“Solidarity is not an act of charity, but mutual aid between people fighting for the same objectives.” ((A version of this paper was presented in Durban, South Africa, in October 2004 by Sylvia Hill, co-chairperson of the Southern Africa Support Project.))
- Samora Machel, President of Mozambique, 1975–1986.
With these words, in 1978, the Southern Africa Support Project (SASP) fashioned itself as an international solidarity movement dedicated to, as our organizing booklet proclaimed, “Bringing the Struggle Home: Organizing for Action on Southern Africa.” Our slogan proclaimed the links between our domestic struggle in the United States and the people of southern Africa.
SASP was one of the groups that served as an organizing base for the Free South Africa Movement. So it is from that perspective that I share with you some of the lessons learned from this movement.
My aim in this presentation is to give you a sense of the scope and depth of the launching of the Free South Africa Movement in its first year, from 1984–85. There remains a complex period from ‘85 through ’94, but time does not permit me to fully explore this phase of the movement. So I want to acknowledge that this written presentation will not cover an analysis of that important period of history, although I will sketch the major events of that period.
Two Political Blows to the Movement
On November 21, 1984, four Americans of African descent—Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica; Mary Frances Berry, the U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner; Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Georgetown University Law School professor; and Congressman Walter Fauntroy (D-DC)—visited the South African Embassy to discuss the growing crises in South Africa. As the people of South Africa expressed their opposition to an increasingly brutal and repressive regime, we feared that the Botha-led government would commit political genocide against the leadership of labor, youth, and township activists. During that entire year of 1984, there had been a large number of labor strikes and youth protests with brutally repressive actions by corporations and government forces. In addition, a number of reports revealed the extent to which the apartheid regime had had a devastating impact on the lives of South Africans in both rural areas and townships.
South Africa had stepped up its regional effort to stabilize its power. The Botha regime had also created a bogus constitution that denied Black South Africans the right to participate in the newly constituted parliament while permitting Indians and so-called coloreds to have a limited representation. As South Africans protested, this newly constituted parliament was an effort by the regime to pretend that they were making fundamental changes in the apartheid system. We watched with horror as police and security forces repressed political dissent with customary brutality. For those of us facing another four years of the Reagan administration, the escalating drumbeats of oppression and violence seemed loud and overwhelmingly worldwide.
For South Africans, four more years of the Reagan administration’s constructive engagement policy could only be a political setback and a derailment of the momentum of their growing resistance internally. This was our political reality. Randall Robinson asked, “How much lower can we fall? We’re already down.” Cecelie Counts, TransAfrica’s legislative assistant and SASP member, loathed facing another year of lobby work against the Reagan enterprise. Adowa Dunn-Mouton, another SASP member, also felt she faced bleak legislative work as a House Foreign Relations Committee staffer during the second term of the Reagan administration.
The SASP leadership—Sandra Hill, Joseph Jordan, and I—were dismayed that Reagan had won another term and wondered what is to be done? Richard Hatcher, Chair of TransAfrica’s board, felt that the organization needed to launch protests at the White House. We all felt a collective will that if nothing else, we would symbolize our opposition as African-Americans. Robinson proposed, and the SASP leadership team agreed, on civil disobedience at the South Africa Embassy as the symbol of the white minority regime, and we would gather prominent African-Americans to launch the protests against the oppression of Black people in South Africa.
In the weeks before this single act of civil disobedience, about 7,000 South African soldiers joined police in house-to-house raids in townships near Johannesburg and Pretoria “to rid the area of criminal and revolutionary elements,” according to Louis Le Grange, the South African Minister of Police.
Black workers in the Johannesburg area joined in one of the largest two-day general strikes. Sasol, the state oil-from-coal company, fired 6,500 workers for their participation in the strike. This escalating brutality by the South African regime, coupled with our malaise following the Reagan re-election, had brought us to a “something is better than nothing” mode of political analysis.
