TransAfrica president Nicole Lee

The official liaison between the Mandela family and the world’s media, Lee assesses the president’s trip to Africa & his efforts to re-engage with countries there both economically and emotionally.

Nicole Lee is the first woman to head TransAfrica—the oldest African American foreign policy organization in the U.S. She's conducted numerous investigations documenting human rights violations of the world’s most vulnerable populations and testified before Congress on policy issues affecting Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Lee was previously the organization's CFO and senior policy researcher and worked for a time at a legal aid firm in South Africa. She also served as managing director of Global Justice. A Buffalo, NY native, she holds a J.D. from the University at Buffalo Law School and has done extensive graduate work in women's studies.


Tavis: President Obama wraps up his second official visit to Africa tomorrow, a trip that’s taken him from Senegal to South Africa over the course of six days. The journey had plenty of symbolic moments, to be sure, including a visit to the Robben Island prison cell where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 of his 27 years behind bars.

But it was also a trip with practical components, highlighting Africa’s emerging economic potential, I should say, and growing middle class, and emphasizing U.S. engagement in a region that has been benefitting from a wave of Chinese investments.

Joining me tonight for her assessment of the Obama trip is Nicole Lee, president of TransAfrica, an advocacy group dedicated to promoting equity in foreign policy as well as justice for the African world. She joins us tonight from Washington, as you can tell by the picture. Nicole, good to have you back on this program. (Laughter)

Nicole Lee: Thank you so much for having me.

Tavis: Let me start by asking whether or not, to your mind, this trip has been more about symbolism or substance.

Lee: Well, it’s tough, because I think that there are a lot of issues that the president and his team could have dealt with. There’s certainly a lot of human rights violations still going on on the continent of Africa, both by despotic governments, but also you have exploitation by corporations, many multinational, even U.S. businesses that we have to be concerned about.

But he really chose to focus in on building Africa for Africans, and that theme really permeated the entire trip. He talked about small and middle class businesses; he talked a lot about renewing AGOA, but also really touched on some of the nuances, some of the problems that Africans have been dealing with, like Chinese investment.

There are two sides to that coin. On one hand, investment is wonderful for Africa, but on the other you have exploitation, and so much of the resources in Africa are being taken out and used for other purposes other than building the countries in Africa.

Tavis: Too little, too late? I ask that against the backdrop of what you know full well – that there’s been no shortage of African commentators who have complained throughout the entire first term that the president wasn’t giving enough attention to Africa.

Here you elect a son of Africa, and his track record, one could argue, has not been as good on Africa as was the track record of George Bush. So there are a lot of African commentators who have complained about the fact that he’s just now getting around to this, and even now, not enough is being placed on the table. What’s your sense of whether or not this is too little, too late?

Lee: I think it’s complicated. I think first of all, it’s not too late. Every day, amazing, beautiful children are born in Africa and they deserve a chance. Many, many more of them are being born into the middle class, while unfortunately, far too many are still being born in poverty.

I think that when you compare what Obama is up against right now, what President Obama’s up against in terms of foreign policy versus President Bush, President Bush was lobbied by his conservative constituents, frankly, to do more work in Africa, and some of that work TransAfrica has been very supportive of and some of it we’re not.

But what we have seen is that there has been this sense that President Obama has to be very careful. He’s walking a very fine line when it comes to Africa. We see what happened on this trip. He didn’t go to Kenya.

Now so many people from the continent felt that oh, of course he’s going to Kenya, because he’s a son of Kenya. But yet I think frankly, it was a prudent choice not to go, and I think it was a prudent choice not to go because of the elections that were just held in Kenya.

You have a president in Kenya that has been brought up on charges with the ICC, the International Criminal Court. I think it is a very fine line for the president. So while I of course want to see more involvement, more engagement, more of our money directly going to help the people of Africa, I do also see the fact that it is important to understand he is dealing with many, many forces that are certainly having an impact on his choices.

Tavis: Speaking of prudence and walking fine lines, how do you think he navigated the trip to South Africa, given the condition of Nelson Mandela?

Lee: I think it’s tough. I think that obviously President Mandela’s health has been deteriorating. His condition has been up and down. I think had he gone to visit, people would have said, “Oh, that could look opportunistic.”

I think it was absolutely essential that he honored the family, that he went and he met with his family, and he talked openly throughout the entire trip about Mandela’s role, about Nelson Mandela’s role in the continent and really getting us to this point.

Both his iconic role, but also the behind-the-scenes role that Nelson Mandela played. So I’m pleased that he visited his family. At the same time, when we think of Nelson Mandela, this is a human being.

This is a father, this is a grandfather, this is a husband, and I do think it makes sense for, if his condition is what it seems to be, that only close, close family members are seeing him. So I think it was a prudent choice.

Tavis: Let me go back to this Chinese issue that I raised and you raised as well. How concerned should the nation – that is to say the United States of America – how concerned should we be about the aggressive push by China into the continent, and do you see on the part of China the same thing that we and others were guilty of back in the day; namely, colonizing the continent.

Lee: Sure. I think we should be concerned from just a – our government should be concerned from a foreign policy perspective, but we shouldn’t really be surprised, and this is why I say this.

For years, for decades, Africa was really used as a proxy when it came to the Soviet Union and the Cold War. We really tried to play Africa against itself, if you will – really, not because of anything that African governments or their leaders were doing, but because of our issues, our Cold War with China – with the Soviet Union.

