The outrage of many blacks to the just-ended visit of South Africa's President Frederik W. de Klerk is justified at one level, but at a deeper level, it is disturbing.
The indignation is understandable given President Bush's effusive welcome and subsequent unwarranted leaning toward easing sanctions at a time when government- encouraged wanton carnage is occurring in South Africa. Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress and others attribute the escalating violence to a third force, the "hidden hand" of the government's right wing -- a faction of the country for which the South African leader is ultimately responsible.
Criticizing Bush's welcome for de Klerk as "a resounding disgrace and affront to people who cherish freedom," Randall Robinson of TransAfrica, an anti-apartheid lobbying organization, said, "Let's see the product of change before you engage in premature celebration. De Klerk came ready to give absolutely nothing. He wanted respectability, credibility and legitimacy . . . . Bush gave him all of that when he walked into the Oval Office."
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus originally had planned to meet with de Klerk, but later reconsidered and canceled the meeting. Following the caucus's example, representatives of African American media also canceled a scheduled meeting with de Klerk. One member of the caucus, however, William H. Gray III, the House majority whip, held a private meeting with de Klerk.
But what is most disturbing about the black reaction to de Klerk is that his visit might not have occurred at all if African Americans had exercised the power they have in a sophisticated manner. Blacks are at least 12 percent of the population, a not-insignificant number if their efforts were concentrated and their power recognized. African Americans have the power to change policy in this country regarding Africa, but except on a few, limited occasions have failed to use that muscle.
So far, the most significant exercise of African American power came in the successful drive to impose sanctions on South Africa, an effort led by Robinson's TransAfrica. That was an important drive that would not have succeeded without blacks. It has cost South Africa $10 billion in the last five years.
But the sanctions drive was also a big, glitzy campaign that captured the popular imagination.
In the years after that, African American power has become diluted, and the pressure has not been maintained. Indeed, until Mandela's recent release and U.S. visit, most black Americans seemed almost complacent about South Africa and the larger continent. During that time, U.S. aid to Africa has declined dramatically without significant response from African Americans.
Now increasing numbers of African ambassadors and others are begging black Americans to exercise more muscle for Africa. Included among them are Philip Ndegwa, former governor of the Central Bank of Kenya, and Chief Abiola of Nigeria.
The Congressional Black Caucus has begun to take the lead in heightening black awareness of its unused muscle, including on Africa. Several events are planned during the 20th annual legislative weekend, which is meeting through Sunday at the Washington Hilton Hotel.
Until black Americans feel and recognize their power, and use it in a consistent and sophisticated manner, they can expect to play catch-up, register residual outrage and feel a great deal of frustration. Once they exercise the power they have, they no longer can feel the victim of other forces. By taking control and utilizing that power, they renounce the role of victim, and in doing so, leave behind the rage and frustration that come with that role.
Twelve percent of the population is a significant political force. To use that force to better the state of African Americans and Africans is an important part of the U.S. democratic process. By not exercising the power inherent in that number, African Americans are denying themselves an important activist role that would diminish the frustration now being felt by some in the wake of de Klerk's visit.