Sharing a common purpose with black South Africa

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

February 06, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

The South African Embassy sits nestled among the trees and broad green lawns of upper Massachusetts Avenue in Washington.

It is a nondescript building in a quiet neighborhood on the edge of Rock Creek Park, just about two miles northwest of the White House.

Three black South Africans are assigned to the diplomatic mission there.

"Why does this surprise you?" demanded Vernie Chetty, the third secretary and political liaison to Capitol Hill.

"Because you are black South Africans," I answered.

"And what of that?" she demanded again.

"Well," I said, "I didn't expect to find black South Africans assigned here."

"And why not?" she persisted fiercely. "We are black South Africans, yes, but we are South African. Our race does not matter. We are here based on merit. We are here to serve our people."

Chetty, is 25, brown-skinned, and she's been in Washington for about seven months. She was a social worker in Durban before joining the foreign service.

"What ethnicity are you?" I asked.

She threw her hands up in exasperation.

"Why does my ethnicity matter so much to you? I am a black South African. Since I have been here, I find that you Americans are obsessed with race and ethnicity. I am, as I say, a black South African."

Of all the peoples in the world, I have found that black Americans seem to have most in common with black South Africans -- the kinship, the electric jolt of recognition.

Black Americans and black South Africans often resemble each other. We have had similar experiences and emotions. Many of the issues that confront their lives confront our own, and we communicate those issues in similar terms.

I have always thought this special kinship meant that there is much we could share and maybe even learn from each other.

There also is much to consider. Rank-and-file black Americans spearheaded the fight to impose sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Allied with whites, they pressed local and state governments, universities and businesses to divest themselves of their investments in South Africa.

And, as we discovered here in Baltimore, there was some risk involved. The economic ties between America and South Africa were deep.

Now, with the beginning of constitutional talks between blacks and whites in South Africa, some South Africans are pressing that those economic ties be re-established. But do we dare let up now?

That is why I spent so much time last week with the three black South Africans at their embassy. It is important that we learn as much about each other as possible -- because of the shared feeling of kinship and the economic and political connections.

I found that apparent similarities can be deceptive. But I also found that the differences are instructive.

For instance, the South Africans assigned here seem determined to jettison distinctions of race and ethnicity in the new society they are building.

Chetty is what we would call East Indian. Her family emigrated to South Africa three generations ago.

Commander Yegan S. Moodley, the assistant military and naval attache, also is a third-generation Indian. He has been in the military for 15 years, and has a string of "firsts" to his credit: The first black to represent the military forces at the embassy, the first black combat officer, the first black to graduate from the military academy.

"My forebears arrived as indentured servants to work the sugar canes and, culturally, my people remain very Indian in their ways. For instance, I am Hindu and the way my family worships is very much the way Hindus here worship," said Moodley, 32.

"But politically, there is no distinction among blacks in South Africa," he said. "We all suffered under the apartheid system together and we are fighting that system together. And soon, there will be no such thing as 'black' South African and 'white' South African. We will all be South African."

We in America pay lip service to a colorblind society, too. But in reality, we tend to embrace the distinctions with such desperate fervor that race and ethnicity is an indelible part of our individual identities.

Not only are there very few political connections between American blacks and other people of color -- such as Native Americans, Asians and Hispanics -- there are very few attempts to bridge those gaps. Meanwhile, blacks and whites seem to have lost sight of integration, even as an ideal.

So, this is one thing we can watch as they build their new society in South Africa: Are they fooling themselves that you can discard racial animosity so easily, or are we fooling ourselves that race consciousness is so important?

Then there is Paul W. Jacobs, 53, the courtly, soft-spoken former headmaster who serves as first secretary in charge of cultural affairs at the embassy.

Jacobs noted that I and many Americans most likely are surprised by the presence of blacks in the diplomatic mission because the world tends to think of black South Africans as victims.

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