Drs. Allan and Elna Boesak have led lives of significant impact. Dr. Allan Boesak is a world-renowned scholar, theologian, and tireless advocate for social justice. Dr. Elna Boesak is a widely respected radio and television journalist turned academic and political activist. Allan and Elna spent the Spring 2018 semester at Illinois as George A. Miller Visiting Professors and Scholars with the Center for Advanced Study and Illinois International Programs. Together they spoke with Illinois International Communications about their history, media ethics, and mobilizing for change in an increasingly interconnected world.
Can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself?
Allan: I’m a preacher by trade. I come from the large Dutch Reformed family in South Africa. That’s the denomination of the church that was established when the Dutch first came to South Africa in 1652 and colonized the country. We can’t go too deep into that right now but the so-called “mission policy” that the white Dutch Reformed Church developed became the blueprint for the political policy of apartheid. By 1976, when the youth of Silverton rose up against the apartheid system, I had just returned from getting my Ph.D. in the Netherlands. Two weeks after my return I was asked to make a speech at the local university and the rest is history. Thirty years later, I found myself in the transition from apartheid into a democracy working with Nelson Mandela very closely in that process. But I must say, preaching is in my heart and I wouldn't be able to live without it.
Elna: I was born in South Africa at a time when we were still caught in the apartheid era. I was born into an Africana family that was part of the privileged, controlling force in South Africa. But at a very young age I asked a question, “Why?” By the time I was about eighteen, I understood that what makes us human is that we communicate. I recognized that there were so many stories that were being left untold. So, I decided to become part of the media as a journalist, a presenter, and a producer. It was a decision to use my privilege and every aspect of my privilege as a platform to facilitate the unheard voices.
Both of you have led very public lives and provided a platform to encourage conversation. Can you talk a little bit about the media and what your experience has taught you about media ethics?
Elna: Communication is everything. In the digital age, we are highly connected, 24/7, and I think that many people did not see it coming. The silos have been broken down and you can send messages that carry values, world views, and attitudes. So, the ethics of communication becomes very important. What I'm concerned about is making sure that people do not ignore the media. Rather that they understand it has an incredibly important societal influence and that it is simultaneously individual, societal, and institutional. When we interact with content, we need to ask ourselves, who created this content? What are their values? I think it is extremely important to not look at anything in isolation.
Allan: At the heart of any type of communication are people and their hope, resilience, courage, strength, and their power to change things. Looking at the communication tools we have today, we need to help to make those connections real, meaningful, and effective.
What are some strategies that students, administrators or academics can employ to create a more conducive environment for action?
Allan: Education is at the center. Within education, we must discover, highlight, and contextualize alternative narratives over the existing dominant narratives. Not just in the media and television but in the writings of people, the books that people read. Traditionally, only one perspective has been shown so it is important to have more than one interpretation or one presentation of that history. Many people have also become so cynical and angry that they say, “Let’s not even talk about it.” I don't think that's right. I ask, “How can we salvage the situation” because reconciliation is the only way forward.
Elna: What is a university about? Education and knowledge. In that sense I think universities, offer the potential of understanding the challenge of empathy, but there is also resistance to changing systems of knowledge. I think the key is, and it relates to what Allan is saying, is to break the fragmentation of resistance and solidarity. It’s about mobilization and reaching beyond one’s own interests, beyond fragmentation. And I think that excites me, maybe I'm just an optimistic person, but the key is education.
Allan: We want to continue creating transnational conversations, that is why the past semester at Illinois has been so great. We were able to start new conversations and bring ideas from South Africa to the U.S. and also are now able to take those ideas and experiences back as well. People learn a lot from very good analytical articles and so forth. But there is really nothing like that face to face conversation.
About the George A. Miller Visiting Professors and Scholars Program
George A. Miller Visiting Professors and Scholars are women and men of outstanding achievement in academic or public life who join our campus to participate in scholarly, professional or creative programs. These visitors might teach a special course, participate in ongoing or self-initiated research activities, interact informally with students and faculty, or take part in interdisciplinary seminars. Residencies may be for as long as a semester or an entire academic year; however, in view of the crowded schedules of many visitors, they are often arranged for shorter periods.