James Joseph, U.S. envoy to South Africa during Mandela, dies at 87

James Joseph, a former civil rights activist who served as U.S. ambassador to South Africa while the country’s first Black leader, Nelson Mandela, sought Western help in rebuilding a battered economy and battling the AIDS crisis, died Feb. 17 at a hospital in Sarasota, Fla. He was 87.

The cause was complications from kidney disease and lymphoma, said his son, Jeffrey Joseph.

Mr. Joseph, who was raised in racially segregated Louisiana, served four White House administrations, from Presidents Jimmy Carter to George H.W. Bush. His ambassador nomination by President Bill Clinton in 1995 came at a critical time in South Africa.

The euphoria had faded somewhat from the 1994 election of Mandela, who had been imprisoned for 27 years under White-minority rule. When Mr. Joseph arrived in South Africa in January 1996, Mandela and his governing African National Congress were deep into the practical struggles of moving beyond the apartheid past.

Mr. Joseph was not the first Black U.S. ambassador to South Africa; Edward Perkins served from 1986 to 1989. Mr. Joseph, however, was part of a major diplomatic shift to acknowledge Black-led South Africa and its new role across Africa and the world.

“South Africa’s relationship with the rest of the continent is very much like [the U.S.] relationship with the rest of the world. We’re both dominant powers,” Mr. Joseph said after taking over the post.

Mr. Joseph was the main pipeline for Mandela’s appeals for greater U.S. investment and aid in Black townships and other areas neglected under apartheid. Mr. Joseph emerged as a prominent advocate for economic assistance but also cautioned that there were no quick fixes after so many years of inequity.

“South Africa had 300 years of social engineering,” he said shortly after leaving the ambassador post in November 1999. (Mandela’s presidency had ended that June.)

Mr. Joseph also was embroiled in sensitive diplomatic exchanges that temporarily put Mandela and the United States on opposite sides.

The Clinton administration strongly opposed a South African proposal to sell Syria laser-guided targeting and firing-system upgrades for the Soviet-made T-72 battle tanks in Damascus’s arsenal. South Africa put the arms-sale plan on hold in 1997.

The devastation of AIDS in South Africa — with one of the world’s highest rates in the 1990s — created a pitted battle with the United States and other Western countries. South African lawmakers backed a plan to allow the government to overlook patents on drugs, including treatments to fight HIV infection, and buy the medications cheaper through developing countries or produce them domestically.

Mr. Joseph was called on to apply front-line pressure from the White House. He wrote a letter to Mandela’s government noting U.S. opposition to “the notion of parallel imports of patented products anywhere in the world.”

A group of 39 drugmakers sued South Africa in 1998, claiming violation in international trade agreements. The suit was dropped in 2001.

Years later, in a speech in 2013, Mr. Joseph reflected on the contrasts of his role in South Africa: conveying U.S. policy while empathizing with Mandela’s “plea for a partnership between rich and poor nations rather than benevolent big brother dominance.”

“For Nelson Mandela, globalization had its limits,” Mr. Joseph continued, “but his reservations were not about the reality of economic interdependence, but about the way the game seemed to be rigged to favor the most competitive nations.”

James Alfred Joseph was born on the family farm in Plaisance, La., on March 12, 1935. He spent much of his boyhood in nearby Opelousas, a Ku Klux Klan stronghold.

While in high school, Mr. Joseph placed second in a national speechmaking competition. The winner was Barbara Jordan, who in 1972, as a Democrat from Texas, was elected to the House.

Mr. Joseph graduated in 1956 from Southern University in Baton Rouge with a degree in political science and social studies. He served two years in a military medical corps before enrolling in Yale Divinity School. He received a master’s degree in divinity from Yale in 1963 and, after graduation, was commissioned as an Army first lieutenant after completing reserve officers’ training.

Mr. Joseph took a teaching position at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and co-founded a local civil rights group that led protests and sit-ins during the height of the 1960s showdowns in the Deep South. He forged ties with civil rights leaders including the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Andrew Young, a future U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Atlanta mayor.

During the Carter administration, Mr. Joseph served as an Interior Department undersecretary. After the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, he worked on advisory groups on international development and historically Black colleges and universities.

After returning from South Africa, Mr. Joseph was among the directors of President George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light Foundation, which promotes volunteerism on various social and economic projects. In 1999, Mr. Joseph was awarded South Africa’s Order of Good Hope, the country’s highest bestowed to a noncitizen.

Mr. Joseph served on boards and foundations, including leading a group aiding Louisiana after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

His wife of 33 years, Doris Taylor Joseph, with whom he had two children, died in 1992. He married Mary Braxton in 1995. In addition to his wife, of Sarasota, and his son, of Arlington, Va., survivors include a daughter, Denise Joseph of Alexandria, Va., and two granddaughters.

After Mandela’s death in 2013, Mr. Joseph told The Washington Post that he was often humbled by the former president’s ability to publicly forgive those who jailed him and tormented him.

One event stood out for Mr. Joseph, an ordained minister who often referenced his civil rights battles and the racial injustices he faced growing up. He recalled Mandela signing South Africa’s new constitution in December 1996 at a ceremony in Sharpeville township, where South African police killed 69 Black protesters in 1960.

“Looking at the magnanimity of the spirit of the man and just thinking, ‘If he can forgive,’” Mr. Joseph said, “‘who am I not to forgive?’”

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