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TransAfrica explores new challenges.

A single act can alter history. In February 1990, African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson R. Mandela was released to tumultuous worldwide celebration. Six years earlier, an act of civil disobedience created the momentum to set him free.

That was when the leadership of TransAfrica, the African-American lobby for Africa and the Caribbean, galvanized the worldwide anti-apartheid movement. After meeting with South Africa's ambassador to the United States, TransAfrica Executive Director Randall Robinson, former U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Mary Frances Berry and former Washington, D.C., delegate Walter E. Fauntroy refused to leave the embassy until Mandela was freed and apartheid dismantled. They were the first of more than 5,000 people to be arrested for peacefully protesting apartheid during the next two years. In 1986, The U.S. Senate overrode President Reagan's veto to impose sanctions on South Africa and an inexorable political and economic throttling of the racist regime. This decision culminated in Mandela's release and his triumphant world tour.

That was then. This is now. Mandela still cannot vote and apartheid is not dead. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the democratically elected president of Haiti, is in forced exile, and Haitian refugees are refused entry to America. The U.S. State Department ignores African states that have embraced democracy years ago, but lavishes attention on European countries that only recently renounced communism. The solution: educate the American foreign-policy establishment and increase the pressure on Congress to take African-American interests seriously.

TransAfrica, now 15 years old, is creating battle plans to gain visibility, influence and respect on behalf of African-American positions on U.S. foreign policy. TransAfrica's Randall Robinson, 51, a softspoken, six-foot, five-inch Virginia Union University and Harvard Law graduate, believes it will take dogged persistence to affect change - but, he'll consider whatever nonviolent tactic necessary to get the job done.

In an exclusive interview, Robinson spoke to BLACK ENTERPRISE about the impact of black America on foreign policy, the creation of political and economic links throughout the black diaspora and how TransAfrica plans to transform itself in the 1990s into a foreign-policy institution that will ensure the black concerns on U.S. foreign policy are not taken for granted.

BLACK ENTERPRISE: In the 1990s, how is TransAfrica transforming itself?

Randall Robinson: TransAfrica and TransAfrica Forum are separate organizations. TransAfrica, which is 15 years old, lobbies Congress and the administration with nontax exempt contributions. TransAfrica Forum, which was formed in 1981, has tax-exempt status and provides the educational focus without which TransAfrica could not do its job. The boards of the respective organizations are interlocked.

BE: Since 1977, TransAfrica has been a leader in the U.S. anti-apartheid movement. Now, apartheid is dying, if not dead. What do you forsee as TransAfrica's role during this decade?

Robinson: TransAfrica is a foreign-policy education advocacy organization. We are, of course, interested in all aspects of American policy that have consequences for Africa and the Caribbean.

While we have received more attention for our activities regarding South Africa than anything else, we divide out time fairly evenly over a range of issues that concern the Caribbean and Africa. We have testified before the appropriations and the foreign-affairs committees in the House and the Senate and the subcommittees on Africa. We have asked for more aid overall to Africa and for less aid to countries with human rights problems and more aid to countries that are moving toward democracy. We have pushed for a cutoff of aid to Liberia, Zaire, Kenya and Malawi.

We are concerned that now, at the end of the Cold War, for the first time foreign policy toward Africa will not be driven by strategic concerns. The aid was never altruistic. Now it is being rethought. We have to fight to keep the United States engaged and supporting democracy in Africa just as we support Russia and the former Soviet republics.

In the Caribbean, we are extremely concerned with the situation in Haiti. We support the restoration of Haiti to a democratic form of government. We are pressing for debt relief in the Caribbean. With the exception of Haiti, and of course the episode in Grenada, the Caribbean has been steadfastly democratic for a long time. We should appreciate those traditions and give support.

BE: Most African-Americans couldn't care less about foreign policy. Domestic concerns rule their lives. How can TransAfrica change this viewpoint?

Robinson: Most Americans are less concerned about foreign than domestic policy. It is not just African-Americans. You don't change policy under the presumption that you must have a majority opinion on your side. In the final analysis, you need to organize a critical mass of people, which is not necessarily the majority of the black community. The majority of the American people could not name one foreign country other than Mexico or Canada. This is not peculiar to black Americans. The issue is how well organized we are at a certain level and how vigorously we can apply pressure on the administration and the Congress to create the foreign policy we want.

BE: TransAfrica has successfully destroyed the arguments of apartheid's supporters point by point. Foreign-policy issues are more nebulous. How do you make them attractive to potential constituents?

