USAID’s Work with an Unsung Hero of the Fight Against Apartheid in South Africa: Dullah Omar
USAID worked intensively with the new South African government after the fall of apartheid in 1994. William Stacy Rhodes was at the heart of these efforts, serving as Mission Director from 1998-2002. He recalls working closely with Dullah Omar, Nelson Mandela’s lawyer in the darkest days of apartheid and the first Minister of Justice in the post-apartheid government. Rhodes calls Omar an “unsung hero” of the anti-apartheid movement — and credits Omar with ensuring that USAID assistance to the justice sector was both effective in impact and well-accepted by more radical leaders of the ascendant African National Congress. Rhodes grew up in Tucson and went on to receive his masters degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He served with the Peace Corps in Bolivia before beginning a career with USAID in 1977. His service also took him to Haiti, Morocco, Nepal and Guatemala. This interview was conducted by John Pielemeier, and began on December 7, 2016.
Read William Stacy Rhodes’s full oral history HERE.
“Dullah Omar was a very courageous guy, one of those unsung heroes you seldom read about.”
An unsung hero: Mandela’s former lawyer Dullah Omar: “One of the true heroes of the liberation struggle was a man who had been Mandela’s lawyer, Dullah Omar. I had the honor and pleasure of working with him a lot during my time there, as we built in assistance to the system of justice even further in 1998-2001 period. Dullah [who served as Minister of Justice in the first post-apartheid government] played a key role in making our assistance both well-accepted by radical ANC leaders and more effective in impact…Dullah Omar was a very courageous guy, one of those unsung heroes you seldom read about. He was an Indian-South African Muslim who had earned the close confidence of Mandela, and one of the ‘inner circle’ who believed the U.S. government had wholly changed in its policy, and understood that we were now willing to support the priorities of the Mandela regime, relying on the South African government to guide the assistance program, based on its own priorities.”
“… for the first time, USAID in South Africa was completely committed to working with the national government.”
USAID’s first major grant with the new South African government: “For the first time, USAID in South Africa was completely committed to working with the national government. The [U.S. Comprehensive] Anti-Apartheid Act prohibited assistance to the South African Government, though a modest exception was made in during the transition period allowing USAID to provide support to educational institutions which served black and ‘colored’ students, such as some higher education colleges and universities in the Cape Town and Johannesburg areas. But it was only after Mandela was inaugurated [on April 27, 1994] that direct financial assistance to the new government was authorized. One of the most positive and symbolic project ‘start-ups’, indeed the first major USAID grant signed directly with the government, was signed in Mandela’s residence in 1994 to strengthen the Ministry of Justice and to build new courts in the former ‘homeland’ areas.”
“Programs were developed in close collaboration with South African counterpart agencies.”
Help build public sector institutions in South Africa: “The focus of USAID assistance shifted dramatically towards institution-building. Programs were developed in close collaboration with South African counterpart agencies. The effort was intended to fully support the Mandela government’s initiatives and carry out institutional strengthening programs in key areas where the new government’s priority was to transform public services, whether it was in education or public health or agriculture or business and trade. It became a very large and broad-based bilateral program to build the capacity of the new public sector to address the needs of those who had been excluded for so long.”
Drafted by Neil Nabar