Because of that, African governments and African people frankly in some ways are very skeptical of the U.S. role on the continent, and so here you have China come in, China’s not going to talk about human rights one way or the other, there’s not going to be any hypocrisy in that way in what they’re saying.

They’re not going to say, “Oh, you’re on our side so we think you’re the good guys,” or “You’re not on our side, so we think you’re bad guys.” It’s frankly a simple transaction.

They need resources, they want resources, and they’re willing to give up things for resources. In some way, many commentators in Africa, both governmental officials but also just NGO officials, say at least it’s a cleaner deal. At least we understand what’s happening when we’re dealing with China.

Tavis: To your point now, if there is a word that the president, Obama, that is, used over and over and over again in terms of staying on message, it was the word “partnership.”

Everywhere he went, he kept talking about partnership – economic partnership most importantly, but he kept talking about partnership. To your mind, do we really – we, the U.S. – really see Africa at this point as a partner, or are we still treating them as something less than?

Lee: I think when it comes, oftentimes, to our business relationships, some of which are very old “partnerships,” or relationships that we’ve had, some of those deals are not fair, and I think that that was something that he was really speaking to when he was in Senegal, that we need to have these fair partnerships.

I think that we’re still playing by some old-fashioned rules that have to do with issues of race, that have to do with issues of class, that have to do with issues of ethnicity, and I think what is important now is that people in the United States, whether you be African American or a first-generation person from Africa, or whether you’ve never even been to Africa and you have really nothing to do with the continent, we really have to encourage our government to win over countries that they’re working in, that they’re playing fair.

So I think that that part is really the essential part, because overall, 50 years from now, when our children are dealing with the world and they’re inheriting what we have left them, we want to make sure that we have been fair in our dealings, because that is the way we’re going to have friends in the long term.

Tavis: I want to circle back to where I began. How could there even be a debate at all about whether or not the first African American president had done enough with and for the continent.

Did Black in the diaspora, certainly Black folk in America, did we give this president a pass? Was it wrong of us to have expected more of him vis-à-vis Africa? How does this debate even continue as to whether or not he has done enough for this continent?

Lee: Well, Tavis, often I get that question, and to be honest, I don’t worry so much about what President Obama is doing. I worry, as you said, about what we’re doing.

Tavis: Right.

Lee: I don’t think that any president should get a pass. I don’t believe that any administration or any Congress, whether or not they be a progressive Democratic Congress or a Republican Congress. I think that really, we need to have values and principles.

Tavis: Let me ask a quick exit question. I know that TransAfrica has been asked by authorities in South Africa to be on the forefront of messaging and responding to the tributes to Mandela that are bound to come, whenever that moment that is going to come does come.

I don’t mean to be morbid about this, but every one of us has to meet our maker at some point, so we know that day at some point will arrive for Mr. Mandela, as it will for you, me, and everybody else.

I know TransAfrica, again, has been asked to be at the forefront of making sure that this legacy is treated with the kind of respect and regard in this country that it ought to be.

Let me close by asking whether or not there’s anything you can imagine in the massive body of work that TransAfrica has done that represents more of a shining beacon of light and hope than what TransAfrica did during the fight to rid South Africa of apartheid.

I think of your predecessor now, Randall Robinson, and the hunger strike and all that he did and all that TransAfrica did. You cannot talk about apartheid ending in South Africa without saying the name TransAfrica.

So give me some sense of historically how you situate the work that TransAfrica did to end apartheid in South Africa, and what you see as your mandate going forward on these kinds of human rights issues.

Lee: No, I really appreciate that question, Tavis, and I think it’s so important. Listen, there has, there will never be, I think, another Free South Africa movement. We’ll never have that moment again like that, where it was just the perfect collision of so many things, and so many years of hard work that took place.

So you think of a Randall Robinson, but there were so many people behind the scenes at TransAfrica and at other organizations that really made that happen. I think the idea of TransAfrica is still so relevant today that people, African Americans and other groups around this country, have a duty to respond when we see our government doing something that may not be right in another country.

Or we see that our brothers and sisters in another country need our help, and what happened there is that TransAfrica really just responded to the people of South Africa, saying not look at what apartheid is doing to us, but look at what your country is doing because of apartheid.

We supported apartheid for years and years and years. Today, we see apartheid still happening all over the world. We see a global apartheid. Those who have nothing and those who have plenty.

Those who are still disenfranchised, whether they be Afro-descendants in countries like Colombia or Venezuela or anyplace where we see people that don’t have what they need every day to survive.

So I think that TransAfrica is more relevant than ever, and because of that we actually launched a hashtag, Tavis, on Twitter called #mandelamatters. What’s so interesting is Mandela matters, that message that he had matters today, but also there are matters, there are issues that if Mandela were healthy he would be taking up.

Tavis: Let me –

Lee: He would be talking about debt, he would be talking about healthcare, he’d be talking about education.

Tavis: I hate to cut you off. I’m going to lose this satellite feed, but I’m glad you got that hashtag out – #mandelamatters. Nicole, good to have you on the program. Thanks for your work, and we’ll do it again soon.

Lee: Thank you so much.

Tavis: Nicole Lee of TransAfrica.

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Last modified: May 12, 2014 at 9:41 pm