Michael Urmann decided to expand the program to southern Africa. In late December of 1989, we sent a needs assessment team to Zambia to meet with the African National Congress (ANC), that consisted of Michael Urmann, Louis Proyect, Mary Engle, Jeff Klein, and Jeff’s companion, Elaine __.
Michael Urmann was an economist, specializing in economic history, specifically labor history, and in agricultural economics. Jeff Klein “worked as a machinist but also had advanced electronic communications skills. Jeff had studied archaeology in graduate school and even did some field work before getting a job at GE in Lynn, long a bastion of left organizing.”¹ Mary Engle was an information and library automation specialist with additional organizing and office skills. Louis Proyect was a computer systems analyst and database specialist with advanced technical knowledge of IT. Elaine was an academic with office skills (?).
While in Africa planning projects with the ANC, TecNica analysts were invited to the home of Thabo Mbeke in Lusaka, Zambia, to meet with top-level managers of everyday ANC operations. We spoke for more than an hour, discussing the areas of development assistance that ANC managers felt most needed to be addressed and the types of expertise that TecNica could recruit outside Zambia. We discussed everything from IT and general computer skills, communications, skilled trades, information technology and library services, office skills, and needs of the Women’s Center, particularly in the form of training and updated equipment.
Thabo Mbeke and several aides stopped by to meet the delegation personally. Most of the ANC leadership had been college-educated in Sweden, funded by the government of Sweden. They thanked us for our interest and willingness to collaborate with ANC members to develop expertise in as many technical areas as possible.
Our meeting was momentarily interrupted when Mbeke’s wife came into the room in distress because a computer file that she been working on was lost. As a favor to Oliver Tambo, then head of the ANC, she had been typing his annual address to the ANC to be delivered the following week on New Year’s Day. Suddenly the nearly-complete document file had disappeared from her computer. Many of us could relate to her dismay and concern that it was gone forever.
Responding to her distress, Louis Proyect, our computing expert, volunteered his services to recover the file. He left the room for no more than 20 minutes, then returned. He had search the hard drive, recovered a saved copy of the file, and restored it intact for her to finish editing. He showed her how to save it safely. The relief was palpable.
That small but immediate accomplishment made it clear to ANC members how valuable the technical skills of TecNica Volunteers could be to them. We spent no more time justifying our presence or explaining what we were offering, but instead collaborated on developing projects and identifying the expertise needed.
Louis observed offered a further observation about that trip to Africa.
“One day we paid a cab driver to drive us around Lusaka to get a feel for the capital city. Michael, who considered himself a specialist in household economics more than anything else, asked the driver why so many office buildings were left unfinished. His answer: you people took the construction equipment with you. Although the cabbie had no idea that we were there to fight against neocolonialism, Michael said that he felt lifted up by his militancy. Like many long-time leftists, his greatest joy was seeing people fight against their oppression.”
After our meetings in Africa, a TecNica Volunteer traveled to Mozambique for his technical assistance project. To put it mildly, the need was extreme in Mozambique. Shortly after this trip, the political situation in South Africa changed dramatically. The ANC and the SA Government negotiated the return of the ANC from other African nations and a peaceful transfer of power. The ANC left its bases in Zambia and Tanzania, returned to South Africa, and participated in the SA government led by Nelson Mandela.
Thabo Mbeke succeeded Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa when President Mandela retired.
¹ “Michael Urmann ¡Presente!,” Louis Proyect: Unrepentent Marxist (blog), May 6, 2012, https://louisproyect.org/category/tecnica/.