Air Date: February 4, 1997 Program 9705


Jennifer Davis, Executive Director, American Committee on Africa; The Africa Fund
Dumisani Kumalo, Projects Director, American Committee on Africa; The Africa Fund

(This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

MARY GRAY DAVIDSON, Senior Producer: This is Common Ground.

There's a myth that Africa is a dark continent of disease, famine and civil war. On this edition of Common Ground we talk to the leaders of one American organization working to dispel that myth.

JENNIFER DAVIS, Executive Director, American Committee on Africa; The Africa Fund: We see Africa as an enormously important continent. It's linked by history, by the fact that many Americans come originally from Africa, but it's also linked by the fact that it's a sixth or something of the world's population. I always think about that picture we saw taken from outer space of our fragile world. You can't disconnect people in one part of the world from another part of the world. We're all responsible for one another.

DAVIDSON: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Mary Gray Davidson.

The American Committee on Africa was founded more than four decades ago in the days of colonial Africa. It was created in 1953 by a group of Americans active in the civil rights struggle here who saw the need to support the struggle for African freedom and self-determination. Today the American Committee on Africa is headed by Wyatt T. Walker, former chief of staff to Martin Luther King, Jr., and senior pastor of the Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in New York's Harlem community. While colonialism and white minority rule are gone in Africa, it remains the world's poorest and mostly forgotten continent. Jennifer Davis is executive director of the American Committee on Africa, which says it is working to make sure the U.S. does not write off Africa's 720 million people.

DAVIS: We are not a developmental organization. We are not a rich organization, so we can't send lots of money to Africa. What we try and do is impact on U.S. policy, on critical U.S. policy.

DAVIDSON: Joining Jennifer Davis is Dumisani Kumalo, Projects Director for the American Committee on Africa, and its newer Africa Fund. The Africa Fund advisory committee lists such notable Americans as Coretta Scott King, Julian Bond, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Dumisani Kumalo uses the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa to show how the two organizations work to influence U.S. policy toward Africa.

DUMISANI KUMALO, Projects Director, American Committee on Africa; The Africa Fund: What we did was we tried to educate Americans about apartheid, why apartheid was bad, and what the issues were in South Africa. We taught them about who Nelson Mandela was, and you know, and the struggle for liberation in South Africa. But the other thing which we did very well, we showed Americans that there's something they could do in their own counties, their own towns, their own cities, that could help bring about the end of apartheid. And that was divestment, which was the withdrawal of funds from banks and companies that dealt with South Africa. You know, so Americans didn't only know that there was this awful policy called apartheid happening 10,000 miles away, but they also felt empowered to do something in their own towns and in their own areas. And I think that was the success of it.

DAVIS: Amazingly enough in the early '60s, U.S. policy was supportive of apartheid because it didn't prevent the enormous flow of resources of funds of money to the apartheid regime. And so we saw our job as cutting off that flow. And I think we were extremely successful. It's been very heartwarming to have people like Nelson Mandela and other leaders, Desmond Tutu, and grassroots South Africans, say "The sanctions campaign you people did was really important. It helped us." We've never said, and we've never seen ourselves as the prime movers. We always try and support struggles that are ongoing in Africa. And so now we see our responsibility as helping people in the second stage of their struggle. They have often won political independence, even as in South Africa, democracy, but they still have an enormous road forward in terms of winning economic justice. And now we're trying to find those linkages.

DAVIDSON: A core program of the Africa Fund to promote democracy abroad links state legislators from the United States with their counterparts in Africa. Dumisani Kumalo sees this effort as necessary to sustaining democracy over the long haul.

KUMALO: Well, one of the ways in which we are trying to help with the sustaining of democracy and development in Africa has been to link local elected officials in this country with their counterparts in southern Africa. Now we started off with southern Africa for the simple reason that southern Africa is a much easier area to deal with. You know, it includes South Africa and about 10 other countries. And we're moving into other parts of Africa. But always remembering that, you know, when you deal with Africa you deal with countries that are so different, and for Americans sometimes it gets complicated because, you know, they now have to come across countries they never really thought about or knew about. And so what we've decided to do is have this program that links up legislators in the United States and legislators at local levels in southern Africa so they can help each other in building up their own democracy and strengthening it.

