Constructive Engagement

<i> Kenneth Noble teaches African history at UC Berkeley</i>

Given Nelson Mandela’s place as an international icon and apartheid’s as a relic, it may be difficult to remember that not very long ago, most senior American officials believed that South Africa’s white racist regime would last indefinitely.

For much of the 1970s and ‘80s, while Mandela languished in his cell on Robben Island, the United States sent messages of comfort to his jailers. Henry Kissinger advised President Nixon not to scold Pretoria publicly, and Nixon took the advice. Later President Reagan spoke warmly of the white authorities in Pretoria, winking his tolerance of their official racism while vigorously opposing sanctions of any economic or moral consequence. To black Africa, the United States was an apologist for apartheid.

For activist Randall Robinson, the Reagan administration’s policy of “constructive engagement,” a fancy phrase for conducting business as usual in South Africa and muting criticism of apartheid, amounted to “arrogant blindness.” It was a policy, Robinson writes in his often absorbing memoir, “Defending the Spirit,” that made him “disordered with anger.”

In November 1984, Robinson and a small group of graying civil rights activists set out to put an end to this by chaining themselves to the gates of the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C., and getting themselves arrested. It was not an especially bold or tactically ingenious move, but their timing was impeccable: It was the spark that helped to galvanize a broad body of public support for the idea of economic sanctions. Eventually the sanctions campaign, supported especially by churches and students, made headway at universities and in cities and states with large pension funds. In 1986, Congress passed the Anti-Apartheid Act over President Reagan’s veto. It is no exaggeration to say that, but for Robinson’s skill and persistence in the anti-apartheid movement here, Mandela may never have been released and the Afrikaner regime toppled.

Although Robinson, the president of TransAfrica, a Washington-based group founded in 1977 which lobbies on African and Caribbean issues, provides the rudiments of his personal history (we learn, for instance, that he grew up amid poverty and segregation in Richmond, Va., served in the Army and attended Harvard Law School), gradually it becomes clear that “Defending the Spirit” is more polemic than autobiography. Indeed, he is painfully uncomfortable with revealing human intimacies. “My wife came halfway down the steps to tell me she was going out for a while with the children,” begins one characteristically terse passage about his first wife, whose name is never given. Then, the stunning next sentence: “That was how our marriage ended.” This is about the only glimpse of the mother of Robinson’s first two children. But keep reading.

While Robinson tells his story in a spare, impersonal prose, often without grace, “Defending the Spirit” is nonetheless a revealing, highly detailed insider account of this country’s disturbing and sometimes shameful dealings with African and Caribbean nations. Why, for example, did the United States remain so steadfastly supportive of South Africa’s apartheid government long after our allies had abandoned it? To Robinson, the answer is obvious: U.S. policy toward Africa is a distant echo of this country’s often racist treatment of African Americans at home.

Robinson is certainly not the first or only person to make that point. If Robinson’s view of himself as a public figure were not as complex as it is, the book would be simply a recitation of conventional liberal wisdom, a predictable diatribe against American policy toward Africa. What makes his critique praiseworthy for its integrity--if not always persuasive--is that he does not flinch from telling the truth as he sees it, no matter whose reputation gets smeared: His book is peopled with friends and foes caught in the peculiar ambiguities and hypocrisies of policy making.

Take, for instance, Robinson’s relationship with Mandela, whom he clearly reveres but nonetheless finds ultimately disappointing. Robinson recounts how during Mandela’s first trip to the United States, he got him to attend a fund-raising breakfast for the financially strapped TransAfrica. At the last possible moment, Mandela called off the $5,000-a-plate affair, and TransAfrica had to return the money. Robinson was outraged that “the man I’d spent 18 years of my life working to free” stood him up. “My voice was low and tremulous,” Robinson recalls, as he spoke to Mandela. “ ‘I am angry and deeply hurt. I have never before asked you for anything. Absolutely nothing. And you would do this. If it were not for my organization and its efforts, you might still be in prison.’ ”

Robinson’s rage over that incident is not uncharacteristic. He tells how he rejected a million-dollar bribe from the Nigerian government to abandon TransAfrica’s campaign for sanctions against the regime of the late dictator Sani Abacha. Or consider his description of what he calls “Vernon Jordan disease,” which he calls a “degenerative condition” among blacks in Washington that “results in a loss of memory of what they came to Washington to accomplish.”

Indeed, he reserves much of his fiercest disdain for blacks like Jordan who, he contends, have risen to prominence and then forgotten others who were left behind. He chides Michael Jordan, “a godlike figure in North Carolina,” for failing to embrace Harvey Gantt’s senatorial candidacy against Jesse Helms. He is similarly contemptuous of Colin Powell, and also of the late former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown for once serving as a lobbyist for the Haitian military dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier.

There is quite a lot of that. And such relentless pontificating can irritate, especially as the list of those who have failed to meet his exacting moral and political standards grows spitefully long. The saving grace is that Robinson lets no one off the hook, including himself. “I have neither needed or wanted the company of people save the few I love and who love me,” Robinson says in remarks that could serve as an epitaph. “In sum, I am poorly suited for the work that I have done for the last eighteen years.”

The single, coherent theme that runs through Robinson’s professional and personal experiences is race: “I am obsessively black,” he writes, making no attempt to conceal his distaste for those who use a different yardstick to measure their self-worth. “Race is an overarching aspect of my identity,” he adds. “America has made me that way.”

This may seem a narrow and impoverished posture from which to judge the world, but Robinson makes no apologies. “I would not be surprised if much of what I have written here is met by whites with defensiveness, if not incredulity,” he writes, adding: “If I have appeared angry, that anger in all likelihood understates the well-masked temper of blacks generally.”

What can one say about all of this, other than despite gaining considerable professional success, Robinson is a complex, cantankerous, talented but deeply alienated and sour man. The book ends abruptly with an odd but telling anecdote about his young daughter Khalea, a second-grader, who has had a childhood of relative privilege. At a recent parent-teacher conference at his daughter’s private school, his wife Hazel asked about reports that only the three black girls in the class--and none of the white girls--had been sent to “time-out” as a disciplinary measure. Does that seem strange? she asked the teacher. “No,” was the reply. “Studies show that black parents rear their children to be more aggressive.”

“Where does a black soul go to rest?” Robinson asks.

It is the nature of memoirs written by those in mid-career that the end of the story can’t be written because it hasn’t happened yet. One can’t help thinking, however, that Robinson is so bitter and despairing over a lifetime of perceived racial insults that he has reached a political and emotional dead end. All in all, the reader is likely to admire Robinson’s fierce intelligence and keen skills as a human rights activist but come away puzzled by the author’s bleak and dire fatalism about America’s future.