U.S. Blacks Find Chill in South Africa
NY Times, April 7, 1998

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Charles T. Moses, raised in New York City and once Gov. Mario Cuomo's adviser for black affairs, lives these days in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, eager to make a contribution to the new South Africa.

With a master's degree in business administration, Moses says, he has skills to offer a country that has too few educated blacks and which -- since voting in its first black government in 1994 -- has suffered a huge brain drain caused by fleeing whites.

But like many African-Americans who come here, some with an almost missionary zeal, he has not always been received with open arms by black South Africans. For Moses, a recent Op-Ed article in an influential Johannesburg newspaper suggesting that black Americans were taking jobs that would otherwise go to black South Africans was the last straw.

"While black South Africans say African-Americans leave something to be desired, some African-Americans can offer similar comments," Moses wrote in The Sunday Independent, which published the article to which he was responding. "Many of us have been lied to, misled and abused by our South African brothers and sisters, usually out of jealously and ignorance."

While President Clinton's recent trip to Africa was aimed at focusing the world's attention on this continent, many black Americans turned their attention here long ago and in recent years have come to South Africa in the hope of helping to build a prosperous black nation.

After Moses' article, South Africa's Oprah Winfrey, Felicia Mabuza-Suttle, devoted two one-hour programs to the subject of tensions between black South Africans and black Americans, putting a spotlight on difficulties that have largely, until recently, just been whispered about.

The South Africans on her show, an academic and two business executives, pulled no punches. The Americans, they said, were patronizing, socialized among themselves and believed they were owed something because of their efforts to support anti-apartheid boycotts.

One of the panelists was Makaziwe Mandela, President Nelson Mandela's daughter and an executive with the government-owned rail company.

Despite the public airing of tensions, the topic remains sensitive and South Africans and Americans are reluctant to be quoted on the subject. But one South African executive involved in helping American companies settle here said that at least one company she knows of has decided not to send African-Americans here anymore.

"A lot of the black Americans come here expecting to find their brothers and sisters," the executive said. "But they don't share a common language or culture or background. All they share is their black skin."

Moreover, she said, "a lot of South Africans see the black Americans as false affirmative action and there is some resentment for companies that do it."

The tension is particularly heartbreaking for Americans like Moses, who say they came here with the best of intentions.

"We are here to help if we can," he said. "We want them to succeed. It's a vicarious pleasure thing."

Though there are no accurate statistics, most experts estimate that about 1,000 black Americans are working here. Many have come as representatives of the 300 American companies that have established footholds here. But others come to work for nonprofit groups or as freelancers.

For many the experience is also a way of getting away from the difficulties of being black in America.

Junette Pinkney, a former producer for "The Phil Donahue Show" who came here six months ago to do freelance work, said that being in a country where most people are black has been wonderful.

"There is an enormous psychic relief," Ms. Pinkney said. "The American dream never got to be real for me and I'm one of the successful ones. Here, I feel there's the possibility of becoming truly part of this society, of being at home in a way that America will never be home."

Many black Americans do have positive experiences. And in many cases, their color is seen as an asset. One panelist on Mrs. Mabuza-Suttle's program acknowledged that despite his anger at African-Americans he would still rather do business with them than with American whites -- who are also seen as aggressive and insensitive.

But the panelist, Peter Luvuyo Ntshona, an executive for Iscor, a major steel producer, said that many black Americans came here with an offensive attitude.



"There is always a paternalism, a sense that we can show you the way," he said. "Now we have a nation and we want them to treat us with dignity, respect and equality."

Too often, he said, the Americans talk about making a sacrifice by coming to what they call a developing country. Ntshona calls that ludicrous, since most of them live in the fanciest white neighborhoods and have maids and pools.

"They have a wonderful life here," he said. "They are not suffering."

One problem, say some Americans who have been here many years, is that after the 1994 election African-Americans came to South Africa eager to do business. Four years later, many of the projects they touted have not materialized.

"When they didn't happen, people got disappointed and they said African-Americans are all talk," said Julia Wilson, an African-American who moved here in 1994 and started a business, Wilson Global Marketing. One of the services she offers is telling American companies how to behave if they want to succeed.

Mzimkulu Malunga, an editor at The Financial Mail, a weekly business magazine, says black Americans are seen as wanting black South African partners to pave their way into the market here, only to dump them later. White Americans, said Malunga, might do the same thing. "But at least they don't come here claiming they are home."

The bond that many black Americans feel with Africa is a source of tension. Ms. Wilson said recently she found herself sitting with a group of South African friends watching a black American entertainer performing in South Africa. The South Africans began betting on exactly when the entertainer would get tears in her eyes and say, "Oh, I'm home, I'm home."

Ms. Wilson says she started to laugh.

"I could see how to them it looks so strange," Ms. Wilson said. "They say: 'But you have no family here. You have nobody waiting for you here. You know nothing about the culture. What are you talking about?' But the Americans are serious. They really do feel like they are home."

Ms. Wilson says that being black can be an asset if you are willing to listen and learn. But she has seen some Americans leave totally crushed. One friend she said cut his two-year contract short after 9 months. "He was practically in tears," Ms. Wilson said. "He said, 'If a black man cannot be accepted here, where can he go?' "

One especially sensitive point of contention is just how much credit the Americans deserve for bringing apartheid to an end. Mrs. Mabuza-Suttle interspersed her television program with taped interviews with some prominent black Americans, including one with the Rev. Leon Sullivan, who described with obvious pride his role in combating apartheid.

Sullivan devised a set of principles in 1977 for American companies doing business in South Africa; in 1987 he called for corporate withdrawal and disinvestment.

When the tape had finished, a clearly agitated Ms. Mandela said she wanted to make it clear that it was not Americans who were responsible for the end of apartheid, but the children of Soweto who had died in countless demonstrations. The audience, made up largely of South Africans, cheered.

Another criticism of Americans is that while they may be here now, they have no real stake in the success of the country. On Mrs. Mabuza-Suttle's show, Dr. William Makgoba, a professor at Witwatersrand University, argued that Americans needed to leave South Africans alone to decide the future of the country because the South Africans were there for the long haul.

But many of the Americans say that the success of the new South Africa is actually a long-term commitment for them too.

"Where is the hope for us in America?" Moses said. "We will never be in charge. We will always be 10 percent. We will always be fighting to keep some cop from shooting us in the back. But here it's worth the battle. You can win this here."