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Persuading an Arms Dealer to Come Clean in a New South Africa

Yacht trips, golf junkets, and private receptions with Oprah. These are rare events even in elevated diplomatic careers.  Yet William Center, who served in the U.S. Commercial Service during a period of tremendous economic change, experienced all this and more.  His time in South Africa after the fall of apartheid was particularly notable. He faced new political leaders deeply suspicious of the United States.  He also faced business leaders who had operated at the margins of international commerce under the apartheid government—and sometimes broke U.S. laws. He even managed to persuade a major South African arms manufacturer to come clean on secret transactions with Libya—clearing the way above-board trade with the United States.

By the late 1990’s, South Africa had emerged as a new democracy no longer plagued by apartheid and international isolation. The country faced an unprecedented opportunity to forge stronger economic ties to the rest of the world.  However, efforts to break into the United States and global markets met negative perceptions of the African continent, and limited understanding of how quickly South Africa was changing. In some cases, however, South Africa was not changing fast enough.  Many of the countrys biggest firms had been tied up in the illegal activities of the apartheid government. Nowhere was this issue more acute than in the country’s vast arms industry, which had long supplied rogue regimes in violation of international sanctions.  Case in point: arms sales to Libya. Center used every tool at his disposal to overcome the legacy of apartheid, illegal behavior by prominent firms, and enduring distrust of the United States.

William Center spent 30 years in the U.S. Commercial Service (1984-2014). He majored in History at Brown University. After college, he moved to Taiwan for three years to learn Chinese. Returning home unemployed, Center had a happenstance encounter at a Seder dinner, and learned that the newly established Foreign Commercial Service was scrambling to hire Mandarin speakers. He was soon posted in Hong Kong, and later, Shenyang, China in the midst of the country’s opening to the outside world. Center then went on to serve in Paris for five years before returning to China as the principal commercial officer in Shanghai from 1997 to 1999. Following his work in South Africa, Center worked as an adviser at the World Bank as well as at the U.S. embassies in Islamabad and London before retiring in 2014.  

William Center’s Oral History was conducted by Mark Tauber beginning March 9, 2018.  To read his full oral history, click HERE.

Drafted by Dylan Miles

“There was . . . a lot of interest in developing ties to Africa”

Opening American Eyes: This was during the Clinton administration, . . . just at the end of it, so there was still a lot of interest in developing ties to Africa. It was the start of the effort to pass the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which has been renewed a couple of times since then and which gives unilateral access to South African goods – or African goods, I should say – to the U.S. market . . . . Our challenge, as commercial officers, was to try to get U.S. exporters to see past Mexico, see past Canada, see past China and Japan, see past Europe, and come to Africa. Some would, but that was, ultimately, our challenge.  And in the end, we had to have a pretty strategic approach.

“At the end, he gave us documentation saying, ‘We sold this to Libya on these dates.’ ”

Dealing with an Arms Dealer:  One of the guys I met, his name was Zoli Kunene. . . . when things started to change and the regimes changed in South Africa, the Kunene brothers were recruited to sit on all kinds of boards. Zoli was someone I had played golf with. I knew him pretty well at the time. He had this problem . . . He became the CEO of a defense firm, and they had a checkered past. They had sold things that they shouldn’t have to Libya. . . This was the old regime. . . He bought the company, but it was the old regime that was doing all kinds of funny things with the defense trade. I convinced him that if he ever wanted to do business with the U.S. defense industry, he needed to come clean. This was not a case of him personally being involved in any of this stuff, but I can remember how nervous he was. . . . Convincing him to admit to the proscribed exports to Libya and other places that the South Africans were doing on the sly. 

That was tricky, he was sweating bullets, he didn’t really want to do that, but he was a good guy, he trusted me. . .. I was very proud of this, because at the end, he gave us documentation saying, “We sold this to Libya on these dates,” I can’t remember what else. I’m not sure if his company was involved in the Angola business. But he did come forward, and he did it on the strength of my recommendation that if he wanted to do business with the largest defense industry in the world, he had to be right with the State Department and the arms control regimes.

“We were trying to overcome the image that Africa was all about HIV/AIDS. . . .”

A New Look: So, I took. . . I forget the exact number, but it was I think between 12 and 20 CEOs (Chief Executive Officer) of South African companies, and we went to New York, Chicago, and Atlanta. We were trying to overcome the image that Africa was all about HIV/AIDS and violence. So, you know, we brought these very accomplished executives, and we organized a media program . . .they were actually interviewed by Forbes and Bloomberg and the big media outlets in New York. 

. . . We had letters from the mayors and governors of these regions to support our effort. Oprah Winfrey welcomed us in Chicago because she loves South Africa, and she treated us to breakfast and so forth. Bill Rhodes, who was a big deal at Citibank at the time, took us on a yacht around New York. The Coca Cola people couldn’t have been nicer in Atlanta. We arranged all these media interviews, which was kind of a novel technique, to try to project an image that South Africa was not just about HIV/AIDS and violence, that it had a very rich economy and strong infrastructure and it was a very good place to do business. That was a very successful effort.

“That was a strong signal that it was OK to talk to the Americans,”

Breaking the ice with the ANC: Then, I took the ambassador, leveraging my experience in the defense trade, we went to help some U.S. defense firms sell some guidance systems to some of the armaments that the South Africans were good at building…. And then, I took the Ambassador to the Farnborough Air Show…. The ANC (African National Congress) did not like the U.S. government. In the run-up to this we got a member, Walter Sisulu’s son, one of the Sisulus, he was on the executive committee of the ANC. He came to [our] reception, and that was a strong signal that it was OK to talk to the Americans. When we got back to Joburg I was invited to speak to this defense group that had never invited an American to speak to before. We were making some inroads there.


     BA in History, Brown University                                                                                1976–1980 
Joined the Foreign Service                                                                                  1984
     Hong Kong, China—Vice Consul, Commercial Officer                                          1984–1986
     Shenyang, China—Principal Commercial Officer                                                   1987–1989
     Paris, France—Director, Manufacturing/Trade Promotion group                     1992–1997
     Shanghai, China—Principal Commercial Officer                                                   1997–1999
     Johannesburg, South Africa—Deputy Senior Commercial Officer                     1999–2004
     World Bank—Advisor/Director, Business Liaison                                                 2004–2008
     Islamabad, Pakistan—Commercial Counselor                                                        2008–2010
     London, England—Senior Commercial Officer                                                       2010–2014