The Discomfort of African Americans in South Africa

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.


Vil-Nkomo said, "we must learn from U.S. programs like Upward Bound that help black children perform in school and get ready for university. We need a kind of GI bill for the liberation veterans. We need black think tanks. We must open up the top five South African universities to African-American professors. More South African students must attend black U.S. universities. We need the historically black colleges in the U.S. to participate with us—both in educating South African students and using their expertise in helping us educate South Africans here."

Julialynne Walker, who describes herself as an African-American repatriate, gave a history of the Coon Festival. "There were two inspirations for that," she said. "black American sailors—many of whom jumped ship to stay in South Africa starting just after the civil war—used to perform minstrel shows in South Africa. And Orpheus McAdoo, a former slave from Greensboro, N.C., brought a group he founded, the Virginia Jubilee Singers to South Africa in the 1880s—performing before black and white audiences initially."


McAdoo's group traveled through South Africa and is regarded as having profound influences on chorale music among the Zulus and the Xhosa peoples.

Hotep Idris-Galata, one of South Africa's noted jazz pianists and historians, left the country at the age of 21. "There are many areas in need of closer cooperation with African Americans," he said. "South Africa badly needs unionization here so that artists can protect their work with access to royalties. The Soweto Gospel Choir is owned by an Australian. We need African-American business investment in arts and culture here. Black South Africans produce a lot of content, but that is mostly owned by whites. We need the hip-hop artists and the Spike Lees to bring their investments and business models here."


Francis Kornegay, a Detroit native who moved to Johannesburg and married a South African almost 20 years ago, said it now seems inevitable that the people-to-people movement between the two countries would have died after the end of apartheid.

"Resistance to apartheid gave rise to a wide range of engagements," said Kornegay, who worked as a staffer on Capitol Hill—first for Michigan Rep. Charles Diggs and later for Congressman Walter Fauntroy, where he helped craft the financial sanctions bill. "There were linkages between churches, students, civil society," Kornegay added. "The post-apartheid situation radically changed that. There was a normalization of government and business relations and the anti-apartheid movement was marginalized."


There was a consensus that business relations between African Americans and black South Africans are the most distressing. Gabby Magamola is chairman of Thamanga investments, and the author of From Robben Island to Wall Street. After spending five years on Robben Island for his political opposition to apartheid, Magamola went on to become a Fulbright Scholar and spent many years in exile in the United States. "There is not really a culture of entrepreneurship among black South Africans, and that is where we really could use some help and collaborations," he says.

But many African Americans tell of tremendous difficulty in reaching out to black South Africans. Eugene Jackson describes himself as "the largest African-American investor in South Africa." Jackson earned his fortune in the United States in cell phone, radio and cable TV. "I had the American Dream," he says. "But I gave it all up for the African Dream. But the business relationship between African Americans and black South Africans is very bad. We don't know each other. We have a relationship problem."


Many South Africans acknowledge the estrangement but attribute it to a general black South African wariness to all foreigners who come to their country seeking their fortunes—which of course was what led to colonialism and apartheid. "This could be the single greatest, Promised Land on earth for African business people," Jackson continued. "If we talk together, we could take over this country from the whites who own the economy."

The new organization resolved to create committees in these core areas and move forward with implementing new forms of cooperation. Jackson and Magamola even agreed to consider forming a new South African African American Chamber of Commerce to facilitate greater business cooperation.


Kenneth Walker is an American journalist based in South Africa.

Become a fan of The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Share This Story