Cape Town, South Africa

Veronika Michels
Managing Editor

On May 18, PROSPECT writer Veronika Michels sat down with Provost Ivan Evans for an open interview about his opinions on growing challenges of climate change and the current state of South Africa, his home country. Professor Evans is a sociologist and college provost at UCSD and has taught courses on change in modern South Africa, race and ethnicity, and environmental sociology.


Michels: In class when you speak of globalization, it seems as though you are quite skeptical and wary of the phenomenon. Are you in favor of it or do you think it has had an overarchingly negative impact on humans and the earth? What is your opinion on the matter?

Evans: I think it’s an unfair thing to ask oneself if one is in favor of globalization or not because it’s like asking are you in favor of oxygen in the air. It’s there, it’s happening. But in order to get oxygen you don’t need to take pollution, and that’s how I feel about globalization as well. I support globalization as a mechanism for distributing knowledge, lowering barriers, putting communities into contact and intercultural exchange. I think globalization is an amazingly effective mechanism for distributing goods and services on a planetary wide basis — who could be against that? It’s like being against mama! It’s absolutely great. The problem I think, and I’m old enough to appreciate how our perception of globalization has changed so dramatically in 20 years, is the following: Twenty years ago when the digital world was just becoming a common word, when computerization was entering our homes because of the smaller Mac and the smaller PCs, we looked at globalization and that’s what we saw in it, that’s how we spoke about it. I remember being part of a panel here in the library about twenty years ago talking about the impact of the coming digital age, and the entire panel was so positive. “We are going to be sharing”, etc.- we saw the world coming together on the basis of rising knowledge, improving technology that was going to improve living standards. It was all gung-ho.

Now, look at it today. What was absent in that initial conception of globalization was any discussion of profit and money, because globalization was not viewed as a mechanism for making money. It was viewed as a mechanism for improving the world. Now of course, we think about globalization and we look at it in terms of money, trade, profit, which country is wealthy, which is poor, which country has power. Sure, we all want oxygen, but it doesn’t have to come with all the bad things; that is the part of globalization that I oppose. If you look at income inequality among countries, it’s not an accident that the ratio of the richest to the poorest countries has increased by a factor of thirty in exactly the period that globalization took off. Those two things are connected. I think there is an immense treasure that all countries have that can be distributed and shared. I think all that it requires is will- and vision- to reconceive globalization. We are told that globalization is irreversible, it is inevitable, and there’s nothing you can do about it. We are told that globalization is happening naturally. We are told it is a natural extension of capitalism. These things just aren’t true.

It is engineered by people, by laws, by institutions, and by countries to be a certain way and so it can be reengineered by people to be a different thing. I look at it as something that has amazing potential in the right hands, and right now I think it’s controlled by institutions, corporations, and governments that are far more interested in power and profit than they are in transforming the world. I fervently hope that your generation will conceive of the world in a very different way, as a place that has to be saved on the basis of shared community, and not as a giant marketplace. Right now globalization is transforming everything into a commodity, and I think that is corrosive.

Michels: Could you also tell me a bit more about your research on water management in South Africa and the extreme drought the country is experiencing at the moment?

Evans: Well let me ask you a question first: would you say your generation, or the world in general, is aware of the water crisis?

Michels: No, not at all. I’ve almost never heard it discussed, at least not as a true threat or danger to our survival.

Evans: Well, what distinguishes our planet is the availability of adequate fresh water, without which we simply cannot survive. We can survive without food for forty days, you can’t survive without water for seven days. It is indispensable, yet it is one of the most imperiled resources on this planet. All the books that deal with water point to the tragedy that is looming and is already beginning to happen in different parts of the world: the shortage of water, the increasing unavailability of fresh water that can be consumed — so much is being polluted. As rivers and lakes dry up because of global warming, we find that water in the aquifers under the ground is so polluted with industrial chemicals that it cannot be consumed. We are in a real planetary danger, yet I don’t think it is receiving the enormous attention that it requires.

The United Nations said in 1998 that the conflict in the next century was going to be driven by fights over water, not over religion or whatever else. That raises the question… There is no alternative to water like there is an alternative to oil. So, when the human species is brought to the brink and has to fight to the death for a resource that is becoming increasingly scarce, what will it opt to do? Will countries fight to control water or will they say “Let’s make a plan, let’s collaborate, let’s come up with regional agreements for sharing water?” When you look at history, whenever water has been fought over, what has emerged after initial wars were regional water management plans among countries. In Africa you have nine different countries dependent on the Nile River, which is a very volatile matter because it means that the countries that control the source of the water control the fate of eight countries downstream. That is why Egypt says anybody who puts a dam on the Nile is committing an act of war against Egypt and they will not allow it. But wars have not yet broken out because sharing agreements have emerged. It sounds so boring but I actually think it’s the key for survival. There’s already a couple hundred million water refugees and the United Nation projects that number to increase by a factor of ten in the next 25 years. One billion people walking around the planet looking for water.

