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."
He said despite the fact that many African Americans got help from black South Africans, "they were not experienced in cross–cultural joint ventures. And they also didn't understand the sophistication of the South African market."
For many of the African Americans, he said "this was their first international foray and they didn't have deep pockets." So 80 to 90 percent went home, he said.
Another participant pointed out that the eagerness to embrace was generally a one-way street. "Most Africans don't talk about the need to identify with African Americans," said a South African professor who was educated in the U.S. while in exile and has taught in both places. He argued that the place to start a renewal is with America's historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and South African institutions of higher learning.
Taking a page out of the theme now popular in both South African and American politics, it was agreed that change is needed, "a completely new approach," as Moeletsi Mbeki put it. In the time-honored way of dealing with complex issues, a Committee on Resurrection was formed that would recruit a broader range of participants, including more of the younger generation on both sides.
One participant also noted that the anti-apartheid movement was not limited to African Americans. Noted. Realpolitik called for reality check.
Moeletsi Mbeki argued passionately that Africans, who are among the "bottom billion" of the world's poorest citizens, need the U.S. and its people. Even South Africa, the economic engine of the continent, is not exempt, he said. Recent energy problems not only darkened our dinner parties but brought to a halt digging in the mines—the country's major income generator. Scientists predict more gloom and doom in the future, including layoffs in a country where more than 25 percent are unemployed. Unemployment is probably closer to 50 percent in the under-served and under-resourced black townships and even worse in its simmering informal settlements—a politically correct euphemism for slums..
And then, Moeletsi dropped this bomb: "…So the cocktail that exploded in Kenya is brewing in South Africa."
Mbeki's older brother, Thabo, would not agree, as he made clear during his State of the Nation speech on February 8. In the speech, President Mbeki apologized for the inconvenience caused by the massive power outages. This mea culpa followed an earlier acknowledgement by his government that they had essentially screwed up by not heeding the warnings of the experts who told the government ten years ago that a crisis was looming in the power sector. Still, Older Brother stood before well-turned out (couture-wise) members of Parliament and rejected the naysayers:
"You will ask whether I agree with this assessment, whether I, too, believe that we have entered an era of confusion in which all of us cannot but lose our way, unsure of our steps, unsteady on our feet, fearful of the future! My answer to this question is a definite 'No!' "
Well, skeptics abound. And, sorry to resort to an old cliché, but when appropriate, why not? Only time will tell.
Meanwhile, the Committee on Resurrection is meeting soon. In time, members will no doubt be reaching out to like-minded African Americans, hoping that they will answer when the call comes because they know why it's important—or are open to learn.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a regular contributor to The Root.