Washington, DC — I knew of Howard Wolpe long before I had the honor of having a friendship with him.
During the 1980s, when I was in graduate school in California studying Africa, economics and U.S. foreign policy, Howard came on to my radar when he became Chair of the Africa Subcommittee in the House of Representatives. This was a time, somewhat unrecognizable today, when everything in the foreign policy arena related to Africa seemed to be divided into camps: pro-American or pro-Soviet, regionalist or globalist and, as it concerned apartheid in South Africa, pro-sanctions or anti-sanctions.
From my perch 3000 miles away, there was no doubt where Howard stood. He loved our country deeply. He believed strongly that we needed a nuanced approach to Africa that accounted for regional complexities, and he was a determined opponent of apartheid and a believer in the need for sanctions. That passion and unwavering belief was a key factor in the passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 and the extraordinary override of President Reagan’s veto of the legislation.
I would come to know Howard later when we both joined the State Department’s Africa Bureau during the Clinton Administration. My image of a legislative warrior was quickly undone by this gracious, humble, warm and extremely intelligent individual. I became in awe of his commitment to the Great Lakes, his vast network of friendships and acquaintances in Africa, the U.S. and elsewhere, and the energy he devoted to his responsibility as the President’s Special Envoy to that troubled region.
We worked on issues together and at times traveled together. Through this I developed an immense fondness and respect for Howard. He was an unquestioned giant and leader in advancing an American agenda that was mutually beneficial for the U.S. and our partners in Africa.
Howard, like all of us, was not without foibles. It generally was not advisable to be in between him and an interpreter who was working to translate his complex thoughts on conflict resolution into French or Portuguese. But it was also the kind of thing that endeared so many of us to him.
Howard will be missed dearly. He was unique in his ability to understand others and for his commitment to Africa and the U.S. He set a very high standard for all of us, which will be one of his enduring legacies.
Witney Schneidman is president of Schneidman and Associates and a former deputy assistant secretary of State for Africa