Interview With Rachel Jafta

Alex | Oct 02, 2009
"I was lucky enough to be part of a generation which saw apartheid recede in front of our advance to a multiracial society."

Rachel, you're an attractive young coloured woman who teaches economics at university level in both English and Afrikaans and who can also speak some Thieved: you would make an ideal Minister of Finance. Instead you're a person of pronounced liberal views who prefers to finish her PhD and teach at Stellenbosch and UWC. It wasn't supposed to be possible to grow people like you in apartheid South Africa. Are you from a relatively privileged coloured family?

No, quite the reverse. I was born in Sutherland in the Central Karoo - it's said to be the coldest place in South Africa - as one of a family of six. My father was a farm labourer and neither of my parents went to school. They only learned to read and write from their employers.

What were race relations like in Sutherland?

We were thoroughly part of the old South Africa. The Africans were segregated off into their location, the coloured community was forcibly removed under the Group Areas Act and relations between the whites and the rest of us were of the classical master-servant variety.

Doesn't that make you feel bitter?

Not for myself: I was lucky enough to be part of a generation which saw apartheid recede in front of our own advance into a multiracial society. But I can feel great anger against the way in which my parents were treated. My father was not only a very keen member of the Dutch Reformed Church but even an elder of it. Yet he still had to address the white minister as "baas". It is painful, as well as peculiar, to remember things like that.

Did it make you political?

No. My parents certainly thought that apartheid was terrible but political discussion was not allowed in our house. My father's belief was that apartheid was just one of the obstacles that God had put in our way: you had to strive to overcome such obstacles but you must never complain about your burdens. I didn't really come across politics until I was in high school, a boarding school in Wellington, in 1976, when the ripples from the Soweto riots were felt. We had meetings at night to discuss things. We were passionately against apartheid but had no real movement to identify with. The teachers felt the same as we did. Occasionally the riot police would raid the school for particular individuals. Some children just vanished. From then on, I knew about politics and, of course, when I went to UWC in 1979 - my brother, Johannes, was a student too - politics was all around you.

Keeping two students at university must have been tough for your family. Actually, given that your parents had never been to school it was pretty remarkable that you and your brother got there at all.

My parents were fanatical about education. Over and over again they drummed it into us that education was something that nobody could take away from you once you'd got it. Of course,

they couldn't help with our school work but they checked that we did it. We wouldn't have dared to fail at school - it would have been a family scandal. My parents made immense sacrifices for us: two lots of university fees meant just no money. We did what we could - we worked every vac, picking peaches or working in shops. When there were lecture boycotts at UWC in the early '80s we would be paying fees for nothing. My father would just make us come home and work to make money since we couldn't study anyway.

It sounds as if your family's Protestant ethic, deriving essentially from the DRC, was the real motor behind everything - your parents' immense sacrifices, your own efforts, perhaps even the Calvinist stress on individualism. Given that church's role under apartheid there's a certain irony to the fact that it turned out to be so positive for you.

Yes, but South Africa is full of ironies. I'm not a practising member of the church but I would acknowledge that my Calvinist heritage has helped me - helped me to study, for example.

Did your studies never suffer in this atmosphere of struggle?

We all sympathised with the struggle but I always felt that to allow my studies to suffer would be to betray my father's back-breaking work to get me through university. One of my brothers, Neals, who was a teacher, became a UDF activist and was told by the Education Department that he'd never be allowed to teach in South Africa again. He went to Namibia and became a Namibian citizen. He is Deputy-Director General of Higher Education there today. In 1994 the National Party, which had effectively driven him out of the country, wrote to him at our Mitchell's Plain house asking him to canvass for them in the election. We sent it on to him so that ho could share the joke.

How did you go to Venda?

After I did my Honours in Economics I was offered a job at the University there. What I didn't appreciate till I arrived was that they wanted me to set up an Economics Department from scratch. It was a staggering task and I relied a lot on my old UWC colleagues who helped with reading lists and so on. But it all worked out and Venda became home for nine years. I liked my students. Many of them were Communists or socialists and didn't agree with my liberal views at all but we always discussed things in a tolerant way. Actually, given the conservative social norms of Thohoyandou, the trickier thing was being a young woman giving adult education evening classes to men much older than me.

Had you come to your liberal views while at UWC? Didn't you get accused of being a sell-out?

Good grief, no. I've never sold anything out. My views at UWC evolved partly through the liberal influence of the international economics student association, AIESEC. But it was also a matter of political style. I can't abide coercion. If anyone wants work out of me they have to leave me be: I work twice as hard on my own. I am a free individual and tolerance is vital to me. But of course I was also developing liberal economic views which are central to my professional life.

What is your view of current economic policy?

It's not clear who exactly is in charge of macro-economic policy at the moment; so that management problem needs to be sorted out. Then, what's needed is a clear and fundamental economic plan with real substance in it, not just a wish-list. It's not so much that policy is wrong as that we need to get on with it. We've been hearing for ages now about the need to abolish exchange controls and to privatise, but in practice not much has happened.

Surely getting rid of exchange controls will require IMF support?

Yes, probably - but only as a temporary measure. But the point really is to be smart, decisive and innovative enough so that we don't end up dependent on the IMF or the World Bank, like the rest of Africa. We have to use our heads -and I think we have good human material in South Africa. But we can't go against the markets, and the problem there is one of credibility.

Isn't part of the problem that the sort of political posturing and personnel selection allegedly necessary to political credibility within the country are just the opposite from what is required to gain credibility internationally?

Unfortunately, yes - though it is quite absurd, when you look at their record, that the National Party should be seen as having any economic credibility. The fact is that we have to earn our credibility - and part of that has to do with acquiring and using real economic knowledge. Sadly, throughout Africa the level of economic sophistication among policy-makers is often dreadfully low. My real criticism of the World Bank is not so much their policies as that they often use people who are not knowledgeable of, or sensitive to, local conditions and they watch African governments sign onto deals which they don't understand. It's crucial that you do understand, that you do your homework, that you are actually a few jumps ahead of the people you're dealing with. That's what we have to aim for.

Are you optimistic about that?

I'm optimistic in general. It's exciting as an economist to be part of such a rapidly changing scene - and I see more domestic investment going on than is sometimes appreciated: that's a good sign. And I'm optimistic because of the amount of tolerance I see. So many people have a right to be bitter and angry about the past but actually more of them laugh at the old days now. If you can manage it, that's the right thing to do.

And what's ahead for you?

Well, I've been invited to Milan for a few months to do some work there - so I'm learning Italian. You can see why my Tshivenda is getting rusty!