Robinson: You have to appeal to African-Americans and all Americans on a range of levels. African-Americans ought to care about Africa and the Caribbean because we are much stronger together than separate.

Our potential as black people is to harness our power globally. Then our [African-American] business communities will trade with those [African and Caribbean] communities, invest in those communities, and we will all be healthier for it. But beyond that, we should care about the black world because it is the right thing to do. If we love ourselves, we love Africa and the Caribbean. We are indissolubly joined. We must work on these issues vigorously even if practical, measurable results may not be on the horizon. Furthermore, as Americans, we are responsible and accountable for the kind of foreign policy that affects much of the rest of the world. Those people that make policy represent us all to the rest of the world.

BE: What are the five major problems facing Africa through the rest of the 1990s and into the 21st century. How will TransAfrica address them?

Robinson: Most of Africa's problems are economic at base. You can't have a stable democracy without productivity, high rates of employment, education and literacy. So, economics and politics are joined to one another. Political instability is always more prevalent in places characterized by economic fragility.

Africa needs regional integration to increase its value of trade overall. We also have to make sure there is not a costly [to Africa], significant and painful disengagement of western economies from Africa.

There are many African governments which, of their own volition, are engaged in some sort of democratization. More than 20 African states are trying to democratize in the midst of a global recession. African economies are not doing terribly well. If we care about democracy, we have to make sure that America is just as generous to Africa as it is to the former communist states. We have to make sure that American politicians are sensitive and appreciate these constructive changes.

BE: TransAfrica has been a leader in the Free South Africa Movement (FSM). What do you think of the view, held by many, that apartheid is dead and sanctions should be lifted?

Robinson: [The eradication of apartheid] is more promise thus far than performance. While certain apartheid laws have been repealed, the structure of the apartheid system is still very much in place and celebrations of its demise are quite premature. There are still 28 million black South Africans who have no political rights.

BE: Isn't it futile to try to maintain sanctions when much of the business community and states and municipalities are repealing them?

Robinson: First, most of the state and local restrictions are still in place. Once [the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups and the South African government] reach an agreement on the structure of an interim government and that government is in place, then, only then, will it be the appropriate time to lift sanctions. One does not fight these battles only if one is winning at a dramatic clip.

BE: In recent years, there have been several attempts to create a nonprofit educational, cultural and political organization focusing on Africa, the way the Asia Society focuses on that part of the world. What is the value and necessity of this type of organization?

Robinson: One of the reasons we have such a misguided American policy regarding Africa is that we have an abysmal ignorance of Africa. But not just Africa, but virtually about anything beyond our shores. The consequence is that you can't make thoughtful policy.

The first floor of the building we are buying for our headquarters will be used as library and a resource. It will be the country's major repository of foreign-policy material on Africa and the Caribbean, accessible to the general public.

BE: Environmental pollution, overpopulation and international trade issues impact upon the Caribbean and Africa but do not have the visual and visceral impact apartheid did. How will TransAfrica focus attention on such issues and mobilize people?

Robinson: It's a big challenge. Obviously, the apartheid issue was easier for Americans to understand given our own racial problems and history. The challenge is to crystallize the other issues in such a way that people can mobilize around them and understand. Part of our task is to imaginatively cause the media to provide better coverage of issues that affect black people.

BE: In the 1990s, what are the skills TransAfrica must hone and the tactics it must discard to be an effective lobby?

Robinson: I don't think we are in position to drop any tactics. You tailor the tactics to the task. For instance, I wouldn't toss out civil disobedience. Our tactics range from training black student to pass the foreign-service examination to demonstrating outside the South Africa embassy. At the same time, we need to be able to apply pressure outside the system. All of the tactics produce situations of political consequence or reward for policy makers who have to make up their mind. We live in a political society of competing pressures.

BE: Is there any lobby that you think provides an effective example for TransAfrica?

Robinson: Ironically, There are a lot of lobbies whose direct policy one may disagree with. One such lobby is the National Rifle Association, but it is well-funded and can vigorously push against the grain for its own interest. We have to learn the methodologies to fight and protect our interest. We have to acquire all the muscle we need from the horn of Africa to West Africa to the smaller nations of the Eastern Caribbean to blacks in Brazil. We have to make sure that no policy is made that affects our people that we have not effectively weighed.

BE: Business development is key to African and Caribbean economic growth. What specific initiatives does TransAfrica intend to undertake to enhance this growth?