In addition, we had the memory of the previous four years of the Reagan administration’s invasion of Grenada, the Contra wars, and the administration’s profoundly symbiotic relationship with South Africa’s apartheid regime. It’s important to understand that many African-Americans viewed Reagan and his administration as fundamentally racist and a supporter of white supremacy. So it was not difficult for us, as an organization, to garner energy and the political will to challenge the Reagan administration’s “constructive engagement” policy. In addition, the SASP had been organizing grassroots community activities to build people-to-people ties with the struggles in southern Africa since 1978. Before then, we had tried organizing a national coalition of groups and then the June 16th Coalition in response to the South African youth rebellion in 1976. Later, we organized the Southern Africa News Collective, which ultimately led to SASP. The internal struggle of the people of South Africa at this historical moment and our connection to the region were important factors that contributed to us seizing this historical moment in support of the struggle for justice in South Africa.
Another contributing factor to our ability to seize this historical moment was the strategic decision by Oliver Tambo, who led the African National Congress (ANC) as its acting president during the long years of its banishment and the incarceration of Nelson Mandela and many ANC activists, to allocate the ANC’s limited resources to expanding its presence in the United States. Before Lindiwez Mabuza was assigned to Washington, D.C., the late Johnny Makatini served at the United Nations and did his best to stabilize national and international solidarity linkages with the ANC while working within the United Nations context.
Without the laboring of these two people, it is likely that the historical moment may have passed without our having the knowledge and sense of the ANC’s visions and goals. Makatini and Mabuza worked tirelessly to build the kind of people-to-people ties with various small groups of people throughout the United States. Most importantly, their roles were political. They collaborated and conferred with anti-apartheid groups. They reached out to traditional civil rights organizations, labor unions, and women’s groups. They spoke at nationwide forums and told the stories of the people of South Africa living under the apartheid system on television, radio and in print media.
South Africans living in exile were also important. Jennifer Davis and Dumisani Kumalo were key national organizers of their New York-based organizations, The American Committee on Africa (ACOA), where Jennifer served as executive director, and the Africa Fund, where Dumisani was a project director. Both South African and U.S. artists were important links to the South African struggle, and the extraordinary artist Harry Belafonte was a key organizer of Artists Against Apartheid. They were the faces and voices of South Africa during those lean media years when hardly a radio or television station or print newspaper gave us a vision or voice of what was happening politically or culturally inside South Africa or the broader region.
We relied on the Black press and the few alternative media, like WPFW and WHUR in D.C., operating at that time as voices of the invisible. Having access to radio, TV, and print media was a critical factor to publicizing the work of solidarity groups focused on international issues—in this case, the anti-apartheid struggle and legitimized solidarity work for domestic community justice organizing.
Civil Disobedience at the South African Embassy
The appointment with the white South African Ambassador Brand Fourie had been set for the afternoon. Once inside and after a discussion that lasted about 40 minutes, the visitors confirmed with the Ambassador that they would not leave. Randall Robinson stated, as planned:
Please convey for us to your government our basic demand, which is twofold: All of your government’s political prisoners must be released immediately. These would include, among others, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, the thirteen labor leaders arrested recently without any charges, and the three Black leaders who have taken refuge in the British Consulate in Durban. We are further demanding that your government commit itself immediately and publicly to the speedy dismantlement of the apartheid system with a timetable for this task. ((Randall Robinson, Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America, New York: Penguin, 1998. p. 152.))
Outside the South African embassy, protesters were marching on a picket line, saying “‘South Africa will be free; Mandela will be free.’ ‘South Africa will be free; Namibia will be free.’ ‘Sanctions now and one person, one vote.” Since we couldn’t announce a demonstration with customary leaflets and alternative community radio stations for fear of alerting authorities that we were planning an act of civil disobedience, I asked 50 trusted SASP members and allies to meet me on November 21st at 4:30 p.m. at the corner of Massachusetts Ave. and 30th Street, N.W., a block away from the embassy, without telling them why. I personally asked them to trust me and be there, avoiding phone calls for fear of authorities being alerted. Forty people showed up. SASP member Joseph Jordan arrived with the placards and handed them out from the trunk of his car while Acie Byrd, Mark Harrison, and Ira Stolhman organized protesters to march to the drumbeat of Master drummer Baba Ngoma. At the appointed time, Eleanor Holmes Norton left the meeting to meet the press after Randall Robinson announced they would not leave the Embassy until their demands were met.
