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A Q&A with Expert David Welsh

By , | April 5, 2014

Smithsonian Journeys Program Manager Bonnie Loeb talks with Expert David Welsh.

Q: David, you have lived all your life in South Africa. What would you say has been the most significant change you have seen in recent years?

A: Clearly the most significant change I have lived through was the Great Transition from 1990-1994. Few of us expected F.W. de Klerk to break out of the laager in quite so dramatic a way. In fact, I had resigned myself to living in a siege society for another 10 years, with no assurance that it could be relatively peacefully ended. The transition itself was a roller-coaster ride: optimism one day, despondency the next! The country is still in a process of transition, which is fascinating to watch and to try to understand.

Q: How have you been personally involved in these changes?

A: I was a political scientist at the University of Cape Town for much of the apartheid era and a few years thereafter. It was a good vantage point from which to analyze what was going on. I would hope, with all due modesty, that some of my writing helped in a small way to delegitimize apartheid. No scholar, and certainly not one in my discipline, could sit in an ivory tower. I was involved in protests against racial discrimination and associated with anti-apartheid organizations. I also stood for Parliament in 1974—but lost! Which was fortunate as it turned out: I like studying politicians, but would hate to be one!

Q: You have led Smithsonian groups for many years. What are your impressions of Smithsonian travelers and why do you enjoy leading our tours?

A: My wife, Virginia van der Vliet, has long maintained that the people who travel on our Smithsonian tours are travelers, as distinct from tourists. The difference is subtle: tourists come to gawk, enjoy the scenery, and sample the delights of the country, whereas travelers share an interest in the countries we visit, read books about South Africa, and pepper the lecturers with questions at all times! We like this because it shows an interest and, often, a concern.

Q: Our tour to Southern Africa is packed with varied experiences. What are some of the highlights for you?

A: I am passionate about our country and our region so it is an invidious question to ask me to single out the highlights! As a native Capetonian I am bound to say that our city is the jewel in the crown—but judge for yourselves! The Rovos train is quite wonderful, especially if you are a train buff. Soweto is in many respects the hub of black South Africa. I guess that for sheer grandeur and magnificence the Victoria Falls is hard to beat! And the wildlife that you will see, especially in Botswana, but also on an off-train expedition, is undoubtedly a highlight.

Q: Do you have any advice to give to a first-time traveler to Southern Africa?


David Welsh

David Welsh is a Capetonian by birth and has lived all his life in South Africa. He studied at the Universities of Cape Town and Oxford, and was a professor of Southern African Studies at the University of Cape Town from 1963 until 1997, at which time he became a full-time writer. His major interest, both as a scholar and human rights activist, is the system of apartheid and how it ended. His hobbies include hiking, white-water rafting, and bird-watching. He is also keenly interested in conservation.

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