Meet Our Faculty: Elke Zuern

Edited and condensed by David Hollander MFA '97

Politics faculty member Elke Zuern recently published The Politics of Necessity (University of Wisconsin, 2011), which explores the persistent inequalities in post-apartheid South Africa. Zuern interviewed hundreds of local residents and activists over the last decade, and argues that protests and demonstrations are important not only for the material demands they make, but because they highlight the inequalities that persist even in democratic states.

SLC: How did you get interested in South Africa?
EZ: When I was in graduate school in 1994, I got a grant to go to South Africa right after Nelson Mandela’s election. After spending a few months there, I was so amazed at the contributions that ordinary people had made to the new post-apartheid system and the hopes they had for it.

SLC: What were you doing there?
EZ: The first time I went, I was working for the Wits-Vaal Regional Peace Secretariat, part of a national institution established to try to mitigate violence at public demonstrations in the run-up to the elections. My job was to interview people who had been peace monitors. The monitors would literally stand between the opposing sides, wearing these orange bibs, and try to discourage passions from flaring—and at times, to stop violence or negotiate the release of bodies after violence had flared. Their jobs were so dangerous they drove around in armored tanks called Doves—the insignia of the peace secretariat was this blue dove.

SLC: How did the peace monitors influence your work?
EZ: All the people I interviewed had these moments of incredible fear, but nonetheless, they felt that what they were doing was so important that they had to jump into the midst of violent situations. You read about Nelson Mandela and other leaders on both sides, but I never fully realized how many ordinary people had played such a significant role and taken such risks, and I was really struck by that.

SLC: When did you arrive at the idea you call “the politics of necessity”?
EZ: Different people repeatedly told me over the years that the reason they were protesting in the streets was because they didn’t have the basic things they needed to survive. They would talk about being almost “forced” into activism. I actually had a pretty big disagreement with my publisher about the title of my book, because they wanted to make it “The Politics of Need.” And I said, “You’re missing the whole point. People are not needy; this connotes disempowerment. They are demanding basic necessities, which are their rights, and by demonstrating and protesting they have empowered themselves.” Then the publisher was really excited about the title.