The press was there—domestic and international, electronic and print—having been alerted by the longtime TransAfrica secretary Dolores Clemons and staff. As the protesters sang, “We Shall Overcome” in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights protesters, the handcuffed protesters were led away to a Metropolitan Police Department paddy wagon in keeping with the law that protests against embassies were not allowed within 500 feet of the embassy.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, the protest action was given the name “Free South Africa Movement,” and labor activist William Lucy of AFSCME; author and social critic Roger Wilkins; and I (a founding member of SASP) joined Randall Robinson, Mary Frances Berry, and Walter Fauntroy as the Free South Africa Steering Committee. We would meet daily, early in the morning, to chart a strategic course of political actions and protests. Within the first week after the Thanksgiving holiday, the following arrests took place:
Nov. 26th Rep. Charles Hayes (D-Ill.); Rev. Joseph Lowery, Southern Christian leadership Conference chairman
Nov. 27th Rep. John Conyers, (D-Mich.); William Simons, Washington Teachers’ Union president
Nov. 28th Rep. Ronald Dellums, (D-Calif.); Marc Stepp, United Auto Workers vice-president; Hilda Mason, D.C. City Council member.
Nov. 29th Yolanda King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr.;
Gerald McEntee, head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Richard Hatcher, mayor of Gary, Ind.
Nov. 30th Rep. George Crockett, (D-Mich.); Rep. Don Edwards, (D-Calif.); Leonard Ball, Coalition of Black Trade Unions.
This combination of labor, Black congressional representatives, and Civil Rights leaders who constituted our first arrestees were people we knew and could call on quickly. By Monday, the general public and organizations began to call TransAfrica’s office to participate in the daily demonstrations. Many proposed getting arrested in the names of their organizations such as Black Social Workers and Black Psychologists Against Apartheid. Many churches mobilized their congregations to walk the line against apartheid and get arrested.
The Protest Expands Nationwide
Within this same week, public demonstrations against South African consulates, Krugerrand coin dealers, and corporations tied to South Africa spread throughout the United States. On November 23rd, Local 10 of the International Longshoreman’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) in San Francisco, Calif., refused to offload cargo from South Africa, and 250 people came out in the rain to support the longshoremen’s protest. We were elated that people were acting on their own to seize the moment to express their outrage with U.S. foreign policy and the apartheid regime. As the internal struggle within South Africa continued to escalate, FSAM’s act of civil disobedience centered the international media on the plight of the people of South Africa and the illegitimacy of the apartheid system.
Worldwide demonstrations were taking place and being reported in the press. For the first time, we were regularly beginning to see images of apartheid South Africa’s repressive brutality in action on television nightly news. As early as December, protesters at the embassy were uplifted by their call for sanctions when Bishop Desmond Tutu, who had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, came to the demonstration. Using his stature as a Bishop and as the winner of this prestigious award, he used every public forum to acknowledge the importance of the demonstrations as a witness against the travesty of apartheid and the need for the world community to collectively oppose apartheid.
The FSAM had wanted the original demonstrators to be charged with a misdemeanor of unlawful entry and awarded a trial in order to place the U.S. policy of constructive engagement on trial. U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova refused to try the cases of unlawful entry, saying the cases lacked prosecutorial merit.
As 1985 began, we continued our demonstrations protesting U.S. foreign policy towards South Africa. Then-Senator Lowell Weicker, a Republican from Connecticut, became the first Senator to get arrested in the protest on January 15th. Even when President Reagan canceled his January 1985 inauguration march because of the unusually low temperature at 7 degrees and hovering towards a zero-degree wind chill factor, we continued to march to demonstrate that weather would not stop our protests. As Cecelie Counts, one of the coordinators of the daily demonstrations and arrests, observed: “We had to show that through sleet or snow, cold or sunshine we are prepared to protest the US’s Constructive Engagement policy.”
By Spring 1985, the FSAM Steering Committee had committed acts of civil disobedience at various symbols around D.C. of South Africa’s corporate ties to U.S. companies. Deak-Perera Krugerrand Coin Dealer and Shell Oil’s D.C. Corporate Office were selected for civil disobedience takeovers even while the daily demonstrations at the embassy continued.
