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South African Blacks Wary Of US 'Kin'

THE talk at the dinner party of South African black businessmen bordered on the xenophobic - complaints about foreigners coming in robbing jobs from locals and behaving arrogantly.

It was not a surprising gripe by an emerging elite jealously guarding its newfound privilege now that apartheid is dead. But the target was perhaps unexpected - black ''brothers'' from the United States who have arrived seeking their roots and to work in the new democracy.

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''There's a sense of solidarity, a sort of black thing. But there's also a lot of jealousy on behalf of South African black businessmen,'' says Nokwanda Sithole, deputy editor of Enterprise, a Johannesburg-based black business magazine.

''They fear the African-Americans are coming to ... take jobs from local professionals. That is a widespread view,'' Ms. Sithole says.

She says, however, that the discomfort was far more pronounced against Africans from neighboring Zimbabwe and Nigeria, also seeking opportunities in the growing economy.

African-American entrepreneurs in South Africa have a social advantage over whites by being able to speak the language of victims of racism. Thus in many South African circles, they can gain access and trust more easily than whites can.

Roots not in South Africa

But black middle-class managers here say they are sometimes irritated by what they perceive as misguided roots-seeking: The African-Americans' slave ancestors were from West Africa, not South Africa.

Sithole says many readers of the magazine say they sense that black Americans arrive acting as if local talent is inferior. Some, they claim, prefer to deal with whites rather than with them. This perceived sense of superiority irritates black South Africans sensitive to condescension after 300 years of white rule.

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''They come in with a view that we require more civilization. Then they will talk with the [white] boys at the JSE [Johannesburg Stock Exchange] rather than with local black businessmen,'' complains one black manager.

The US Embassy in Pretoria says it does not have a racial breakdown of its citizens in South Africa.

But what is clear in the restaurants and board rooms of Johannesburg, the economic hub of South Africa, is that increasing numbers have come, attracted by the economic opportunities presented over the past 18 months with the dismantling of apartheid in what is Africa's economic powerhouse.

They work in areas from specialized finance to telecommunications to health, sometimes chosen specifically because of their race to represent their companies.

It is a formula that often works. Sithole cites the case of a black American couple working for AT&T whose race has been an asset in terms of being accepted.

For California-born Gregory Boyd, managing director of the South African branch of the US investment banking company Phoenix, being a well-educated American black is an advantage when doing business in the new South Africa.

He says it helps him straddle both worlds. ''I think as an African-American it gives me an opportunity to move between two cultures here in South Africa. Being black gives me that facility, and my work experience gives me credibility in the white institutions,'' Mr. Boyd says.

But there are differences

But while there are similarities in terms of having experienced racism, the commonalities basically stop there.

African-Americans are a minority in the United States - 18 percent of the population. On the contrary, South African blacks are a 5-to-1 majority, which has reached the upper echelons of government after what was perhaps the most brutally racist system in the world.

''There's a level of shared experience I can have with a well-educated black colleague here,'' says Roland Pearson, executive director of Ebony Development Alternatives, a joint venture that provides technical assistance and consultation to institutions.

''But they have their own struggles and customs and languages,'' he says. ''Race relations in the US are no picnic, but we didn't suffer as much as they did. Oppression - we can share that. But there is a limit to that.

Several African-Americans canvassed in South Africa reported a similar affinity with local black colleagues, not tensions. Some say they feel a special connection to the continent as the place of their roots and a commitment to contribute to the new society. Many seem happy to stay.

Mr. Pearson said that he felt so comfortable in South Africa that he sometimes forgot that he wasn't in the US, what with big highways, friendly people, and immaculate shopping malls. However, he said the efficiency and infrastructure of South Africa was inferior to that back home.

Whatever the emotional fascination Africa may hold, the major motivation for being here is simple - making money. ''It was a business thing, but I've always been interested in this region and country,'' Pearson says.

''It was a nice marriage of my personal ambition and the country's needs.''

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