Did the Pan-African Dream Die With Apartheid?

After the initial euphoria, many African Americans got their hopes dashed.

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Not long ago, I wrote an article for the Paris-based magazine, Africa Report, about the broken ties between African Americans and Africans. I described how the two groups had worked in harmony to end apartheid in South Africa some two decades ago, which raised hopes for a pan-African future.

But, I wrote, "The momentum was not sustained. Perhaps that was because South Africa was unique: [Apartheid] was about racism, something to which African-Americans and their political allies could relate."

I went on to quote several African Americans who had been involved in that struggle, including Salih Booker, now head of Global Rights, a human rights advocacy group. Booker earned his anti-apartheid spurs demonstrating in the streets of Washington, D.C., calling for sanctions against the apartheid regime. Booker told me the connection between Africans and African Americans was at its lowest ebb, and was surprised by the lack of interest in Africa. Booker continued:

"It is ironic because now you would think at this moment in history, when all of Africa has finally achieved political independence and the rise of African Americans in terms of influence and power positions, you would think at this moment in history, pan-Africanism could be at its height. But it's just the opposite."

Some people who read the article agreed. Moeletsi Mbeki, deputy chairman of the South African Institute for African Affairs (and younger brother of South African president Thabo Mbeki) and Garth le Pere, of the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD), invited me to convene a group of African Americans and South Africans to see if my theory was correct, and if so, what , if anything, could or should be done about it.

More than a dozen South Africans and African Americans answered the call on a recent Saturday morning at the IGD. While they represented many different perspectives, they were unanimous on two things: There are some difficult challenges ahead, and it's in everybody's interest to try to meet them -- for all our sakes.

Some pointed out that this is not a new conversation; it's been ongoing since the end of colonialism, when Africans began journeying to America in significant numbers for education and business, and Americans began "going home," on romantic pilgrimages to Africa. The floodgates opened when, with the help of African Americans, apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela walked free.

But there was an irony to South Africa's new status, said Gayla Cook-Mohajane, an African American think tanker on political and economic issues, who has lived on the continent for more than two decades, including 18 years in South Africa. She argued that the emergence of a free South Africa -- the last country on the continent to be liberated – weakened the relationship. The glue that held the relationship together, she said, was the common oppression of blacks in the U.S. and in South Africa. "We were all oppressed and then South Africa got free and that was the end."

And, of course, there were tensions. African Americans such as Randall Robinson, who were in the forefront of the anti –apartheid movement in the U.S., were thrown overboard once Mandela was released and the end of apartheid loomed. Robinson and his organization, TransAfrica, had became synonymous with the fight against apartheid. But one participant recalled that since then some South Africans dismissed any claim to loyalty or financial assistance to Robinson with the sentiment: "That was then, this is now." .

Others pointed that after the initial euphoria, African-Americans, wanting to do business "in the Motherland" got their hopes dashed. "Post '94, people got bruised in the business space," said Michael Sudarkasa, Group CEO the Africa Business Group, a mixed, multi-national group that focuses on economic and development issues. "The African American business people wanted to do it themselves, and they didn't want to have South African partners."