In January 1986, after sitting in for several days at the local Shell Oil corporate office as an act of civil disobedience, the FSAM Steering Committee joined with labor, religious, and Civil Rights groups in the international campaign against the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation. The effort was intended to center the focus on the global corporate links that propped up the South African regime.
Over the course of 1985, school children, university students, and hundreds of civic organizations would protest against apartheid. Howard University organized a day of protest at the embassy. The University of the District of Columbia’s then-President William Green held a teach-in on the front lawn of the embassy, and student and faculty participants were arrested. On the West Coast and in other East Coast cities like New York, demonstrations were taking place to promote sanctions. Sit-ins at Columbia University in New York and University of California–Berkeley ignited the student divestment movement in early spring. The longtime work of the American Committee on Africa successfully coordinated a disinvestment day on the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.
In August, P.W. Botha, the President of South Africa, made his view clear. He vowed that “he would not lead this country’s ruling white minority ‘on a road to abdication and suicide.’” ((Glenn Frankel (16 August 1985), “Botha Bars Major Change in Segregationist Policy,” The Washington Post. washingtonpost.com))
By August 1985, after the South African government established a State of Emergency and a ban on public funerals, actor Paul Newman, former presidential candidate and Civil Rights leader Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., and major Civil Rights and labor leaders joined with the FSAM in a “funeral” march of 10,000 people to the U.S. State Department to protest the Reagan administration’s policy of “constructive engagement” with the South Africa regime. The strategy was to keep public pressure on the United States’ collaboration with the apartheid regime.
FSAM Makes Progress in Congress and Beyond
During September 1985, as public pressure grew, the first free-standing South African sanctions bills passed in the House of Representatives. In an attempt to prevent Senate action, President Reagan wrote an Executive Order imposing minimal sanctions. The Senate majority leader, Robert Dole, used a procedural maneuver to prevent the final vote on congressional sanctions measures by claiming that the documents could not be found so Senate action could not take place!
On October 2, 1986, Congress handed President Reagan his first major foreign policy defeat by overriding his veto of the South Africa sanctions legislation. The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 would ban new U.S. loans and investments over time; it also instituted a ban on importing coal, steel, iron, uranium, textiles, and agricultural products and eliminated direct air linkages between South Africa and the United States, and put in place other measures too numerous for this article.
Between February 17-20, 1987, the U.S. and Britain vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have made the sanctions imposed by the 1986 Act global and mandatory.
In 1988, South Africa detained 30,000 people without charge, arrested thousands of children, and banned every civic and political organization. Consistent with the Reagan administration’s “constructive engagement” policy, the administration used every loophole in the 1986 law in favor of the South African economy.
By September 1988, the House passed HR 1580, the Anti-Apartheid Amendments of 1988. Even though Shell Oil led an anti-sanctions lobbying campaign and the British government lobbied vigorously against the bill, the sanctions bill passed although with a strategic loss. The bill mandated disinvestment, almost a complete trade embargo, and prohibited any company involved in South Africa’s fuel sector from receiving new U.S. government coal, gas, and oil leases. The final sanctions measure omitted the strategic fuel provisions.
Anti-apartheid legislative activists had lived with a two-track strategy, with one bill being stronger than the previous 1986 Act but weaker than Congressman Ronald Dellums’ (D-Calif.) stronger bill throughout the struggle to achieve sanctions. We all nearly fainted when the Dellums’ bill passed, but our celebration was short-lived! As Cecelie Counts recalled, “While activists celebrated Dellums’ bill to impose comprehensive sanctions against South Africa, the Senate voted to lift the ban on U.S. aid to South African-backed forces in Angola.” ((Cecelie Counts, “The FSAM Story,” CrossRoads: Contemporary Political Analysis & Left Dialogue. April 1995, p. 13.)) In effect, the Reagan administration was giving money to the South African regime by funding rebel leader Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA.
Exposing the Appearance of Change in South Africa
In February 1989, P.W. Botha resigned as head of South Africa’s ruling National Party and was replaced by F.W. de Klerk. Government representatives began to meet openly with representatives of the ANC. Like the ANC, FSAM feared that the political leadership in the U.S. Congress would accept de Klerk’s leadership as fundamental change in the apartheid regime. We felt that we had to do everything we could in solidarity to expose this effort by the apartheid regime to appear to make changes and to resist forces within the U.S. power structure to hail this as a signal of South Africa’s willingness to change its apartheid structure without transferring power to majority rule.
