The Discomfort of African Americans in South Africa

Relations with black South Africans have sunk since the heady days of the anti-apartheid movement.

Participant in Cape Town Minstrel Festival. (Getty Images)

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA--Most African Americans who visit Cape Town around the New Year are initially shocked by what is traditionally known here as The Coon Festival--a weeklong reverie of parties and parades where mixed race or "colored" people dress up in costumes and blackface to perform minstrel shows.

The Coon Festival, more recently renamed the Minstrel Festival, has been an annual affair in Cape Town for over 150 years and may be the most public manifestation of an engagement between African Americans and black South Africans that goes back to the U.S. Civil War.

The interaction between the two groups has ebbed and flowed at critical moments in history, and recently, it has been near its nadir. But an esteemed group of South Africans and African Americans living in South Africa have joined to reclaim that history and to plot a way forward that will expand a frayed relationship.

The newly minted South African American Partnership Forum (SAAPF) held a recent day-long symposium at the University of Johannesburg to explore the history and future prospects of the relationship in the areas of education, arts and culture, business, the media and politics.

The symposium was part of a week-long series of activities called USA Week produced by Kennedy Khabo, a South African and American resident. Khabo also produces a South Africa Week in Washington, D.C., every September. The goal of both organizations is to increase the number of people-to-people contacts. There are an estimated 3,000 African Americans living in South Africa--which appears to have overtaken Ghana as African Americans' preferred point of return to the continent.

Moeletse Mbeki, a businessman and deputy chair of the South African Institute of International Affairs, kicked off the day with brief history of the relationships between South Africans and African Americans. "One could argue that without African Americans, the South African liberation struggle could not have been born when it did, or unfolded the way it did," said Mbeki, one of the founding organizers of SAAPF who is also the brother of ex-President Thabo Mbeki.

"Just before the turn of the 20th century, black South African Christians began to express a desire to control their own churches," Mbeki said. "So they reached out to the African Methodist Episcopal Church in America. They sent missionaries who proved much too radical for white South Africans and the British, who complained bitterly about them.

"When the Brits defeated the Boers in 1902," Mbeki continued, they formed a commission to investigate the effect of African-American radicalization on black South Africans. AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner was very much involved the formation of the leadership of the black liberation movement. It was the AME priests who brought the phrase 'Africa for the Africans' to South Africa."

Mbeki believes "there are huge opportunities that need to be exploited on both sides. The kind of cooperation we saw between the two peoples in the anti-apartheid struggle seems to have fallen by the wayside. SAAPF wants to revive this."

Dr. Sibusiso Vil-Nkomo, an official at the University of Pretoria, spoke of the need for much greater cooperation with African Americans on education issues in South Africa. Vil-Nkomo was one of about 8,000 black South Africans who studied in the United States in order to escape the apartheid system. He holds degrees from Lincoln University and the University of Delaware.