complicity with the West, siphoned off the riches of the country for their own use and the benefit of their immediate families and cronies, which is one of the reasons that Africa is so poor today.

So now there is this second wind, in which African leaders in the African Union are saying that "we have to be more accountable, we have to be more transparent, and we have to be beholden to our people." Now, of course, there can be a big slip between the cup and the lip. But that's the new wind that's blowing across Africa—again, more of a vision and a dream than a reality. But it's there. It's out there. People are discussing it. People are debating it. I think with the support of the West now, doing something good, this can help revitalize and change the continent.

JERE VAN DYK: You write in your book that, for example, Mr. Mobutu of the Belgian Congo—what was once the Belgian Congo, then became Zaire, and now back to Congo—is "the last of the big men," as you put it, in Africa.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: He was one of the last of the big men. You have benign rulers, more or less, like Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who has just gone for a third term—much to the dismay of many progressive people on the continent, because, generally, there's a feeling that after two terms the leader should step down and give somebody else a chance. So while Museveni has done good things in his country—not least, early on, recognizing that AIDS was destroying his entire country, his military, his cabinet, his people. He instituted a very comprehensive approach to dealing with the problem and became a model on the continent of how you can approach this and actually have a positive impact. But there is concern now that the gains that they made may be reversing. There are those who are saying that, because of a new antipathy to condom use, partly because of the religious right and the president's own wife, who is a very religious person and feels that condoms are evil—it may be the influence of the U.S. money that they are receiving. I don't know, but those are the sorts of speculations that are going on.

But at any rate, Museveni of Uganda can be credited with having established a model in the past for getting on top of what is one of the worst crises on the African continent. You have a few more in other countries who have been long-ruling. So the era of the big men is not quite over, but the second wind of change is attempting to blow the notion of staying forever out of the window.

JERE VAN DYK: You talked about AIDS. This is perhaps, unfortunately, what most people know about Africa today. AIDS is always in the newspapers. What do you think the West should do, if anything, regarding AIDS? What are your thoughts on that?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I just finished a five-part series for National Public Radio on poverty. While I agree with South African President Thabo Mbeki that poverty is the overwhelming problem on the continent, no matter what you start from, what issue you tackle—whether it's achieving parity in primary school for girls, or maternal and infant mortality, or rural poverty—inevitably, AIDS comes into the equation. So it is ubiquitous. It's all over the place. It could conceivably retard some of the progress that is being made in governance and in fiscal management and so forth, because many of the civil servants are infected.

I was just in Lesotho, a country of 2 million people, 300,000 of whom are infected—

JERE VAN DYK: The civil servants, you said.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, 300,000 of the country's people, including civil servants. A principal told me they bury a teacher almost every week.

Now, of course, with the introduction of antiretroviral drugs and other immune boosters, the chances of people living longer, healthier lives with HIV are great. But there's still the stigma that prevents people from knowing their status and, therefore, doing something about it. So more education is going to be needed. I certainly think that to take condoms off the table as part of the solution is probably not a good thing, given the realities.

I was just in Malawi. The average number of children a young woman has in Malawi is 5.9. So if you take birth control off the table, you run many risks, not least being exposure, because women are still the greatest victims of AIDS and poverty, because they have no way of saying no. It's a huge problem. There isn't any one solution. But I certainly think that the international community has to remain engaged in this struggle, along with the Africans, to try to get on top of this.

JERE VAN DYK: To work together—not from above, but to work together.


JERE VAN DYK: You talk about foreign aid in your book. I thought it was very interesting. On the one hand, I got the impression that foreign aid is good, and you were quite—and, I think, justifiably so—critical of the United States for giving such a small percentage of the money that we have to foreign aid. Yet you also said that it tends to take away incentive from people.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It depends on how it's given and the conditions. Of course, conditionality is a big issue, because this has been a problem in the past with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and people saying the conditionalities have been onerous, that those conditionalities have forced governments to take away emphasis on things they needed to concentrate on, like education, social services, health care, and so on. Of course, the World Bank and the IMF have a different view of it, saying that it was the governments themselves who set the priorities.

But, essentially, I think that what Africans are saying, themselves, is that the way in which foreign aid is given is very important, because you don't want to set up a situation where the aid becomes a disincentive to individual effort and work. The same is true, for example, with food. Many people in Africa, because of—

JERE VAN DYK: You mean food aid?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Food aid, yes, and food. Because of the drought, natural disasters, et cetera, which can't be really avoided, and because many of these governments don't have the resources—for example, 80 percent of Malawi's development aid comes external sources. If you give too much aid in this way, people become used to it. It takes away their incentives to farm.

I was just in a rural village in Tanzania. There is a program that CARE International has put into place. It's a micro-financing project that empowers both men and women, but the majority of the poor are women. Their philosophy is, if you give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day—a man or a woman—but if you teach them to fish, they'll eat for a lifetime.

