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Ruth Weiss and stories from southern Africa

Claus Stäcker / so
September 9, 2014

Ruth Weiss is a legend among African journalists. She has interviewed many African leaders including Nelson Mandela. Her work is now on display at the Jewish Museum in Cape Town.

Ruth Weiss sitting in a chair in a garden
Image: public domain

"My very first question …" Those were the words with which Ruth Weiss began numerous interviews. Music legend Miriam Makeba, Literature Nobel Prize laureate Nadine Gordimer – Ruth Weiss met them all. She went to school with Henry Kissinger in the German city of Fürth. She met Nelson Mandela over a bowl of soup in the 1960s and had a chat with Robert Mugabe in his garden.

"I met many of these future leaders when they were still part of the resistance struggle. That gave me the chance to build up a different kind of relationship with them - we were almost on first name terms. I was just lucky," says the 90-year-old.

Emigration to South Africa

In hindsight, it was also luck that Weiss' father lost his job in Germany just as the Nazis took power in 1933. Being Jewish, he was unable to find further employment. The family left Germany three years later and emigrated to South Africa's Cape of Good Hope. At the age of 12, Ruth became a South African citizen.

In South Africa's Jewish society, she met leftists and liberal intellectuals, including her husband, journalist Hans Weiss and writer Nadine Gordimer. While Gordimer discussed politics and literature with men, she only befriended the quiet, almost submissive Ruth much later. Weiss was once asked whether she and Gordimer ever discussed literature and or their own works. "Never," Weiss exclaimed. "It was a typical friendship between two women and it lasted for decades." Gordimer later realized how she had underestimated her shy friend.

Nadine Gordimer
Nobel Literature Prize laureate Nadine Gordimer was a close friend of Weiss.Image: picture alliance/Leemage

A writer and journalist in the making

In the meantime, Ruth Weiss published short stories and later went on to write novels, thrillers and children's books. While her husband Hans advised her against studying law, he allowed her to take up a career in journalism. Her first reporting trip took her to Tanzania or Tanganyika, as it was called at the time. "I didn't know what I was capable of," she remembers. "I was terrified and I had to read a lot to prepare myself for the trip. I had no clue about what was going on in Tanzania."

Nevertheless, Weiss excelled in her journalistic ambitions and she soon left her dominating husband. She became very critical of apartheid and soon found herself blacklisted by the regime. She worked for the Financial Times and other renowned papers and moved to Harare and Lusaka.

Mandela, Kissinger and Mugabe

She raised her son Sascha on her own. She often took Sascha along to interviews or events, like the arrival of a state visitor at the airport in Lusaka, who was greeted by President Kaunda with a canon salute. "I don't know what got into him," Weiss remembers. "He suddenly ran onto the airfield towards the canons. Kaunda saw him and sent his security personnel after him." The staff then brought him to Kaunda. "In Europe, this would have been such a fiasco," adds Weiss.

During her life, Weiss rubbed shoulders with several politicians. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently congratulated her on her 90th birthday. Weiss and Kissinger, who was born in Germany, attended the same school in the German city of Fürth. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate posted his greetings to his former schoolmate on Facebook. "I looked at my page a couple of days ago and found Kissinger's birthday wishes on it," says Weiss, who admits that she is not too familiar with the social media site. "'From one Fürther to another', it said. I found that very beautiful."

One age mate that Weiss is less fond of, however, is Robert Mugabe. She met him many years ago and befriended his first wife Sally. When Mugabe became Zimbabwe's first black prime minister in 1980, Ruth Weiss gathered with Mugabe's family and friends in their garden to congratulate him. "There was a great atmosphere and then Mugabe himself entered. He didn't even shake everybody's hand. He simply went into his room, alone."

Robert Mugabe
"He didn't even shake everybody's hands," recalls Weiss who waited for Mugabe in his garden after he was appointed prime minister.Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Until today, she believes that this memory was a striking example of Mugabe's personality. She describes him as a lonely, cunning character, with little charm or charisma. Even shortly after the country's independence, Mugabe created a climate of fear and terror in Zimbabwe. At the time Weiss was training young journalists who were too scared to report the truth about what was happening in the country. Weiss herself was unable to continue her work and left Zimbabwe.

Yet Weiss also remembers another anecdote from Zimbabwe. In 1990, a quite different man made an appearance in Harare. It was Nelson Mandela who had just been released from his 28-year-long imprisonment. The African National Congress' (ANC) exiled leadership had gathered at the airport to welcome the first participants of a new education program.

Cover of Ruth Weiss' book " A Path Through Hard Grass. A Journalist's Memories of Exile and Apartheid"
Weiss' biography "A Path Through Hard Grass" was published in 2014.

The leaders had pictured young, black party members, but instead two young, white ladies arrived. "There was an uneasy, icy silence. Then the door opened, Mandela entered and he sat down right between the two women. He looked at one, then at the other and then said in Afrikaans, ‘Welkom. Welkom na Simbabwe'. And that broke the ice," recalls Weiss and adds: "That was Mandela."

A lifetime of memories

The seasoned journalist can spend hours reciting the political anecdotes of her career. Despite her age, she still has vast knowledge of any contemporary African topic. Her life's work is now on display at the Jewish Museum in Cape Town and her biography has been compiled by the publishing house, Basler Afrika Biographien.

Weiss took a long time to make peace with her country of birth, Germany. In the 1970s, when she worked for Deutsche Welle, she experienced great difficulties amongst self-satisfied Germans, who did all they could to shut out Germany's Nazi past. In 2002, she finally moved back to the small German town of Lüdinghausen and in 2005, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Today, Weiss' books are on the reading list of many German schools and one school was even named after her. Weiss sets her hopes on the young generation, as she spends her time informing children and youths about discrimination, anti-semitism, nationalism and Apartheid. Her motivation? "It is important for young people to be able to speak to the people who witnessed all this. That is why I am prepared to take on this role, as long as I can."

She tries to do what is right, says Ruth Weiss. Just as she has done all her life.

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