Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.


Building Trust and Supporting Human Rights in Apartheid South Africa

Apartheid sign | Dewet | Wikimedia Commons
Apartheid sign | Dewet | Wikimedia Commons

In 1988, a formidable coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAA) over President Reagan’s veto. Months later, USAID sent Timothy Bork to South Africa to implement this highly controversial legislation. During Bork’s tour, Nelson Mandela and other leaders remained imprisoned as violent confrontations erupted in townships across South Africa. At every step, he encountered resistance because neither Black activists, nor the White government, or U.S. activists fully trusted his motives.

To accomplish his mission, Bork had to constantly forge and rebuild relationships. He drew heavily from his experience as a young law student working with Black-led community organizations in Georgia. In both places, he learned the importance of stepping back and letting local communities and leaders design and implement the programs meant to help them. He devised “ten commandments” for his staff and every commandment was the same: “Listen, don’t speak.” Setbacks were common, but with patience and tenacity, Bork and his team helped empower Black leaders and lay the groundwork for future programs.

Timothy Bork worked for nineteen years tackling the legal challenges that USAID faced in Africa. He spent most of his career in Washington, D.C., and served as a Mission Director, General Counsel, Director of the Office of the Sahel and West Africa, and Deputy Assistant Administrator. With an eye for detail and a passion for protecting human rights, Bork began his career as a civil rights lawyer in Atlanta, and went on to work for the Ford Foundation after he retired from USAID.

Timothy Bork’s interview was conducted by John Pielemeier on September 20, 2017.

Read Timothy Bork’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Lydia Laramore

Excerpts: “They denounced the program as an intrusion on their sovereignty . . . .”
South African Flag (2005) Col | Flickr
South African Flag (2005) Col | Flickr

Arriving in South Africa: During my first visit to work on the human rights program I learned a great lesson about working in South Africa. When I opened the leading newspaper one morning there was an article on the proposed U.S. human rights program, accompanied by a photocopy of my draft document. Even my notations on the draft were visible. It was obvious that someone had entered my room while I was at dinner and had copied the report. Fortunately, the report was not classified, just a simple analysis of the human rights record of South Africa with an outline of possible activities. They denounced the program as an intrusion on their sovereignty, but there was nothing they could really do since they didn’t want to aggravate a favorable U.S. administration. Later, someone in the embassy advised that South Africa’s spy and espionage capacity was considered number seven in sophistication in the world. That was my introduction to South Africa.

“. . . . I devised what I called the 10 commandments for staff. All ten were the same, and that was: Listen. Don’t Talk.”

Establishing Trust and Contacts: What helped me to guide the program, without hesitation, was the work I had done in civil rights as a law student in Georgia. That experience was profound. As a young to-become-lawyer, I was in Atlanta, as an H. Sol Clarke fellow. . . . Quickly, the community organizations, Black-led, enlisted us in any way they could, but there was one caveat and I learned that profoundly. At a community function a leader kindly, but bluntly told me, “Help us, but keep your lily-white ass down, brother.” Those were his exact words.

What he meant was, we need you to do a lot of the technical stuff, but you’re not the leader. I think anyone who was in that movement, if you didn’t realize that sooner or later, you were stupid. So, nothing was more powerful than that advice when I got to South Africa, because we were coming in as a new staff, totally under suspicion because
of the current administration. People didn’t want to talk to us. They didn’t like us. So, how do you deal with something like that? Well, I devised what I called the 10 commandments for staff. All ten were the same, and that was: Listen. Don’t talk. My fear was that staff was more used to dialogue with government officials, often with similar background and not in a conflict situation. Starting off suggesting solutions for others in a conflict situation, where you are suspect would only confirm suspicions.

“They didn’t care about money. They care about their dignity.”

“Necklacing” and the Eastern Cape: Cognizant of history, we were determined to engage community leaders of the Eastern Cape. This would add to our credibility since being somewhat of a backwater but stiffly opposed to U.S. policy, their involvement in the CAA [Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act] program would be positive. We worked diligently with a number of church groups and eventually through some cajoling by some of our high level contacts in Cape Town, they submitted a proposal for funding. We were elated. After the project was approved, Carlos [program officer] and I flew to Port Elizabeth to present the check. At this same moment a Conservative Congressman, I believe Dan Burton, proposed amending the CAA to require an AID grantee to denounce the practice of “Necklacing” as a condition to the Grant.

Necklacing is the practice of extrajudicial execution of a suspected informant by placing a rubber tire around a victim’s neck, filling it with petrol and setting it on fire. It was mostly used to punish persons who were suspected of collaborating with the South African police. This brutal practice occurred at the time of the passage of the CAA prompting the Congressman’s proposal.

When we arrived in Port Elizabeth, we were told that the organization would not accept the grant because the new legislation was interpreted as a form of humiliation of Black South Africans as uncivilized and barbaric, and to quote one official, you think we are all necklacing people and you’ve got to say you are not a necklace before you get this money. Of course, necklacing is a brutal, unacceptable act, but in the highly-charged political environment of South Africa to imply a grantee was prone to necklace someone was more than a casual slight. This was exacerbated by its source, a conservative Congressman who fought all sanctions and described the movement as a communist conspiracy.

They didn’t care about money. They cared about their dignity . . . . We had to start over in that community. We ended up, many months later, placing the money, but it was only after working through other organizations, who could give us credence so that we could go back down there. Setbacks like this were very common but very tough on such a small staff committed to carry out the letter and intent of the CAA.

“They were sorry. They needed the resources but we had been discredited by an important U.S. organization.”

Undermined by America: One of our earliest initiatives was to build capacity in the Black legal community. . . . We quickly became engaged with the Black Lawyers Association (BLA) and were impressed with the talent of the staff and their membership. But it had little or no resources. We recognized this as our best opportunity to build legal capacity in South Africa. It took a long time to get their board to agree to take our grant. Ed Spriggs, the African American Regional Legal Advisor and I had spent countless hours consulting with the staff, the board and members. As we were preparing the grant, we were informed that the Lawyer for Human Rights (LHR) organization in Washington had advised them to not take the grant. They were sorry. They needed the resources but we had been discredited by an important U.S. organization.

This was shocking since I had made it a point to consult with the Director of LHR each time I traveled to Washington. In my next trip to Washington I explained the problem to the Chairman of the Board of LHR and he quickly worked to resolve the problem.

“I believe the early work of USAID South Africa successfully laid the groundwork for the much larger programs that followed.”

Laying the groundwork: I could go on forever recounting my experience in South Africa. I have tried to pick a few topics that give people reading this a pretty solid idea of what we did and why we did it. . . . I believe the early work of USAID South Africa successfully laid the groundwork for the much larger programs that followed.


BA, Lake Forest College                                                                       1963–1967
JD, University of Georgia School of Law                                          1969
MA in International Law, Georgetown University                         1971
Joined USAID                                                                                     1974
Washington D.C.—Assistant General Counsel                                1974–1977
Washington D.C.—Senior Lawyer for East Africa                          1977–1980
Washington D.C.—General Counsel for Africa                               1981–1987
South Africa—USAID Mission Director                                           1988–1990
Ford Foundation                                                                               1991
Director for Africa and Middle East Programs                               1991–1996
Developed the Africa Policy Initiative                                              1997–2000