DAVIS: I've just come back from South Africa and people talk a lot about the need for empowerment, the need for training. And we found that these kind of exchanges between peer groups are very useful, rather than long formal programs of training. Very often people find in the exchange of their experience a great deal that assists and empowers them. And that then makes connections, which can also help us impact on U.S. policy.

DAVIDSON: The American Committee on Africa and the Africa Fund are currently putting heavy emphasis on Nigeria in western Africa, whose 100 million citizens live under a military dictatorship. Mashood Abiola, who was elected President in a 1993 election, is currently imprisoned. His wife was shot and killed last June within yards of a police roadblock. Internationally known poet and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his associates were executed last year. Jennifer Davis and Dumisani Kumalo of the American Committee on Africa believe the crisis in Nigeria could be resolved by determined U.S. action.

DAVIS: The problem for Nigeria is that in, although Nigeria has been independent for some 30, over 30 years, it has had a great difficulty in sustaining democracy. And currently is again under a military dictatorship. And we've seen in the same way, as an extension of our work actually, that it's our responsibility to help Nigerians as they struggle to reachieve democracy. Now obviously we face an enormous problem. We are a very small staff, and we have many problems in Africa. So how do we choose? We try and choose where we think that U.S. policy can have a really significant impact. And with Nigeria there is a very big economic connection between the United States and Nigeria, because Nigeria is a primary oil-producing country, and the United States buys a great deal of Nigerian oil. And it's the U.S. companies that are responsible for producing most of that Nigerian oil. So that significant pressure from the U.S. could have a great effect on Nigeria. So far it's been very reluctant to use that pressure. We, in a sense we see this as a new way, a new chance for us to mobilize the American population, in the same way as they spoke out in support of South African freedom. That they can in fact impact on what happens inside Nigeria. So that is, we're at the very beginning stages of education. When Dumisani took this to some major conventions he found people very reluctant, particularly African-Americans, reluctant to act because they felt like they didn't want to criticize African leaders, and it wasn't their place to do that. So we are grappling with that as one of the new arenas in which we can operate.

KUMALO: I think the main thing we're trying to point out to people is that repression is repression. Whether it's practiced by whites or blacks, it doesn't matter. And you know the realities are that in Nigeria you have a military regime that is denying 100 million Nigerian people their rights that they won by going to the polls and electing a President, Mashood Abiola. And you know, that President is in jail right now. And many of the journalists, church leaders and other people have been jailed. Others like Ken Saro-Wiwa have been hanged, and you know, so the Nigerian military regime is denying Nigerian people their rights. And that's what we believe is wrong. And it doesn't matter that it's a black government that's doing it. It's still wrong. But it's, that becomes a point where you have to explain to people because sometimes they think we are being too hard on this government because it's an African government. But I'm pleased to say that when people learn about the repression that's happening they stand up against it. And there's been general condemnation of Nigeria from African-Americans, from whites, from everybody else. But information is key, because people really do not know. And until you come to them and say, this is really what the issue is, then it makes a difference.

Let me give you a very quick case in point. The military regime held an election early this winter for local government in Nigeria. And what they were going to do was put up big pictures of the candidate; in fact they did this. They put up big pictures of the candidates chosen by the military, not by the people. And people had to line up in front of these pictures and thereby declare who they were going to vote for, and vote. And this was supposed to be democracy. So all we did was, we went to the people and said, "If you on November 5 had to line up in front of a picture of Dole or Clinton you wouldn't go to the polls, right? It's good that you go behind the curtain and make whatever choice you make." And then it resonates. They say, "Look, yes, this is unfair, what is Washington doing about it?" And then they put pressure on Washington. But each time we give them information it's because we hope that they will use the levers that they have. And the lever we have is the U.S. Congress, is the administration, and it's the state and local governments and instruments that we have to apply pressure for change to come about.

DAVIDSON: Jennifer Davis says the American people are beginning to respond to Nigeria's crisis. A year ago New York City became the first American city to adopt a resolution condemning Nigeria's military regime and calling for economic sanctions. Since then Oakland, St. Louis, and New Orleans have done the same, and the American Committee on Africa is now working on Boston and Washington, D.C.

On the east side of the African continent sits Sudan. It's the largest country in Africa, and it suffers from civil war and chronic political instability. In 1989 an Army coup installed a military Islamic fundamentalist regime. Dumisani Kumalo says the American Committee on Africa faces a couple of problems in publicizing Sudan's plight.

