Athol Fugard is arguably South Africa's greatest ever dramatist. Through award-winning plays such as Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, "Master Harold" . . . and the Boys, and Boesman and Lena, his was an eloquent voice of opposition to the apartheid regime of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Now in his early seventies, Fugard is once again in the limelight. His one and only published novel, Tsotsi (the word is Soweto jargon for "gangster"), was adapted into a film last year. It has already been garlanded at several festivals; it was nominated for the top foreign award at last month's Baftas and then this month it took the ultimate accolade - the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. Based on Fugard's story of a young thug who questions his purpose in life after finding a baby in the back seat of a stolen car, the movie opens in Britain on 17 March.
These days Fugard, a liberal South African, lives part of the year in San Diego in southern California where he teaches, and the rest in his native country. This double life, as he puts it, suits him well. It also gives him the chance to observe two lands having to cope with grave social and ethnic issues. San Diego has huge numbers of Latinos, with Spanish virtually the first language. In South Africa, of course, apartheid is officially over. "Yet there is still concern among the Anglo-Saxon whites about what is happening, just as there is in southern California with the Mexicans and Spanish speakers," he says.
Broadly speaking, however, he is more optimistic than not about his homeland. "We are still trying to find ourselves in South Africa," he says. "Really, so little time has passed since those first elections which confirmed Nelson Mandela as president. We are still a fledgling democracy, but we are a democracy. We do have a free press, an independent judiciary and constitutional courts. And I'm also pleased to say that, unlike in America, those courts are not loaded with political appointees. So I have every reason to hope that South Africa will not enter the worst-case scenario which, sadly, has happened in other African countries."
He cites Uganda and Zimbabwe, where leaders whom the west thought would be reasonable have turned out very differently. In the case of South Africa's immediate neighbour to the north, the situation could hardly be worse. "There's been what I can only call an appeasement towards Robert Mugabe. Our government has really failed here. And it is not just President Mbeki. I fear that Mandela had a weak spot, too. What upsets me is that South Africa is supposed to set an example to the rest of Africa. We should also make sure that our message is heard in other African countries."
Fugard cites the corruption in some government circles in South Africa and the indictment on rape charges of the former deputy president Jacob Zuma, who had already been implicated in an arms scandal. He also despairs of Thabo Mbeki's "ludicrous" approach to Aids and the president's refusal to accept that the syndrome is linked to HIV. He is angry that Mbeki has taken such an unenlightened line on this disease, which has killed and will continue to kill millions of Southern Africans.
Fugard, whose play The Island is probably his biggest international success, would have preferred another man to succeed Mandela. "Mbeki is Mandela's Achilles heel," he explains, "but he wanted Mbeki. Mandela also was very old-fashioned and conservative, in the sense that he really believed and still does believe in that alliance of the African National Congress and the trades unions which gives the ruling party control and keeps it in power."
South Africans have, of course, fared pretty well over the past decade, not least because of their economy. "We've got the gold and that's helped hugely," notes the playwright. "We are also an industrialised country." And Fugard accepts that, unlike many other nations in Africa, South Africa has not put off overseas investors whether from the west or, now, from China and India. "We have become a country where foreign capital has arrived and ideas of capitalism are accepted - even embraced. I think the government realises only too well that if South Africa went the way of Mugabe, with land seizures and very high inflation, that foreign investment would disappear."
A decent economy has produced a new black middle class that is comfortably off. As it happens, one of the themes of Tsotsi, updated for the film from its original setting in the late 1950s to the South Africa of today, is the contrast and conflict between poor and well-off blacks. The car that Tsotsi hijacks belongs to a professional black couple who live in a gated community just a mile from the township. It is their baby he takes away with him and back to his home, before handing the child over to a woman to care for. Eventually guilt gets the better of him.
"So we have now this burgeoning black middle class," says Fugard, "but they are, not surprisingly, resented by the poor blacks. All the more so as they live almost side by side. And though some blacks have clearly fared well and moved into decent jobs and homes, more and more blacks are arriving in South Africa from other African countries. They are even walking thousands of miles from places as far away as Ghana to what they believe will be a land of milk and honey. Yet, sadly, they often don't get work. They become hawkers and thieves. Riots are common. So are murders."
Housing conditions have improved, but not as fast as Fugard would have hoped. "People are not being housed nearly quickly enough. And sad to say, but street children are as common now in South Africa as they were in the late 1950s. All the more disappointing as Mandela said he was going to make it the last job he did in his life to improve housing." Yet, the more educated the country becomes and the more contact there is between the young of all races, the more hope there is. "There are still pockets of apartheid. It comes from ignorance and fear. But what is encouraging is how blacks, whites and browns are mixing. The sports teams are integrated." Up to a point: at the top level in sports such as cricket and rugby, whites still dominate.
Fugard made his name as a white liberal writing about oppres-sed black people in South Africa. "I've always written about desperate people. Sadly they will always be with us. And one of the needs of an artist is to bear witness. And this is what I've done."
Fugard knows full well that much of his best writing was born of an oppressive regime. "Writers like myself, or Nadine Gordimer, or J M Coetzee, were empowered in the apartheid years. We were plugged into our anger. Anger, I repeat, not hate. You cannot see with hate. Oppressive regimes do have this way of producing great literature. The funny thing is that, the day after South Africa was liberated, I really did wonder if I was about to become the country's first redundant writer."
The remark is only part jest. Not that Fugard is really complaining, because he much prefers the free state of his native land today to the country he lived in under apartheid. He left South Africa in the late 1950s to try his hand at writing in London. Here he wrote Tsotsi, but the manuscript was mislaid and it was not published until 1980. He returned home after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, in which 69 young blacks peacefully protesting against the apartheid pass laws were gunned down by police. "I am not a politician," he says. "Never have been. But my writing has been what I have regarded as a valid form of action."