For a group of African diplomats meeting in Kansas over the weekend, the official subject was food -- specifically, how Africa can recruit technical assistance from Midwesterners skilled in all aspects of food production, storage , distribution, and marketing.
But the African-American Institute Conference's opening exchanges made it clear that black Africa's overriding concern is with the political issues raised by South Africa and the Reagan administration's policies toward southern Africa.
African delegates agreed with US government officials and private experts that urgent action is needed to combat Africa's steady decline in per capita food production. According to the US Department of Agriculture, this decline will force Africa to import over 18 million tons of food in 1981, placing additional strains on already overstretched economies. Zimbabwe's ambassador to the United States, Elleck K. Mashingadze, explained that "we are failing to concentrate on the production of food because we are concentrating instead on Namibia and South Africa." He said this will continue "until our continent is totally liberated" and warned that "the United States will have to choose between Africa and South Africa."
Dr. Mashingadze and other African diplomats said it is in the United States' own interest to listen to Africa and encourage South Africa to accept change.
US Rep. Howard Wolpe (D) of Michigan, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, put the same point even more bluntly. "The greatest single threat to US strategic and economic interests in the continent comes from South Africa," he told the conference. He said the chief causes of political instability in Africa are South Africa's racial separation system of apartheid and "the continued refusal of South Africa to remove itself from its illegal occupation of Namibia."
Congressman Wolpe said the US creates problems "when we are identified with repressive regimes which are inherently unstable." The result of appearing to tilt toward South Africa, he warned, not only threatens to interrupt key mineral supplies but also "provides the greatest opportunity for the expansion of Soviet and Cuban influence within the region."
The Reagan administration's reply to such criticisms came from newly confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker. He said the administration's objectives in Africa are to:
* "Promote peace, stability, and regional stability. . . ."
* "Support proven friends. . . ."
* "Support negotiated solutions to the problems of southern Africa. . . ."
* "expand that group of nations whose development policies produce economic progress and which have flourishing democratic institutions. . . ."
Such Western objectives, he said, "are increasingly threatened by political instability, external intervention, and declining economic performance."
"It is not the United States government that is bringing the cold war into Africa," he told the Monitor. Addressing representatives from Angola, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Nigeria, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Zambia, Zaire, and Zimbabwe, Mr. Crocker said that "Soviet, Cuban, and East Bloc intervention in African affairs, the presence of thousands of Cuban troops in Angola and Ethiopia, the presence of Libyan troops in Ethiopia, and the massive transfers of arms by Eastern Bloc nations all serve to undermine US and Western interests in Africa. . . . The globe's leading sources of destabilization are active in Africa."
Crocker called for "internationally recognized independence" for Namibia (South-West Africa) and for "evolutionary change in South Africa toward a nonracial society."
He also pledged US support for Africa's battle against "declining per capita food production, falling per capita growth rates for most nations, staggering import bills for non-oil-exporting nations, desertification, high rates of inflation and deteriorating terms of trade, [and] population and urbanization growth rates which are the highest in world."
Commenting on Crocker's speech, Zimbabwe's Ambassador Mashingadze told the Monitor that "the Reagan administration will come to realize that the real interests of the United States lie in working with the African countries through the OAU [Organization of African Unity], through the United Nations, and through the Frontline States [Zambia, Angola, Botswana, Tanzania, and Mozambique]."
African delegates expressed confidence that US-African tensions will be reduced once the Reagan administration replaces its "mixed signals" on South Africa with firm pressure for change in that country. At that point, Africans explained, the US government's lead will help open the way for the private US investment needed to switch Africa from food shortage to food surplus. According to Sudanese Ambassador Omer Salih Eissa, "Africa has all the resources and all the potential to feed itself if given the technical support."
After touring an 18 million bushel grain elevator and watching a nonstop team of combines harvest 70 bushels of wheat per acre on a Kansas farm, Zambian presidential adviser Dominic Mulaisho said that "we do not want to continue to be net recipients of food aid; we in Africa also want to be generating surpluses." He hopes the contacts made in Kansas will continue so that Africans can "learn from our American friends how they have turned the dust bowl that this land was into the thriving agricultural and industrial area that it is today."
African and American delegates agreed on the tremendous potential for expanding trade between their two continents. What stands in the way, explained Tanzanian Ambassador Paul Bomani, is the fact that "the US now is looked at from an African point of view as guilty by association with South Africa."
But the conference's cosponsor, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, sees no advantage to turning against South Africa. "To try to avoid South Africa in any discussion is not a productive way to go," she told the Monitor.
Senator Kassebaum, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, believes that South Africans will benefit from abandoning their apartheid policies and that the US has "an obligation to try to pressure them into moving ahead." But she concludes that US policies toward South Africa must remain diplomatically "flexible and fuzzed at times." The hard line advocated by Africans at the Kansas conference would not work, she argues, because "the only way you can be successful is to talk and be communicative."