KUMALO: It's hard to get accurate information about what's happening there. We don't sit down here and dream up positions and say, "Okay, this is what Sudan should do. We'll go out and..." We take what the people inside whatever particular country are doing to struggle, and bring it up to the people and say, "This is what's happening." Unfortunately, in the Sudan it's very hard to get information. And you hear about what's happening in the south of the country. Then you hear about what's happening in the north. So there isn't any information. And it's true of Mauritania, Gambia, and other places where there's trouble. And so it makes it harder to do that.

DAVIS: I would also say that there are small core groups of people who do work around, particularly there's a very good group working on Sudan. And then part of the reason that we don't do campaigns on everything is just that, you know, there are eight of us. We really have to make some choices. And so I believe if we really put our minds to it, it's not impossible, I guess what I'm saying is I don't think we should allow ourselves off the hook because we say it's too difficult to get information. We really are confronted with the problem that there's very little money to do work on U.S.-Africa policy. And we have always to make these very difficult choices. So we would like to be able to impact more broadly. And the U.S. is a very powerful country with a lot of impact everywhere. I believe we could do more if we had more resources.

DAVIDSON: We'll pause here for a short break. You're listening to Common Ground, a service of the Stanley Foundation. Our guests are Jennifer Davis and Dumisani Kumalo of the American Committee on Africa and the Africa Fund, two New York City-based organizations that lobby and educate Americans on African issues.

The Stanley Foundation is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes are available of this Common Ground program, and at the end of the broadcast I'll give you details on how to order.

Just as they have in the American civil rights movement, churches play a key part in the American Committee on Africa's strategy. It created a religious action network during the struggle to end apartheid. The national interfaith network continues working today to support African development, democracy and human rights, says Dumisani Kumalo

KUMALO: Well, the Religious Action Network is a very, very key part of the work we do in that it brings together about 200 congregations that are sort of loosely affiliated in this network. And some are more active than others and have committed themselves to doing work on Africa. And these are congregations that also have ties—because of their denominations—the national parties have an Africa office. And other people, the Methodists and the Anglicans and the Lutherans. So they have a history denominationally of doing work on Africa. But what the Religious Action Network does, it connects these congregations into unifying, into taking issues. For instance, I've been on delegations with powerful church leaders and others who have gone to Washington and met with people in the administration and said, "We care about what's happening in Africa." So they bring a moral currency to this whole thing. And so they are the ones who come in and say, "We care about this." And the other thing, the value of it is that it's been Protestant, Catholic, and we've also had issues where we've been joined by Jewish congregations on other issues. And it's unique in that it brings people of faith, on a particular issue, when there's an issue that they focus on, they come together and say, "We care about this issue a lot." And they bring it to the people in the pews who normally don't read the papers and probably don't even have time in their busy lives to worry too much about Africa, but for that particular service they get a taste of what's happening somewhere around the world. So it's a very, very important part of our work in that sense.

DAVIS: It underscores our belief that U.S. foreign policy shouldn't all be made in Washington. That it really should be made by an informed population. And that people are willing to be informed. But a lot of their media fails them in informing them. And we've found that even major media covers Africa terribly badly. And so it's often very difficult for people to know how they should act or what they should ask their representatives to do. But fundamentally we believe it's an informed population that will have, will lead to, good government policy or bad government policy.

DAVIDSON: It is an uphill battle according to Jennifer Davis, just to maintain current levels of U.S. aid to Africa. Last year the American Committee on Africa sent out several action alerts to inform its network on threats to U.S. aid to Africa, which it says was cut by 20% in 1995. Davis also decried the U.S. Congress's elimination of the Development Fund for Africa last year. The Development Fund was created in 1987 to help the poor majority of Africans in long-term development. Davis sees a number of factors that contribute to Africa's low status in American foreign policy.

