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Black Businesses in US Scout Out South Africa

WHILE South African President Nelson Mandela hobnobs with officials in New York and Washington from Oct. 1-8, 18 American minority entrepreneurs are in South Africa trying to make deals.

Dale Gilliam says he hopes to find potential partners there for possible joint ventures with his small insurance firm, GBG Insurance Agency in Dallas. If he can't find partners, however, he says he simply wants to provide a model for black South Africans of how a small African-American-owned insurance firm can succeed.

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``People need to know that black people in America aren't just killing each other,'' he says in a telephone interview before leaving.

Mr. Gilliam likens what is happening in South Africa since the fall of apartheid to what happened in the United States following the lifting of the Jim Crow segregation laws in the South.

``But there [in South Africa], the people with the power look just like us,'' he says. ``That gives us an advantage.''

The trip that GBG Insurance and the other businesses are taking part in is called ``Minority Business Trade and Development Matchmaker,'' sponsored by the United States Commerce Department.

The delegation will visit Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban to meet with government officials and prospective business partners.

Emerging markets

Michael Rogers, director of the Minority Business Development Agency in Washington, a division of the Commerce Department, is accompanying the delegation to South Africa.

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Mr. Rogers points to the fact that many of the world's emerging markets are in Africa, Asia, and South America and are populated largely by non-whites.

``People in those countries are particularly receptive to businesses owned by people of color,'' he says.

He adds that US minority-owned businesses have faced export barriers in the past, such as lack of access to both domestic capital and information. Bringing together American minority businesspeople and emerging foreign markets, he says, is one way to address those problems.

Charles Johnson, president of ASH AWAY, a skin care company based in Dallas, says he has difficulties getting shelf space in the general section of cosmetics counters for his products. Mr. Johnson says he thinks the situation in South Africa will be different.

``Hopefully the new black government that is in place will see the advantages of black manufacturers becoming the dominant manufacturers in the country,'' he says.

Johnson recognizes that exporting is an increasingly important part of a successful business.

``How can we think about participating in the American dream if we can't fully participate in the American economy?'' he reasons.

Gateway to continent

Other businesses participating in the Matchmaker tour are looking at South Africa as a gateway to the African continent. E. Gerald Parker, president of Pharmaceutical Sources International in Cincinnati, says he thinks South Africa's position as a relatively modernized country will enable his pharmaceutical supplies company to break into the market there.

``South Africa already has a modern health-care system,'' he explains, ``so we don't have to reinvent the wheel.''

Mr. Parker says it is critical that minority businesses get involved now in emerging markets like South Africa.

``We want to be able to share the wealth and ensure some type of black entrepreneurship, rather than all the large companies getting all the business and small businesses coming in only when it is too late,'' he says.

Clemon Wesley, president of a small telecommunications company in Landover, Md., called TEXCOM, reiterates the reasons for promoting minority business interest in South Africa.

``There are lots of opportunities in South Africa now that it's run by Africans,'' he says. ``Our business is run by African-Americans so it looks like a natural fit.''

Mr. Wesley says African-Americans feel there is a symbolic significance in dealing with Africa.

``African-Americans want to relate to Africa as their homeland,'' he says. ``There is a good feeling about doing business with South Africa.''

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