On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. This was a great victory for the South African people and indeed, people around the world identified even more with the struggle of the people of South Africa.
FSAM organized an 11-day visit to the U.S. for Mr. Mandela, Winnie Mandela, and the ANC delegation in June 1990. Thousands of people greeted Mr. Mandela and the delegation beginning with New York and continuing on to Boston, Mass.; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta, Ga.; the AFSCME conference in Florida; Detroit, Mich.; Los Angeles, Calif.; and Oakland, Calif. We viewed this visit as an opportunity to demonstrate to the political powers that there was vast popular support for Mr. Mandela and the ANC as well as an opportunity to mobilize funds for the ANC to continue the struggle to establish a new South Africa. Mr. Mandela was the fourth private citizen in the history of the United States to address both houses of Congress. This was important political leverage when you consider that both Mr. Mandela and the ANC, in keeping with South Africa’s designation, were designated by the State Department as terrorists.
At the end of this visit, the Free South Africa Movement ended, although individual organizations and individuals continued to work on international issues. FSAM was a catalyst for the visibility of the anti-apartheid struggle both inside South Africa and around the world. The video, radio, and print media crossed borders to tell about this struggle. Witnesses against apartheid, numbering some 5,000 in the United States, made their opposition visible with their arrests. The bravery and momentum of the struggle inside South Africa became the visible example of all that was wrong with apartheid. Mary Frances Berry captured our sentiments when asked to get arrested at the embassy: “It is the right time and the right thing to do!”
Lessons Learned through the FSAM Struggle
This very complex struggle that functioned on so many levels and spheres of influence gave us many lessons, of which I will highlight only four here.
- Changing the Framework of Discourse
“Blackness” and the lives of Black people of African descent in the United States have a complex role in the culture of the United States. On the one hand, we are demonized and despised for what we look like. When political officials want to convey that they do not support liberal policies or Black people, they use images and coded terms to send that message. On the other hand, as a people we serve as a symbol of the modern-day struggle for justice. During different periods of history, particularly when you examine U.S. administrations, we have been able to use the power of the justice struggle to influence U.S. policy.
The Free South Africa Movement was one of those periods because of the confluence of the stepped-up, internal anti-apartheid struggle; the capability of U.S. anti-apartheid movements; the sentiments and political preparation of congressional staffers; and the role of the media. The intersection of the corporate media and the ruling class in both the private and government sectors is so intertwined that it is difficult for progressive ideas to compete with the ways that realities are framed in national discourse. At the time of the launching of the FSAM, the Reagan administration, like all administrations before it, argued that the primary strategic political interest was to keep communism from spreading to southern Africa. In his first term, President Reagan and his foreign policy leadership had conceived “constructive engagement” as an attempt to provide a policy framework for its contradictory behavior in the world community. As revealed in a State Department document leaked to Randall Robinson by an employee, the Reagan administration wanted to minimize the “pole cat” status of the South African regime. ((Robinson 1998.))
The prominence of the acts of civil disobedience by Black people in the Civil Rights struggle for South Africa illuminated the race issue in South Africa as opposed to whether the ANC would align itself with communism. As the embassy protests continued, the themes of racist minority regime, white supremacy, the unequal treatment of Black people in the same work status as whites, the lack of the rule of law, the need for majority rule, and “one person, one vote” for all South Africans became dominant in public discourse about South Africa. In the early days of the protest, this changing public view of the realities of U.S. policy toward the South African regime became clear when 35 conservative Republicans visited the South African ambassador to warn that they would support economic and diplomatic sanctions if South Africa did not end apartheid.