DAVIS: I suppose one could say it's far away; one could say it's, there's an element of racism in it. Africa featured more centrally during the Cold War era because it was seen as an important terrain. Now it isn't seen as an important terrain, partly because the focus has gone off, to some extent, the arena of raw materials. And people don't worry very much because there's no competition in their view—the policymakers—for the raw materials anywhere. So, there's, I think, because foreign policy is often made on these very narrow basis of perceived self-interest, whereas we see Africa as an enormously important continent. It's linked by history, by the fact that many Americans come originally from Africa, but it's also linked by the fact that it's a sixth or something of the world's population. I always think about that picture we saw taken from outer space of our fragile world. You can't disconnect people in one part of the world from another part of the world. We're all responsible for one another. Not like this "global village," because I believe it's too simplistic. But we are all interconnected. And so I think it's enormously important for people to see the connections with Africa and to interact with people in Africa. There's an enormous wisdom in Africa. There are very interesting social experiments being carried out. None of this normally hits the media because it's not big enough, and death and disaster anyway seem always to be more popular than small attempts at progress. So I think it's a serious fault. And I don't think Africa is the only major foreign arena that doesn't hit the news. People know very little about even what's to the north and to the south of them. So unfortunately I think Americans do tend to be, perhaps because this is such a powerful country, too focused on what is happening internally and unaware of the connections to the rest of the world.

KUMALO: I think it's, Americans don't realize how much Africa matters. Africa does matter. And I always remember when we were doing divestment, you'd get all these people who'd come and say, "Oh, you know, you can't divest from South Africa because we get all these minerals that are key to us. Our planes wouldn't fly without African minerals, we wouldn't have chrome." So they had all these reasons why Africa was so valuable. And I just think the problem is that Americans don't realize how valuable Africa is to our every day life. There are thousands of people who owe their jobs in this country because of trade between the United States and Africa. But they don't know that. And you know, we all know how much we owe our jobs to trade with China, we all know how much we owe our jobs to trade with Japan, and Germany, and others, but they just don't realize how much they owe their jobs to trade with Africa. And that's a challenge for us, I guess, to be able to educate people that there's a lot that you can value about Africa. And that's been the hardest story to tell. But people tend to do it themselves. I know in Alabama, for instance, that when we met with the Governor we brought three women legislators from southern Africa. And one of the states they visited was Alabama, and they met with the Governor of Alabama. He was talking about how much of Alabama companies were doing trade with Africa. So there's beginning to be an awareness. People are becoming slowly aware that there is this trade that nobody talks about, between individual states and maybe some other places with Africa. So that's the untold story which I think we will begin to hear lots and lots about as time goes on.

DAVIDSON: One might wonder whether a powerful African-American lobby could really focus American attention on Africa. But Jennifer Davis and Dumisani Kumalo say U.S. policy toward Africa goes beyond the interests of just African-Americans.

DAVIS: It's certainly true that historically African-American intervention and policy around Africa, particularly South Africa is probably the best example, played a very important role. When we were struggling to get sanctions imposed on apartheid South Africa, originally we couldn't get any legislation through the federal, through Congress in Washington. So Dumisani began this campaign of working at state levels, and we got, I think, 30 states to pass legislation. And he always stresses that it was always a combination of African-American and other voters, Republican and Democratic legislators. You have to make coalitions. So I think that the African-American voice was very critical, but it wasn't the only one. And so I think of it in terms of key stimuli, not really the only force. And I think the African-American voice has always been very important.

KUMALO: I mean I think, sure, it's obvious that African-Americans would care more about Africa because that's where we all come from. But I hope we are not going to arrive at that situation where Africa should just be for black folks. It really takes everyone. When, look, I am a black South African and living in the United States. I want to see peace in Israel. I don't say, "I'm not Jewish so I shouldn't worry about peace in Israel." I want to see peace in Bosnia. It's white folks in Bosnia who are killing each other. But I care because they are there. And so I would hope people would care about Africa because this is a continent that matters. Africa does matter. And we don't want to see young babies in Africa not having medical supplies, just as much as we don't want to see young babies in Flatbush where I live not having medical supplies. My desire, my dream, is that Americans, irrespective of race, culture or religion, or whatever, would care about Africa. Because, simply, Africa matters. And they would care about any other place in the world, because it simply matters. And of course we of African descent will care more because to us it's family. But it doesn't absolve anybody to say, "Well, it's not my family." Because we are all part of the same global experience. So we all have to get together.

DAVIDSON: Dumisani Kumalo is Projects Director for the Africa Fund and its parent organization, the American Committee on Africa. And Jennifer Davis is Executive Director of the two organizations. For Common Ground, I'm Mary Gray Davidson.

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