Black S. African, in US exile, works to help unions back home

On the seventh floor of a Washington office building overlooking busy K Street, a neatly attired black man stretched out in his chair and warmed to a subject close to his heart: economic sanctions against his homeland, South Africa. ``Where do we go from here? What if they don't work? I'm not sure where we go from here. It's a wait-and-see situation,'' muses Nana Mahomo of the African-American Labor Center (AALC). The AALC is a foreign-policy arm of the AFL-CIO that seeks to assist independent trade unions on the African continent.

Born in the Transvaal region of South Africa, Mr. Mahomo is known to few Westerners. But he probably is known to authorities in Pretoria, which banned the Pan African Congress (PAC) to which he belonged, and the African National Congress (ANC), after the Sharpsville massacre in 1960.

Mahomo was invited to join the AALC in 1980, shortly after the AFL-CIO, which represents some 13 million American workers, decided to step up its involvement in the struggle of the South African black trade union movement to eliminate apartheid.

Today, Mahomo oversees the AALC's South African program, working with the Agency for International Development (AID) to secure funds for it. Part of his job is to travel to union meetings and conventions across the United States disseminating information on what the AFL-CIO is doing in South Africa and explaining why the federation is involved there.

Mahomo is aware of divided opinion, both in the US and in South Africa, on the value of economic sanctions as a means of pressuring Pretoria's white-minority government toward reform. Blacks and their trade unions in South Africa are split over the issue, with those opposing sanctions arguing that black workers will lose their jobs as a result. Nevertheless, many blacks in South Africa favor sanctions.

Mahomo was born in Vereenigine, about 30 miles from Johannesburg.

``My father was a minister and my mother a schoolteacher. We were in a slightly better position than most other blacks. Still we felt the effects of apartheid,'' he said. ``There was no way we could not. Every black does.''

While in his 20s, Mahomo became involved with the Pan African Congress and was a member of its executive board when the government banned the organization. Mahomo went to London, where he made films for the PAC to let the world know of apartheid's evils.

A major difference between the PAC and the ANC was that white involvement was accepted by the ANC but shunned by the PAC, Mahomo said. He added that the PAC at one time had almost as many members as the left-leaning ANC, headed by Nelson Mandela, now in a South African prison. PAC still operates, but is neither as large or as active as before.

Mahomo says that, along with other affiliates of the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which claims to represent 80 million workers in 92 countries, the AFL-CIO holds that no solution to South Africa's race relations can be found that excludes the growing influence of that country's black trade union movement.

``It is small. Black trade unions represent only 9 percent of the work force in South Africa,'' Mahomo acknowledged. ``Still there have been impressive gains. There are now close to 1 million unionized black workers, compared with 30,000 in 1979 when black trade unions were legalized.''

AFL-CIO affiliates made individual contributions to help the union launch its assistance program six years ago. Today, most of the funds come from AID. Mahomo said AID channeled more that $1 million through the AALC in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 1986, earmarked for South Africa.

``We have a very active program,'' he said, ``But the South African government is making it more difficult for us to operate these days. Our AALC representative in Lesotho has been denied an entry visa since May.''

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