From Africa, a reminder of our skill, expertise


For nine months this year, black public administrators in Baltimore and other U.S. cities served as mentors and hosts to black South Africans.

The black Americans shared their experiences managing urban government agencies in the post-Civil Rights era. At least some of those experiences, it was believed, would prove useful when black South Africans move into positions of authority in the post-apartheid era.

And what did the South Africans share? Among other things, they offered black Americans another perspective on our own talents.

"In spite of the fact blacks are a minority in America, they seem very strong and very united to us," says Tsoaledi Daniel Thobejane, 29, of the Northern Transvaal, South Africa. He spent his internship in Baltimore, working with the city's Civil Service Commission.

Mr. Thobejane acknowledges that America's form of democracy is not perfect. He was struck by the great disparities between the haves and the have-nots: between blacks and whites, and between suburban and urban residents. Many of those same patterns of oppression exist in South Africa, he says.

But Mr. Thobejane believes that black Americans have far more political and economic power than even black Americans might realize.

In South Africa, Mr. Thobejane worked as a coordinator of a community-based project in a homeland in the Northern Transvaal. His agency served as a sort of shadow government, providing legal advice, job-training workshops and other services normally dispensed by a local government.

Since homeland government officials are all appointed by the apartheid regime, homeland residents don't trust local administrators and turn to community-based agencies.

Mr. Thobejane met many people in Baltimore who distrust government officials. "I saw a lot of people trying to do what they could to uplift the standard of living of black people. Mayor Schmoke is an excellent example," says Mr. Thobejane. "But I also spoke to black people who feel locked out of the political system. They seem to look at blacks such as the mayor as being part of the government that oppresses them.

"But it is not true," says Mr. Thobejane. "I think the negativity I saw here will be one of our biggest problems in the post-apartheid era -- how to convince the people that just because one government oppressed them does not mean they should not participate with any government."

The internship program was administered by the National Forum for Black Public Administrators using funds from the federal Agency for International Development. Mentorships were set up for 12 South Africans.

Jesse Hoskins, Baltimore's director of personnel, served as Mr. Thobejane's mentor. "One thing I tried to impress upon him was that we can make a difference," says Mr. Hoskins. "When I come to work, I don't just bury my head in my own area of expertise. I have a responsibility to the entire community, that may be greater than, say, my white counterpart might feel.

"It is important to me that I set up a platform, provide a network, for those who come behind me," says Mr. Hoskins.

"I hope this will be an on-going effort," says Charles G. Tildon Jr., acting director of the NFBPA.

Mr. Tildon, a Baltimore native and former president of the Community College of Baltimore, notes that NFBPA is not the only black organization moving to establish ties with black South Africans. Traditionally black colleges and universities, black-owned businesses, even black fraternities and sororities, all have established relationships with their "African cousins."

Says Mr. Tildon: "One thing this project has taught us is that black Americans make excellent role models. Keep in mind, the national consensus for urban programs appeared and disappeared very quickly. Black public administrators were forced to manage urban agencies under the most adverse fiscal and political conditions.

"We have become experts at stretching limited resources to achieve maximum effects," says Mr. Tildon.

"I think many of us tend to forget just how skilled we are -- how skilled we have had to be."

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