Black American firms cast eager eye at S. Africa

October 09, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- At the second annual "Made in the USA" trade fair, there was cautious talk about the plans of big American companies like General Motors and Chrysler in the new South Africa.

But the caution gave way to enthusiasm among another group of exhibitors here, black American enterprises that seem eager to rush in where many white-owned companies fear to tread.

"The appeal for me to be here is very high," said James Douglas, who is representing his Baltimore-based computer consulting company. "I hope to have the opportunity to develop here the types of skills and training that I had access to in the United States.

"If I can bring those skills, and my years of experience, to this country, then for me it's not just a matter of making a lot of money -- certainly I want to make some -- but I can see what I can contribute to the growth of South Africa."

Mr. Douglas' views were echoed by African-Americans whose booths were dotted throughout the 200 or so companies represented at this fair. It was held at the World Trade Center, where a year ago negotiators were hammering out the details of an interim constitution that would allow South Africa's first open elections.

"The day I heard President Mandela was elected, I felt very happy and proud as a black man," said Reginald Maynor of Luster Products, a Chicago-based black cosmetics firm. "I am still in awe of that."

Like Mr. Douglas, Mr. Maynor was back at Made in USA for the second year. He said that Luster now has a local distributor, a Soweto-based man who brought some Luster products into South Africa by the suitcase-load during the years of sanctions and isolation.

"We've been approached by many companies that want to distribute our products, multimillion dollar deals, but we stuck with this man because he's been loyal to us and this is the kind of opportunity we want to be a part of," Mr. Maynor said.

South Africa provides the type of infrastructure American companies are used to, along with the potential for a huge black market whose tastes have been molded by exposure to Western, and in many cases American, media.

"This is the first time I've been here," said a somewhat overwhelmed Renau Daniels of Olmec Toys, which produces black dolls. She could hardly get her display set up as potential customers stopped by to chat.

"Because of the history of South Africa with apartheid, you find a lot of African-Americans are embracing the history and culture of this country," Ms. Daniels said. "We are very interested in helping our brothers and sisters in South Africa."

Another reason for the enthusiasm of black companies is that most of them are still relatively small, in the entrepreneurial stage.

"A Fortune 500 company would be coming in with millions of dollars in investment," said George Amoah of BET, the black-oriented cable channel that's been selling programming here. "But most black companies don't have that kind of money available. We're in a different position, more willing to come into a market like this."

"I think a lot of African-Americans see this as an opportunity to get in on the ground floor," said Rohulamin Quander, who runs a Washington-based company advising on trade with Africa.

Mr. Quander also said that black companies view trade with South Africa as a way to break into the international market, getting the type of experience they have had few opportunities for in the past.

The bottom line, of course, remains the bottom line, and all the black companies present were here trying to do the kind of deals that will make them money.

And, like most American companies, they are interested in selling products to South Africans, not necessarily making the kind of investments in factories and plants that would bring the jobs this country so desperately needs.

"We have studied the American relationship with emerging economies over the last 40 years," said David Altman, who organized the show. "In every case, trade comes first and investment comes later."

Several of the black companies were talking along just those lines. Mr. Maynor said he had been looking at several facilities that would be appropriate for manufacturing Luster products, probably starting by using an existing cosmetic assembly line but perhaps expanding later.

"I know that's exactly the type of thing this company is interested in," Ms. Daniels said. "We want to provide jobs and opportunities in a place like this."

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