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UNC-CH Trustee Weighing Silent Sam Once Worked For South African Government During Apartheid

William Keyes
Courtesy of UNC Chapel Hill

A current member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees is bringing a unique perspective to his deliberations on Silent Sam, the Confederate monument torn down by protesters in August. William Keyes once worked as a paid political operative for the government of South Africa during apartheid.

Keyes worked with the South African government in the mid-to-late 1980s. He was profiled in publications like the Washington Post and Business Week, and was a guest on CNN, the Today Show, the Charlie Rose show, and others. In those stories, Keyes was quoted using inflammatory language about those who were living under, and fighting, apartheid.

In an appearance on CNN (and excerpted in the Washington Post) Keyes called Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress a “terrorist organization.” He also chastised African Americans as “hypocrites” if they supported non-violence during the American Civil Rights era, but were okay with Africans using violence in apartheid South Africa.

Speaking this week with WUNC, Keyes had a simple explanation.

“I don’t remember those comments,” he said. “I can say that I have seen a lot of things attributed to me that I never said and activities that I actually never participated in.”

Lobbyists and lobbying is a very familiar term regarding activity in Washington D.C., but it also has a meaning. Once I was called a lobbyist I think people just had assumptions about the work that I was doing. -William Keyes

Keyes also said those media reports that labeled him as a “lobbyist” did not accurately characterize the work he did.  

“Lobbyists and lobbying is a very familiar term regarding activity in Washington D.C., but it also has a meaning,” he said. “Once I was called a lobbyist I think people just had assumptions about the work that I was doing.”

Keyes said he was more of a consultant than a lobbyist, and that the majority of his work for the apartheid government of South Africa was done in the background, out of the public eye.

“Basically the role I had was to try to negotiate some kind of conversation between folks who were in the white minority and the black majority in that country,” he explained.

Building Support For South Africa’s White Government In The African-American Community

That is quite different from the duties Ron Nixon says Keyes carried out.

Nixon is the author of Selling Apartheid: South Africa's Global Propaganda War and a reporter at the New York Times. He said Keyes and a small group of other black conservatives tried to build support for South Africa’s white government in the African-American community, and one way they did so was to make media appearances and attack Nelson Mandela’s political party.

“To paint the ANC as a terrorist organization,” Nixon said. “That these guys were communists and that if they took over there would be a blood bath in South Africa.”

Keyes’s annual reports made to the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act indicate that his work was broad, and included activities normally associated with lobbyists.

In 1985, for example, his contract stated that he would facilitate joint ventures between black-owned businesses in the two countries, and work to improve the standard of living for South Africa's black population. But it also included specific language about monitoring legislative activities on Capitol Hill, and alerting the government of South Africa to matters which may be important to them.

Later filings show that Keyes worked with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council to write state-specific legislation favorable to the South African government, and fight an ordinance in Los Angeles that would have prohibited businesses who do business in South Africa from doing business with that city.

The apartheid government paid Keyes about $400,000 a year for his services.

Nixon said Keyes was largely ineffective in his primary role, to grow support for the apartheid government within the African-American community.

“This was not something that was going to go over well with the majority of black Americans,” he said.

Keyes said his contract ended before Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. He said his behind-the-scenes work led directly to the largely non-violent transition out of apartheid.

“I believe those things were absolutely necessary to have taken place for us to have the peaceful outcome that we did,” Keyes said. “I am proud of the work that I did, but a lot of what’s been written doesn’t comport with what the reality was.”

The pedestal of the Silent Sam statue without the Confederate monument on Tuesday, August 21, 2018.
Credit Elizabeth Baier / WUNC
File photo of the pedestal of the Silent Sam statue without the Confederate monument on Tuesday, August 21, 2018.

Keyes: Work During Apartheid Informs Silent Sam Decision

Fast forward 30 years, and Keyes says his work during the time of apartheid informs the decision he and his fellow UNC-Chapel Hill Trustees will make on Silent Sam.

“Part of what enabled a peaceful changeover in control of government in South Africa from a white minority to a black majority was not only the demonstrations that you saw but also a lot of negotiation, a lot of conversation, a lot of deliberation behind the scenes, and I think that might compare a little bit to what our charge is regarding Silent Sam,” he said.

As the lone African American on the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, Keyes said he has relayed views to fellow Board members they might not be fully considering.

“It’s not really fair to the system that there’s only one African American on the board because there’s a diversity of views about every topic within the African-American community,” he said.

An Elon University poll taken last year showed about 60 percent of black people want Confederate statues removed from state government property - by far the highest rate among any one demographic group.

Keyes isn’t the only one to express frustration with the makeup of the Board of Trustees.

“We have more people on the UNC Board of Governors and the UNC Board of Trustees who come from old, rich, white, slave-owning families than we do black people,” said William Sturkey, an assistant professor of History at UNC-Chapel Hill. “So in a way it’s this old southern money that's deeply connected throughout the years to segregated education, to one particular interpretation of race in the South or of the history of race in the South or of the Civil War.”

None of the Trustees – including Keyes – have publicly stated their preference for what to do with Silent Sam. The Board and Chancellor Carol Folt will meet and vote on Monday.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Feature News Editor. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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