University of Delaware
Office of Public Relations
The Messenger
Vol. 5, No. 4/1996
South African alumni help restructure nation after apartheid

     Earlier this year, Renosi Mokate, Delaware '83M, '86PhD,
looked out the window of her comfortable, South African home and
caught her breath. There on the lawn were her daughter,
Reitumetse, and son, Mandisi, running and playing with their
friends-black, white, Indian.
     Inside, she and her husband, Sibusiso Vil-Nkomo, Delaware
'83M, '85PhD, were preparing for a trip to Robben Island, the
"Alcatraz" of Africa, where South African President Nelson
Mandela once had been imprisoned for almost two decades.
     It was as if Mokate were standing still for the first time
in four busy, complex years, realizing anew the  immensity of the
projects she and Vil-Nkomo had been involved in as they worked
toward the birth of a new nation-the restructuring of South
     There were all these children, free to form friendships with
anyone at all-a privilege never available to their parents, who
were raised under apartheid.
     Defeating that system, which sent Vil-Nkomo into exile in
1976, and replacing it with a government that ensures equality
for all had been the couple's dream since they met at Lincoln
University, near Oxford, Pa., in the late 1970s.
     The hard work of turning that dream into reality has been
their mission since they were allowed to return to South Africa
in 1992. When the two speak of their accomplishments, they do so
in terms of what their efforts have meant to their country, not
as personal achievements.
     Mokate, as the chief executive officer of South Africa's
first Independent Electoral Commission, structured the first
democratic election in a country where 90 percent of the people
had historically been denied the right to vote.
     Vil-Nkomo hammered out civil service provisions in the
interim constitution of the new government, and he continues to
create and administer a new, integrated civil service in a county
where people of color previously were denied a role in government

     A long way from the '70s
     In June 1976, a revolt by students in Soweto against
apartheid spread throughout South Africa. Many of those students,
including Vil-Nkomo, found their lives in danger.
     "I left the country then, without any passport, without any
documents, by way of the underground. It was dangerous. There
were many soldiers on patrol; that had been going on since the
'60s. A number of people in my family were involved in the
struggle. It was hard to leave my mother and sister, but they
were very conscious of what was going on," he recalls.
     After spending some time in Botswana, the Phelps Fund
offered Vil-Nkomo a scholarship to study in the U.S. At 22, he
found his way to Lincoln University to pursue a bachelor's
     Meantime, Mokate was finishing high school and working,
trying to get into college. Because she had gone to high school
in Swaziland, she had a hard time getting admitted to a South
African university.
     "It was punishment for not staying in the country for high
school. They said I could not be admitted because I had not
studied Afrikaans [language]," she recalls.
     Finally, an uncle, who had left South Africa for Zambia, was
able to get her a scholarship to Lincoln University, where she
and Vil-Nkomo met.

     The '80s: Life in the U.S.A.
     After completing their bachelor's degrees, the two enrolled
in graduate school at UD, choosing majors that would most benefit
their native country. They earned both master's and doctoral
degrees from the College of Urban Affairs and Public Policy, with
the dream of some day returning to South Africa and making a
     "Sometimes, I would get discouraged and be convinced I would
never see South Africa again," Vil-Nkomo says. "But, most of the
time, we were hopeful. We tailored our studies at the University
so that if the day came and we could go back, we could use our
knowledge appropriately."
     While in graduate school, the couple taught at Lincoln, Vil-
Nkomo in political science and Mokate in economics. Both
eventually became department heads. Their two children were born
in the U.S.

     The '90s: A time of hope and change
     Like all South Africans, Mokate and Vil-Nkomo saw their
lives begin to change with Mandela's release from prison in 1991.
     They met him on his second official tour of the U.S. that
year, and he encouraged them to come back to South Africa and be
part of the work of building a new nation.
      Mokate arranged to visit family and friends in South Africa
later that year, taking their children along. Vil-Nkomo, still
officially listed as a criminal, remained in exile. Because
Mokate had intentionally kept her maiden name, there was no legal
record of her marriage that would have prevented her return.
     "I went back to see if I could set things up for all of us
to return," she says. "I went looking for jobs for both of us.  I
was assessing the situation, the politics, the security. The
South African government was still in power.
     "Eventually, people who were already involved in the
negotiations for a new government were able to get a passport for
Sibusiso," she says.
     Their dream was beginning to come true.

