The News from Africa

Interview with Charlayne Hunter-Gault

Charlayne Hunter-Gault

Television viewers in the United States may remember Hunter-Gault as a national correspondent for Public Television’s MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (now the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer), where she spent 20 years. She left that position in 1997 to move to South Africa, where in 1998 she became bureau chief of CNN International in Johannesburg.

But even before she was reporting the news, Hunter-Gault was making some of her own. In 1962, she became the first African-American woman to be admitted to the University of Georgia. Her 1993 memoir In My Place describes the events that led to that achievement, and gives an account of her subsequent career as a reporter for the New Yorker, the New York Times, and PBS.

Recently, World Press Review associate editor Sarah Coleman caught up with Hunter-Gault while she was on a lecture tour in New York. The interview took place just after she had just addressed a meeting convened by Care entitled “Against All Odds: African Women Surviving HIV/AIDS, Famine and Neglect.”

What would you say are the particular challenges of your job as a news bureau chief of CNN International in Southern Africa?

Well, it’s a case of constantly advocating for Africa, which is not to say that the position is specifically pro-African, or anything like that, but of course one wants to get as many Africa stories on air as possible. CNN International has been very receptive to us; I’m hoping for more exposure on domestic CNN. It’s especially important for Americans to get an international perspective at this critical period in our history. We hear a lot about “donor fatigue” or “compassion fatigue” when it comes to Africa, but even if that exists, there’s an imperative of self-interest. There’s a direct correlation between poverty and security; the condition of Africa makes it ripe for activity by terrorists. I saw a story recently about a guy [in Africa] who was recruited by extremists simply because he was hungry. In Africa, many young men who were in guerrilla groups come home with military skills but no jobs. They’re in the frontline of susceptibility to exploitation by extremists. So poverty is a real threat to security, and the lack of understanding of that, especially by Westerners, is frightening.

Are you finding that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have made a difference in that understanding? Is there more interest in international news stories, have there been more attempts to engage with the subtleties of the international situation?

Not really. In America, I’ve been finding the same level of ignorance about the rest of the world as there was before 9/11. This is really worrying.

South Africa’s elder statesman, [former President] Nelson Mandela, recently blasted the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq, and President Bush in particular. He said that Bush “has no foresight” and “cannot think properly.” Do those comments reflect the mass of public opinion in Africa? Are people there concerned about the impact that a war would have?

Very much so. People in Africa are very fearful that progress on the continent will be halted if war breaks out in Iraq. Most people in Africa applauded Mandela’s remarks, despite their personal nature. They saw the message as very important. South Africa has been in the forefront of trying to stop the war. Right now, there’s a team from South Africa in Iraq, consulting on disarmament. They have credibility because South Africa is one of only three countries that voluntarily dismantled its weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, the current black-led government makes no mention of the widely held belief that the reason apartheid South Africa dismantled its WMD was its fear that the weapons would fall into the hands of the black guerrillas they had been fighting for years, and who were waiting in the wings to take power.

In his State of the Union address in January, President Bush announced a US$15 billion initiative in HIV/AIDS-related aid to Africa. Yet there hasn’t been much coverage of it, either in the domestic or African press. What’s your impression of how the initiative is being received in Africa?

It’s odd, but it seems to have gone over people’s heads—even in South Africa, where you have some of the most vocal AIDS activists on the continent. It’s been lost in the fog of war. I think there is some doubt, a question of whether the aid will really be there if this war happens. But even that isn’t really being commented on.

Aid to Africa is always controversial; there’s the whole question of whether it encourages dependency or not. From the West’s point of view, there’s also the question of corruption. There’s been some criticism of [South African President Thabo] Mbeki and [Nigerian President Olusegun] Obasanjo for engaging diplomatically with Zimbabwe. What is your view of how the African debate over Zimabwe is going to play out?

The thing about diplomacy is that a lot happens above water and below water. The defense offered by South Africa and Nigeria is that they are negotiating for change within Zimbabwe, but they can’t make public exactly what’s going on. Apparently there have been some meetings and there has been talk of bringing about a transitional government of national unity within the country; there were also recent discussions with some of the role players in the ruling ZANU-PF [Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front] and the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). But nobody knew about this until it came out in the media very recently. One hears in Zimbabwe some opinion that the next government will not be formed by the MDC, but will be led by a reconstituted ZANU-PF. My criticism is that there’s no transparency: If something real and significant is going on, people should know about it.

You recently went to Zimbabwe and saw the conditions there at first hand. What did you hear from people there? Are they frustrated at the lack of attention the world is paying to the terrible situation there?

Well, people are concerned with the basics of their survival. They just want to get food to eat. In one location, I witnessed 11,000 people queueing for food. Eleven thousand in one queue! They were getting a monthly allotment of corn, beans, and cooking oil from the World Food Programme. I asked someone how long those supplies would last, and they said, 2 weeks. When I asked what they would do when the food ran out, one man grabbed a handful of grass and said, “This is what we eat when the food runs out.” Some people complain that without a ZANU-PF membership card you can’t get food, or that things fall apart once the aid agencies leave—but mostly they’re just trying to survive as best they can.

CNN has been banned from Zimbabwe: how did you get in?

I managed to get accredited to cover the World Cup Cricket tournament [in Harare in February]. I know nothing about cricket: It’s lucky they didn’t ask me at the airport what a wicket was, otherwise they might have decided to throw me out pretty quickly! Of course, once I was there I went straight past the cricket stadium and out to the countryside, to see conditions there. Well—I stopped at the cricket ground long enough to see the opening match with Namibia, and the very brave protest by two Zimbabwean cricketers, and to report on that.

That’s right—Zimbabwean cricketers Andrew Flower and Henry Olonga arrived for their opening match wearing black armbands to protest “the death of democracy” in Zimbabwe. They also issued a very heartrending statement about conditions in the country. What was the risk for them in doing that?

I’m seriously worried for their fate. There needs to be some vigilance there, because sometimes retribution is brought against people once the glare of publicity has subsided. Henry was thrown out of his own cricket club afterwards, although to its credit, the International Cricket Council refused to suspend either player. Most people in Zimbabwe thought that their protest was an incredible thing to do, especially as the [mass] demonstrations that people had anticipated during the cricket tournament never materialized.

There’s been some excitement about new initiatives in Africa such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the African Union. But there’s also some skepticism over issues like peer review, an excess of bureaucracy, and whether African countries really have the will to change. Do you feel hopeful that these new initiatives will make a difference?

It depends. Certainly, African countries right now are talking the talk—the big question is whether they can walk the walk. You have to remember that all of the democracies in Africa are very young—even the oldest is only 30 years old. One hopes that the politics can get sorted out in such a way that people’s human rights are protected, their dignity will be maintained and dependency on aid will be lessened. One of the big variables in this equation is AIDS, which some people are calling “the new variant famine”—plus, people are worried that a war in Iraq will sideline African issues. Otherwise, Africa is poised to take control of its own destiny in a way it never has been before.