So that's the delicate balance that has to be struck with aid. It has to be given in such a way that you address the immediate problem, but not take away the independence and the incentive of the people to whom you are donating this aid.

JERE VAN DYK: Regarding foreign aid, you made a very interesting comment in your book, as well as in your speech this morning, about Chinese involvement in Africa. Are the Chinese giving a lot of aid, more foreign aid now than others? Is China becoming more involved than other nations in Africa? If so, is that good or bad?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is the glass half-empty or half-full? The Chinese are investing in Africa, in part, because they're getting a lot out of Africa. They're getting oil out of southern Sudan and Nigeria and other places. On the one hand, that could be a good thing; the more investment, the better. Certainly, you see buildings going up and this kind of infrastructure development, which Africa sorely needs.

The question that many ask, though, is: When you have the involvement of a country which has human rights problems of its own, how is that going to play out when they go to another country, like for example Zimbabwe, which has been roundly and widely condemned by most of the international human rights agencies, as well as internal domestic human rights agencies? If you're getting resources, funds, support from a country that doesn't care whether you abuse your citizens or not, that raises all kinds of questions.

I think those are the kinds of questions that are being raised about Chinese involvement on the continent: Is it going to mean that those countries where abuses are taking place will be able to thumb their noses at countries that insist as a condition of their aid that you respect the rights of your people? So there it is.

JERE VAN DYK: Good point.

Talking about foreign countries, what about foreign companies? Your old newspaper, The New York Times, ran a story the other day about the terrible problem with water in Angola, which is extremely wealthy with oil. You have oil companies in Nigeria and along the west coast of Africa and Angola, but they don't seem to be contributing enough. Is there a way that you think this can be dealt with better so that the people can benefit from this great natural wealth that they have?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That's the question I keep asking. Of course, the crisis in Angola right now is cholera, which is just amazing. But the same conditions—not necessarily those, but others—are all over the continent, where there is great wealth in the country and yet it doesn't filter down to the people. I think that's one of the great challenges.

I keep asking the question myself: How is it that there could be so much wealth in a country and so much poverty? I think that's the question of the age, the challenge of this moment in time. How do you ensure that a country with such resources—look at Nigeria. You have the oil-rich delta—we all write that phrase, "the oil-rich delta region"—and you have so much trouble down there with kidnappings and all kinds of things on the part of those who may or may not be criminals. They're saying that they are fighting for human rights and for equitable redistribution of resources.

These foreign companies that go in there and, many would say, rape the country of their wealth, many would say need to be called to account.

JERE VAN DYK: What I thought was most interesting this morning when you were giving your talk was that you said "we in Africa." You have lived in Africa for—


JERE VAN DYK: Is Africa now home, is the United States home, or both places?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I have the great good fortune of living in the world. I have a permanent residence in South Africa and I have my homes here in the United States. So I guess, in a way, I can say I'm blessed to have two homes. I've been welcomed by South Africans, in part, because—I talked about this whole thing about coming in right—

JERE VAN DYK: What is "coming in right"?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I was in Harlem when I worked for The New York Times. I went one time to a Black Panther press conference, and the Black Panther told me that I couldn't come in because I worked for "the Man"—

JERE VAN DYK: "The Man," the establishment.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The white man, downtown, The New York Times.

I said, "Have you ever read anything I've written?"

He said, "No."

I said, "Let's make a deal. You let me come in to this press conference, and if what you read in the paper tomorrow isn't an accurate reflection of what went on here, then don't let me in the next time."

He thought about that for a minute, and then he said, "Okay, on one condition: you have to come in right."

I immediately knew what he meant. He meant, check your preconceptions at the door and let the facts determine what you speak about. In Africa, as in black communities in America in those days, there was a presumption that the person coming in knew everything and didn't need to be told, and wrote through that principle.

I think that "coming in right" is very important, into the continent of Africa, in particular, which is in many ways like an adolescent—they're just coming into their own. In fact, the second chapter of my book talks about baby steps to democracy. But you know how adolescents are also. You can't tell them anything. They think they know everything. They're flexing their muscles. And that's fine, because that's part of development.

So you need to understand that when you go into the continent and into these countries that you're not going in as the know-it-all Westerner who has all the advantages and who knows everything. You have to respect where they are and respect their dignity and treat them as equals, and then also as a journalist try to portray them accurately so that they are recognizable to themselves.

JERE VAN DYK: Wonderful, a wonderful story.

So you have two homes. The United States is your home and Africa is your home. You have come to tell us a little bit about Africa today. We have benefited from that. Is there any last one message that you want to leave with us about Africa?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I think it's the idea of Africa being a part of the global family of nations. We have to respect that, and hopefully help Africa achieve its rightful place in the family of nations, so that we can embrace Africa, which is, after all, the mother of us all.

JERE VAN DYK: Thank you.

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