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Out of South Africa

Road Map to the Top


Gish, left, with South Africa's Nelson Mandela















Out of South Africa

Steven Gish (WCAS85) turned an early interest in South Africa into a career of scholarship.

When Steven Gish (WCAS85) was a high school student in Davenport, Iowa, he applied to the American Field Service to spend a summer at one of three places — Australia, Italy or Japan. In a fateful decision the AFS instead sent him to South Africa.

Nowadays, Professor Gish can be found at Auburn University Montgomery in Alabama, where he teaches South African history. His book, Alfred B. Xuma: African, American, South African, published last year by New York University Press, focuses on the life and times of a South African doctor and political figure who coincidentally graduated from Northwestern's Medical School in 1926.

Fascinated for years by the South African doctor, Gish recounts the story of Xuma's journey to the United States and his determined quest to become a physician despite meager resources. Among the patrons who supported Xuma (M26) were many in the Methodist Church (with which Northwestern was then affiliated). Although Xuma realized his dream, it was never easy; he was one of only three blacks in his class.

After returning to South Africa, Xuma was drawn into politics by the government's increasingly harsh measures. He was originally conciliatory, but by the time Xuma became president of the African National Congress in the 1940s, he was committed to full citizenship for all South Africans.

For his research Gish at one point spoke with Nelson Mandela, president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, about Xuma's influence on the anti-apartheid movement. "Mandela was very eloquent about the way Xuma invigorated the cause both financially and structurally and about his talent to attract youths like Mandela himself into the political struggle," Gish says.

Gish was drawn to Africa early in his Northwestern experience. "The Africana Library definitely had an impact on me," he says. "Studying in the middle of so many books about Africa helped me to connect to my former South African experience."

Eventually Gish received a Richter Scholarship from Northwestern to study abroad and spent six months of his senior year in 1984 and the beginning of 1985 doing independent research in the country. While there he studied the relationship between the Methodist Church and apartheid. His visit was doubly valuable in that Gish was in South Africa at a volatile time.

"I watched apartheid unravel firsthand," he says. "Africans in urban neighborhoods were attacking all symbols of apartheid. I realized I had to strike a balance between keeping myself safe and visiting areas that were potentially dangerous, but being there at that time was like having a front-row seat to history."

After graduating from Northwestern, Gish earned his doctorate in 1994 from Stanford University, and it was there that he first began studying Xuma. He is planning to return this summer to South Africa to conduct research on the Robben Island prison, which held Mandela for 18 of his 27 years in jail.

Gish, who began teaching at AUM in 1997, acknowledges he was curious about the state of race relations in Montgomery, with its civil rights history, but he was pleasantly surprised by his students' lack of prejudice. "AUM is a fully integrated institution, and I really have been enriched by the racial diversity," he says. "I have both white and African American students who take my courses, and they are generally very open-minded about what I teach."

— Katie Konrath (J03)