The especially dry Olifantsrivier that runs through Kruger National Park in South Africa

Michels: I think what happens a lot when we hear those statistics is we still think of it as a problem so far in the future that we are still safe for now. But then I picture myself in 25 years, at only 45 years old…

Evans: …with a bucket on your head digging under the ground for water … You know, there are only two terrestrial structures you can see from the moon: one is the Great Wall of China and the other is the water management project China is building right now to transfer water from the water rich South into the desert areas in the upper North of the country, with 450 million people facing the prospect of no water within 50 years. Zero. Not a drop. So China is anticipating this and is building this absolutely staggering water supply system. The logic of it is to build hundreds of dams, pool the water together, and pipe it uphill over mountains to supply the desert area. The structure has consumed thousands of miles of valleys and 3500 towns and villages have been removed. No environmental impact reports were produced. It’s changing the ecology, changing the environment of the country and is incredibly wasteful of energy. It’s almost self defeating, but nevertheless people depend on water and 150  million people who need water will not have water 50 years from now. There are local stories like this — much less dramatic — in Latin America, Peru, Argentina, and Africa. Cape Town at the moment is rationing water. It has been calculated that Cape Town already has 5% less water than what it actually requires. So they’re not doing something preemptive, they really are dealing with water that is already inadequate. And it is going to get worse because Southern Africa is going to experience the effects of climate change in the form of drought. In other parts of Africa there will be more water, but in the south there will be less, so things aren’t looking good there.

Michels: Yes, I read that they are pulling in most their water from different countries already.

Evans: Absolutely. Australia is facing the same situation, even Melbourne has been declared to be uninhabitable in about 20 or 30 years. There simply is not enough water. So you have to think about relocating populations. Melbourne was thinking of capturing icebergs and drawing them over to use for water … I really wish a lot more would be done about the water crisis.

Michels: So in 2019 the next elections will be held in South Africa. I know you grew up in South Africa during the apartheid. The initial formation of the ANC — you experienced that. So what’s your opinion on how the ANC has changed since then?

Evans: Oh horrible, ghastly. I feel completely betrayed. I think that the leadership is a bunch of kleptomaniacs, corrupt to the core, and after that there is little more to say about the current administration. I think it has betrayed the enormous promises that were made and which I think were actually quite realizable and could have been achieved, but they have been derailed by greed and corruption. And so I am almost happy to say that I do not support the African National Congress. I think they have been inefficient. They have become racist. They use race in order to divide the opposition that is growing against the government. There is a cult of leadership that might have its roots in the Mandela phenomenon. But I think Mandela was so good about preventing a cult from emerging around him. He couldn’t help the whole world adoring him and his whole country adoring him but he absolutely did not play into it. It was something he was simply not interested in at all, by nature, not even as a tactic. He never used his charisma, his charm, or his stature as a political instrument. That was one of the most charming things about him. Nevertheless the country did venerate him almost like a deity. I think the current ANC government has capitalized on the willingness of the masses to support the ANC that was established during Mandela’s reign. I think they used this opportunity to become corrupt and to institutionalize corruption. So I am viscerally opposed to the the ANC.

Part of my dilemna is that I am not 100% sure about the alternative. At this point there are two alternatives. The EFF (Economic Freedom Front) tends to be youth driven, militant, speaks of nationalization, seizing property … These are things that make me extremely nervous. This strategy has not worked well just about anywhere. And it also has this undertone, the blackness identity to it, that excludes other ethnic groups in South Africa. I don’t feel welcome in it, and I’m also opposed to that ideology of anger, appropriations, and immediate seizure. The other alternative is almost the opposite. The Democratic Alliance represents old style liberalism as we are familiar with it: freedom of the press, individual rights, guaranteed property rights, freedom of association and all of that stuff. The problem with it is that its roots are in a white political party that was never a very liberal even in its day. So an element of conservatism still clings to it. But it is extremely good, I think, at emphasizing non-racialism, the argument that race is a social construction, it doesn’t exist as a natural fact. And I feel very comfortable with that. So I feel drawn to them but I would recognize them as a classical liberal or conservative party in Europe. I don’t think they have a strong enough program for addressing poverty directly. They talk about addressing poverty as a secondary consequence of first growing capitalism and markets. Once the economy is striving, poverty will disappear. Well, no! So for me a real alternative has yet to emerge, and that would be more of a social/democratic phenomenon, that talks about interaction and cooperation between markets and state actors.

