This interview series explores global perceptions from accomplished writers, journalists, activists and seasoned travelers.
Gwen Lister is an award-winning journalist and activist based in Windhoek, Namibia. She has dedicated her life's work to fighting apartheid and defending human rights as the creator and editor of the Namibian.
Q: At 13-years-old you had a life changing experience which you call your “Rosa Parks moment,” when you gave your seat to an elderly black woman on a bus during apartheid in South Africa. In your TedX Windhoek talk you describe how this experience led you to consider “a broader social consciousness” and examine questions around what other whites were thinking or feeling that day on the bus that perpetrated their inaction, or their assaults. “Was it fear?” “Where they all bad people, or brainwashed?” “Or was it because of the way they see the world and choose not to get involved or ask questions that might cause them discomfort?” Today you’re an outspoken critic of the Trump administration on Twitter. When you reflect on the social consciousness of American citizens what do you see? How does it make you feel as someone who has dedicated their life, and risked their life, for human rights and freedom of the press to watch current events unfold?
A: In looking back and trying to analyse the past, I’ve come to the conclusion that white attitudes then were a consequence of a mixture of propaganda combined with fear. They were made to believe that the liberation movements were communist-inspired, would raise the ‘red flags’ over Pretoria and/or Windhoek if they ever came to power; also that they hated all white people. In addition to fear fuelled by propaganda I believe that in some ways they didn’t want to acknowledge the truth. It was convenient to live as they did with all their privilege.
Although I speak from a distance, Trump’s America is somewhat, but not entirely different. In the history of the world, there will be those majorities (sometimes minorities) who feel they’ve been neglected and left out. I think that’s the case with the mainly whites who supported Trump and he is seen as a ’saviour’ of sorts, come to reinforce all their prejudices. It’s very sad that, regardless of the truth, and especially with reference to his war on the media, his largely unthinking supporters fully agree, and will continue to do so, whatever he does. He’s seen to be taking on those things that they’ve learned to hate and detest, like big government and like the media.
Q: I found a spot on CNN featuring an interview with you and the history of The Namibian. You said, “When I look back it’s almost with a feeling of unreality that I lived through that.” What are some of the essential experiences that stayed with you from that time and inform the work you do now?
A: I’ve always been inspired by Margaret Meade’s quote to the effect that ‘never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed its the only thing that ever has’. I think I’ve come to a realisation that there is a sameness to people of whatever race, creed or colour, and that it is usually only a minority who are intent on doing the right thing. That ‘right thing’ will usually put those people in danger, because its mostly an unpopular approach to try and change the status quo. Although this may sound like a rather cynical worldview, I am nevertheless always buoyed up in the hopes that people will change, will see the light and will unite in a human-rights based approach to all things, acknowledging that it is prejudice of all kinds that bedevils human relationships.
Q: I am a passionate traveler and one of my goals is to explore new ways of writing about the world that help people feel less fearful, more curious and more connected in our humanity, -- truth in travel. I love how you describe a career in journalism to be, “Above all to try and make a difference. This requires a passionate and focused mindset.” If I traveled to Namibia today what would I discover about the people or the fabric of this nation? What myths could I dispel? What kind of story do you think could encourage connection?
A: You’d probably discover much what I’ve said above. Namibia in fighting for its independence was brave and people were prepared to pay the highest price and sacrifice for self-determination. Today unfortunately, feelings of entitlement have taken over, leading to a large amount of selfishness and greed and a very materialistic society. Yet the gap between rich and poor is greater than ever - the truly disadvantaged (black people) of today are the same as they were yesterday - it is just the elite who have largely changed colour. The nation is free now, in a sense, and the constitution accords most Namibians basic human rights. This in itself is a big improvement on the past, but it hasn’t meant as much to the truly disadvantaged who are robbed of access, through keeping them in poverty and largely speaking, ignorance..
Q: Last question. While researching you for this interview, I wasn’t able to find information about the places you’ve traveled in the world. Is there a particular country or culture that you have not experienced, but feel drawn too? If so, can you describe what you find compelling, and what you’d hope to learn from sharing a meal with someone who lives there?
A: I’ve traveled quite extensively in the past four decades. I’ve been impressed by the level of democracy and caring for people, in Sweden, for example, and Finland as well. I’m impressed by the fact the broad majority of people in that country have the basics. It's always what I wanted for Namibia. I was encouraged when I interviewed Sam Nujoma 30 years ago and he said that he wanted Namibia to be ‘the first success story in Africa’. That was precisely what I wanted too. I’ve been fascinated visiting the former Soviet countries, Kazakhstan, Ukraine among others. There are many similarities in our respective histories of being governed by outsiders and living in undemocratic societies. We, like them, were never fully prepared or practised for the transition to democracy, and especially there, it resulted in something of a free-for-all in terms of trying to get the good things in life (and I suppose there’s nothing inherently wrong with people wanting better) but it gave rise to a culture in which those hard fought for democratic rights weren’t as important as one may have hoped they would be in building more caring societies.
Follow Gwen on Twitter for her personal insights about Africa.