     Hitting the ground running
     "When I was away from South Africa, I made it my goal that,
should I be able to return, I would help prepare individuals to
go into government, to be part of the process of training people
for the future civil service," Vil-Nkomo says. "Neither of us
could go back and sit peacefully and observe. We both hit the
ground running."
     "We knew there was no way we could go back and be quiet. We
knew that whatever we chose to do, it would be in the context of
what was going on," Mokate adds.
     Originally, Mokate joined the staff of the Development Bank
of South Africa as a policy analyst.
     "With changes coming, the bank had to rethink what its role
should be. Almost as soon as I got there, I became involved with
a housing policy paper to which the bank had to respond. I was
working on it before I even knew where the coffee was!
     "In 1993, things started to snowball as we saw what sort of
political system would emerge and studied the fiscal
     A month later, the Commission for the Democratization of
Federal States was formed to define the geographic boundaries of
South African states, and Mokate was appointed its administrative
research coordinator. She worked seven days a week, lending
research and technical support to the commission.
     "No sooner was that job finished than the electoral process
started," Mokate says. As chief executive officer of the
Independent Electoral Commission, she had a mere four months to
structure and manage the country's first democratic election.
     "During the three-year period of negotiations, the deadlines
were incredible. There was such a sense of urgency," she says.
"To be involved, you had to push yourself. Who wants to be the
one to keep the constitution of a country from being completed?"
     When the historic election day-April 26, 1994- came roaring
in, Mokate's only memory is of counting votesand countingand
counting some more.
     Vil-Nkomo, on the other hand, had the privilege of taking
his 77-year-old mother to vote for the first time in her life.
     "I picked her up near Johannesburg and took her to a place
that was formerly a 'No Go' [white only] area in Pretoria. It was
voting day for senior citizens. There were many white voters at
the polls, and it was very moving to see my mother vote for the
first time," he says.
     When he first returned to South Africa, Vil-Nkomo taught at
the University of Witwaterstrand, directing a graduate program in
public policy.
     "I went back thinking I would take one role-preparing people
for public service. Six months later, I was asked to head a think
tank on public/civil service.  We were charged with writing a
brief, to study the existing civil service and find ways to
restructure it. It was interesting because, as blacks, none of us
had been able to be part of the civil service before."
     At the same time, in something he refers to as "a shocking
privilege," he was asked to represent the African National
Congress, the country's largest political party, in bilateral
negotiations with the outgoing government of F.W. de Klerk on the
issue of civil service-to actually hammer out a portion of the
country's new interim constitution.
     "We wanted to enshrine the public service concept and its
availability to all in the constitution," he says. "We were
working under tight deadlines and, until the end, we weren't sure
we'd have closure by the time of the negotiations."
     Mandela then appointed Vil-Nkomo to the public service
commission charged with implementation: "The job of taking what
we had put in the constitution and making it real," he says.
     After the elections, Mokate joined the faculty at the
University of Pretoria, where she is professor of economics and
director of the Center for Reconstruction and Development, which
provides training and technical assistance to local and
provincial governments and supports rural development.
     The family maintains a residence in Pretoria and Cape Town,
with Vil-Nkomo shuttling back and forth between the two. The
children go to a public-and formerly all-white-school.

     And the future?
     "The value of the kind of change that has occurred in South
Africa is the lesson it holds for future generations and for
other nations: That conflict can be resolved peacefully through
negotiations instead of through civil strife. There are ways to
resolve conflict, no matter how old the conflict is," Vil-Nkomo
     "For me, as an individual, it is very gratifying to be able
to be right in the middle of the creation of a new nation. It has
been a wonderful opportunity. The sacrifices we all made, going
into exile and giving up our families and South Africa-all of
that is overshadowed by the fact that now we are involved in
something concrete, building a new society," he says.
     "It is also gratifying to know that perceptions we had about
whites and that whites had about blacks are dropping very fast as
we all work together," he says. "We are both saying, 'We should
have done this years ago.' There are still major challenges and
much work to be done. But, as we place major emphasis on human
relations and draw closer, it's hard to believe things were so
polarized for so long."
     "As South Africa moves back into the global arena," Mokate
says, "my children will have an opportunity to live in a dynamic
country where they can learn things that will equip them well. I
hope the change will open doors for them."
                                             -Beth Thomas