His love for Africa began in Kenya
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The bombing on August 7, 1998 happened a month before the US Senate had approved Stith’s appointment as US ambassador to Tanzania. The insurgents also simultaneously attacked the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.
Despite those two attacks, which claimed more than 200 lives, Stith and his family packed their bags and left for Tanzania a month later.
He had been in Africa before - ironically, in Kenya, which he first visited as a US university student 30 years earlier, a few days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. At the time, following King's violent death, the US was hit by a string of protests and unrest.
Stith and some members of the Presbyterian Church in the US undertook a trip to one of the Kenyan rural villages to build schools, community centres and recreational facilities to uplift the lives of people there.
“It was my first time in Africa. Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, was still alive. It was a life-changing experience in a lot of ways,” he remembers.
Stith grew up in St Louis, Missouri in an exclusive black community, and the first time he worked with other racial groups was when he was part of that delegation to Kenya.
They all travelled to Naivasha with one mission: to help the poor people there.
On his return to the US, Stith reignited his role in the anti-apartheid Struggle in the US, including forging ties with South Africans such as Themba Vilakazi and Aggrey Mbere.
“In 1982 I organised a fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe. The capital city was still known as Salisbury, while Harare was the name of the township where black people lived. It was two years after the independence of Zimbabwe,” Stith said.
He was with three other people, including a journalist. All four of them had also wanted to visit South Africa but had no visas to enter apartheid South Africa. Although he did not have a visa, Stith “flew to South Africa, anyway” and, on arrival, introduced himself to the immigration officer.
“I handed my passport over to him and explained my situation. The officer escorted me to a room in the airport. The walls were painted white. It seemed like eternity,” Stith said.
While alone in that room, he kept asking himself a lot of questions, and fear gripped him due to the fact that the South African government at the time “had a habit of killing”.
Fortunately for him, he was not deported.
Instead, the officer returned 30 minutes later with a passport and visas in his hand, which he gave to Stith. He had arrived late, which resulted in his losing his hotel booking, but the Soweto family of his former comrade Mbere - the late former South African ambassador to Rwanda - accommodated him at their home in Soweto.
This was to be his first interaction with the people who had felt the brunt of apartheid bullets in 1976.
“The Mbere family showed me around Soweto. We visited shebeens, and a lot of the conversations there were political,” Stith said.
His visit to Soweto co- incided with the death of anti-apartheid activist Neil Aggett in police custody. At the time, police claimed Aggett had committed suicide.
“I went to the Joburg CBD, where there were protests around his killing. I think Bishop Tutu was one of the speakers, as well as Helen Suzman. The thing that shocked me was that the crowd was huge and there was also a large number of white people,” Stith said.
He noted that in the US at the time, the impression had been created that only black people were involved in the fight against apartheid.
Stith returned again to South Africa in 1994 as part of the US delegation to monitor the country’s first democratic elections following threats by white extremists to disrupt the poll.
On his second arrival in the country, Stith found optimism among both black and white people about the elections.
“I spoke to an elderly black guy and I asked him about the threats of the white extremists. He told me that he was prepared to vote for the first time in his life. He said that even if the white extremists blow up the voting station, he would vote in heaven,” Stith said.
He added that some of the white people expressed the same desire, particularly one white girl who had just turned the voting age of 18.
The US delegation, which included the Rev Jesse Jackson, also had an opportunity to hold talks with Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk.
Four years later, Stith was appointed ambassador to Tanzania, where he had good interactions with then president Benjamin Mkapa.
He managed to persuade Mkapa to lead a delegation of 75 Tanzanian business people to look for business opportunities and trade relations with the US.
While in Tanzania, he pushed for improved relations with other countries in East Africa.
He said he extended a hand of friendship to several other presidents in the region, including assisting them to adjust after leaving office or when their presidential terms had ended.
Part of Stith’s initiative was to encourage sitting presidents in their respective countries to record their achievements while in office, including impediments to their plans.
After his term ended in 2001, Stith joined Boston University’s Department of International Relations.
While there, he continued his links with former presidents of African countries, which led to the formation of the African Presidential Leadership Centre, a branch of which was officially established in South Africa last week.
These leadership centres are based in 15 African countries, and the aim is to grow the number. The purpose, according to Stith, is to allow former African presidents to continue to contribute to the economic and educational upliftment of their people.
While at Boston, he invited several former heads of state to deliver lectures at various universities in the US. One of them was former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, who was one of the former heads of state who was part of Boston University’s residential programme.
He said he got flak for inviting former African presidents to the US and was accused of creating residence in the US for “former African dictators”. Stith said the attacks came from a leading newspaper and various politicians, but the university supported his efforts.
“The addresses by former African presidents gave US students and citizens an opportunity to engage in, and understand, a well-balanced picture of life in Africa.
“Kenneth Kaunda (KK) was in the US when George Bush was insisting on the US invasion of Iraq. Bush was insisting that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. KK made it clear that he was against the invasion of Iraq. He maintained his viewpoint throughout his addresses in the US,” Stith said.
The US went ahead with the invasion but that did not change Kaunda’s views, Stith said.
The African Presidential Leadership Centre, established in 2012, wants African presidents to write their own history, as well as their future development plans.
Last week, Rupiah Banda - another former Zambian president - told people in Joburg that his country had only 109 people, including himself, with university degrees at the time of independence in 1964.
In Tanzania, former president Jakaya Kikwete told the same forum that his country had only two engineers and five medical doctors at independence in 1961.
“All these African countries had to undertake massive education of its people throughout the continent, including to set up state infrastructure, but very little about it is written,” Stith said.
He said the African Presidential Leadership Centre was founded for that purpose and their mission was to bring more African countries on board.
Stith is non-executive chairman of the board, which is a non-paid volunteer position. He is primarily the chairman of The Pula Group, LLC, which is a family of companies that invest in high-value opportunities on the continent of Africa. The philosophy of the company is “do well and do good”. His support for the African Presidential Leadership Centre reflects his values, personally and corporate, and desire to give back to the community.