I do think that in the next elections in 2019 we are going to see a seismic shift, if we get to 2019 without an emergency election — and that is quite possible because South Africa is currently seething with opposition to the government. There are weekly protests in every city, the movement is growing, it is multiracial. It is not only about blacks, or middle class, or whites. There is an incredible disillusionment with the government. So it is quite possible that they will force him [President Zuma] out of government. Either way the ANC is losing a lot of support, the only question is will they be able to hold on to power by one or two percentage points or will they in fact be pushed out of power completely. On the other hand this is what politics is about. It gives people the right to enter the political process and impact history. It’s sort of depressing that South Africa is facing this choice right now- choosing between parties that no one is really in favor of. Many really detest the government, but it’s politics. It is not being resolved with violence, not yet anyway. And I think we can probably avoid that route. But this has been the great danger in Africa. Political opponents become defined as enemies, firstly. And secondly, the ethnic factor that bedevils politics in Africa … Fortunately, so far, [the ethnic factor] South Africa is very much under control. There is not a sense of racial vengeance, and I think that is amazing for a country that was controlled and dominated on the basis of race for so long. It continues to be a miracle that attracts the attention of social scientists, you know: “wow, how did you manage to avoid a racial bloodbath?” South Africa is a dangerous country in terms of interpersonal violence, but not in the political environment.

President Jacob Zuma at the May Day celebration rally at Moretele Park in Mamelodi, Pretoria, 1st May, 2016

Michels: A lot of people have drawn comparisons with Zuma and Trump and the political climate in both countries. So on the basis of racism and institutionalized racism in both countries, I’ve heard opinions that the difference is that South Africa has acknowledged it and the US still really hasn’t. What’s your opinion on the matter?

Evans: I think that’s a valid contrast. When South Africa ended apartheid, Nelson Mandela’s government called for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission -the TRC-which then did an exhaustive tour around the country. It was like a travelling court. They would go from city to towns and announce: “We will be coming to this town, and anybody who wants to come and tell us about their experiences, how they suffered under apartheid, etc, come and do so.” So there are a million pages of testimonies online, quite remarkable, a fantastic historical trove of memory for future scholars. Sounds good, all of that. Many South Africans, however, were very skeptical of the TRC for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons why some South African opposed the TRC was because the TRC, which by the way was not the only truth and reconciliation program … Other countries also had so-called “truth commissions” after a period of authoritarian rule. I think South Africa was the 9th truth commision. What distinguishes South Africa is the “R”. The “reconciliation” part. Under the influence of priests and religious figures who pulled together the TRC, in South Africa it was decided that the goal of the commission would not just be to uncover truth, but to “reconcile the nation”. And that’s where the debate hinges. Many people say that the TRC degenerated into a giant “Oprah Winfrey show”. “Tell me how you hurt, here is a handkerchief …”  It was emotional and powerful, but did it really achieve justice? Or was it just a show that made us cry for a bit? Many feel that the reconciliation aspect became the most important part of the commission, in fact. In order to make people come together, you made them feel similarly regretful about the past.

Well it’s not the only way the TRC could have gone. Remember, apartheid was a vicious system. We knew who the perpetrators were. We knew their names, we knew their addresses, we knew what they did, we knew how they did it, and we had abundant evidence to demonstrate and prove that they were criminals. That means they could have been prosecuted for crimes against humanity. For genocide, or simply for political crimes on some inhuman scale. And they weren’t. So, many feel that the TRC may have brought us together as a nation, while others say, “Bullshit, it didn’t. It in fact allowed the perpetrators to get off”. Because the TRC made a deal with you. It said, “if you come up to us and confess, we’ll absolve you of all your sins and crimes”. So, you could come up and say-and they did, these Afrikaner killers who belonged to death squads-and say,  “ah yes I killed them,” while chewing gum. “Your son? We threw him out of the helicopter above the ocean. Are we done, or do you want more?” But the perpetrator has confessed, so you couldn’t do anything more legally. It left a very bitter taste in people’s mouths. So, many feel that the TRC was “just a joke that did nothing for justice. In fact it just allowed killers to walk away freely”. Many also feel that it reflects one of the worst decisions Mandela made when apartheid ended. He could have demanded reparations in some form- free education, free housing, etc. But he did not. He just said, “let’s move on into the future and come together on the basis of, one person one vote”. The TRC could also have been a mechanism for repaying the women who lost their children. When you take an able-bodied child from its mother, you are not just taking a son, you are taking an income out of a dirt poor household. The economic fortunes of these women changed when their children or husbands were killed. And they got nothing out of the TRC. The state could have paid them something.

Michels: I think at the time, people just wanted to move past it. But here you are today and there is still so much poverty and class difference.

Evans: Yes, and that’s why EFF talk about blacks being angry against whites, that’s where they are coming from. It’s not that they necessarily hate whites, but what they object to is the fact that those whites who for centuries got rich on the back of blacks paid no reparations. And they still own the wine farms, they still own the gold mines, the corporations, the economy. 25 or 30 years after apartheid has ended, most of the wealth is still in their hands. That’s what drives the EFF to anger. They have an excellent point, but I think the way they go about it could lead to future trouble.

Michels: Absolutely, and it’s still very much the case in parts of the US today, as well.

Evans: And of course as you said, there’s been a lot of comparisons made between Trump and Zuma, because both are autocratic, both thrive on secrecy, both are suspected of things that have not yet made their way to court but all the evidence suggests in both cases that they are concealing and hiding and not being transparent. So in that sense, absolutely, they deserve to be tarred with the same feather. They are both dangers to democracy.


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