Robinson: We think that U.S. bilateral policy should play a much larger role in providing aid. The United States. gives about 12% to 13% of its aid to Africa. The percentage of aid given from most of the developed countries is much, much larger. In the multilateral aid organizations, the United States has a disproportionate influence on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The United States needs to apply more pressure to ensure money is available for infrastructural change. The United States should reward African states which are democratizing and rooting out corruption.

BE: What role can African-American businesspeople and professionals play in the new South Africa? Should they be there at all?

Robinson: Last year, the idea of the South African-American business council came out of meetings with the ANC (See BE Exclusive, "Mandela's Mission," February 1992). The idea was to promote an exchange of information and hold structural discussions with black businessmen in South Africa that would hopefully lead to the participation of African-American businesspeople.

BE: How does TransAfrica plan to link African-American and African businesspeople?

Robinson: No people is stronger than its business sector. [Americans] have to understand the fruits of partnership whether it is between public and the private sector or between the African-American business community and that of Africa or the Caribbean. When all of us are working together we have to get stronger.

BE: What is TransAfrica doing in the Caribbean?

Robinson: We've got to pay more attention to the Caribbean. Most Americans see it as a string of island and beach resorts. They don't really see governments and economies. But we must remember that democracy does not work in desperate economic conditions, and these middle-income stable countries are being undermined by the illegal drug trade and debt.

Changing subjects, U.S. policy toward Haiti is, on one hand, defensible, as we have joined in the sanctions proposed by the Organization of American States against Haiti. On the other hand, U.S. immigration policy has been racist at its base.

Since 1981, 22,940 refugees tried to get into the United States to obtain political asylum. We only allowed 11 to apply. From the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the collapse of the Soviet Empire, we allowed into the United States 1 million Asians, 250,000 Soviets and, so far, 80,000 Eastern Europeans.

BE: What is TransAfrica's international careers program?

Robinson: In 1990, we started a program with 60 historically black colleges which includes presidents Dr. Johnnetta Cole at Spelman College, Dr. Niara Sudarkasa at Lincoln University [Pa.] and Dr. Norman Francis at Xavier University in New Orleans. The program will help to prepare black students to successfully take the foreign service exam.

The reason is obvious. We have made so many foreign-policy mistakes because those that make the policy affecting much of the Third World do not represent the diversity of this country.


Since 1977, under Randall Robinson's leadership, TransAfrica has grown from a two-person, one-room organization to a national lobby with more than 15,000 members and international influence. TransAfrica grew out of an African-American demand for respect and accountability on U.S. foreign policy issues. In September 1976, the Black Leadership Conference, which was convened by the Congressional Black Caucus, decided that "the conspicuous absence of African-Americans in high-level international affairs positions and the general subordination of, if not, neglected of African and Caribbean priorities, could only be corrected by the establisment of a private advocacy organization."

The nonprofit, nonpartisan lobby's $800,000 annual budget is funded by corporations, corporate grants and individual donations. TransAfrica has a headquarters staff of 12 and seven chapters. Among its other programs, TransAfrica is organizing a 1993 Caribbean summit.

During the past 15 years, TransAfrica has: * Mobilized opposition to apartheid to pass the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 despite President Reagan's veto. * Helped establish and coordinate the Free South Africa Movement. * Spoken out about human rights abuses in Haiti, Ethiopia and Kenya.

In 1981, TransAfrica Forum, the research and educational affiliate of TransAfrica, was founded to collect, analyze and desseminate information about Africa, the Caribbean and U.S. foreign policy affecting these regions. To facilitate this task, the TransAfrica Forum: * Boosts minority participation in U.S. foreign policy through educational programs; * Evaluates the best ways for U.S. aid to create economic health in Africa and the Caribbean; * Holds annual foreign policy conferences and; * Publishes TransAfrica Forum, a quarterly journal of opinions and TransAfrica News, a news quarterly.

TransAfrica and TransAfrica Forum publications also include the TransAfrica Resource Guide and Blacks in U.S. Foreign Policy: A Retrospective.

In 1993, TransAfrica and TransAfrica Forum plan to move into their own 15,000 square foot headquarters in the Embassy Row neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The building was purchased with donations from former professional boxing champion Ray Leonard, Reebok International Ltd. and former tennis great and anti-apartheid spokesperson Arthur Ashe, among others.

For additional information on TransAfrica or the TransAfrica Forum, write or call TransAfrica, 545 Eighth Street, SE, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20003; 202-547-2550.
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Title Annotation:includes an article on doing business in South Africa
Author:McCoy, Frank
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Aug 1, 1992
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