The South African regime challenged FSAM’s reframing of public discourse by employing people of African descent to implement a propaganda campaign to discredit FSAM. Thus, Black men such as William Keyes and Marcus Dawkins, who were public relations operatives for the apartheid regime, spoke to many groups to convince them that FSAM’s report on what was happening in South Africa was wrong. In effect, their storyline was that we were either lying, misinformed, or grandstanding for media attention! A major theme of their presentations was to argue that sanctions would hurt working Black South Africans more than they would help. Many of us had to counter this propaganda attack with public speaking campaigns at a time when we had few resources and many demands on time and money. Nevertheless, the framework of the debate was effectively changed from anti-communism to racism. It then became a question of how long it would take to wage a legislative battle to enact comprehensive sanctions and how to isolate those congressional and administrative forces that wanted to influence who would be elected to lead a new South Africa.
- Multi-Organizational Structures Make Strength
It was the common perception by many international solidarity activists and liberation movements that the United States had too many organizations working in the anti-apartheid movement. These organizations had emerged because of historical circumstances, geography, and spin-offs of other work. For example, the American Committee on Africa was located in New York and had been founded in 1953 by George Houser and later led by Jennifer Davis. Its work was characterized by its activism with college students, divestment, and material aid using its Africa Fund 501(c)(3) status. The American Friends Service Committee, a peace organization located in Philadelphia, had a division that worked on southern Africa, and it also had many offices throughout the United States. Under Jerry Herman’s leadership, the division expanded its education work and began to focus on targeting strategic cities in the southern United States by carrying delegations of activists to visit editorial boards of news outlets, churches, and universities.
Another organization, led by Gay McDougal and based in D.C. during the critical years of 1980-1994, focused on the human rights and legal issues in South Africa. This organization was called the Southern Africa Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, and it performed outstanding work on key legal issues such as the illegal detention of activists inside South Africa. The Washington Office on Africa, also located in D.C., primarily focused on developing a lobby network of church and labor representatives. It also published information on what Congress was doing or not doing in the interest of Africa; this effort assisted local groups in sharing information on U.S. foreign policy. The Washington Office had a number of stellar directors over the years, but Jean Sindab and Damu Smith, two African-American directors, also focused on collaborating with organizations in the Black D.C. community.
In response to the church sectors’ growing demands for corporate divestment, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) was developed to coordinate church actions. Aside from publishing a newsletter called “The Corporate Examiner,” the ICCR coordinated church divestment, pushed for shareholder resolutions by churches, and negotiated with companies.
The United Mine Workers, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and the AFSCME union had increasingly become involved in the anti-apartheid struggle over the years as a result of the growing interest in assisting their counterparts in the struggle. Bill Lucy, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and also secretary-treasurer of AFSCME, was pivotal in working within TransAfrica as a force for labor interests. Richard Trumka, then-president of the United Mine Workers, established an office that focused on raising mineworker solidarity with the mineworkers of South Africa.
TransAfrica and SASP were the youngest organizations with particular foci within this array of organizations. Both were located in Washington, D.C. TransAfrica was the vision of the late Congressman Charles Diggs (D-Mich.), whose work during those critical years affirmed for him that the international consciousness of Black people was critical if there would ever be change in U.S. foreign policy towards Africa and the Caribbean. In 1977, his former congressional staffer Randall Robinson became the leader of TransAfrica, with SNCC veterans Courtland Cox and Joyce Ladner as founding board members. The organization was dedicated to building public support, particularly in the African-American community, for a more progressive African and Caribbean U.S. foreign policy.
About the same time, in 1978, SASP evolved from a news collective into a community-based international solidarity organization. SASP’s work consisted of mobilizing grassroots events to raise public consciousness on the struggle in the southern African region. SASP had no paid staff or office staff. We mainly worked around each member’s kitchen table and in some large-room spaces such as at Howard University. SASP, like many other groups throughout the U.S., mainly concentrated on its local consciousness-raising activities in D.C. and would join national or international campaigns as they emerged. The members’ view was that they lived in the belly of the beast, and it was important to have a grassroots consciousness on international issues within the nation’s capital. Their years of strategic organizing had permitted them to develop a base of support among Washington-area labor, church, civic, and youth groups, as well as in universities around the city. This is why SASP was a critical base of support for the daily protests at the embassy.
What is interesting and important to observe is that all of these groups represented a working organizational infrastructure of assets that gave the movement legal, labor, information services, grassroots activism, and connections with a range of organizational ties that could actually sustain a campaign and its many demands for time, changing knowledge, legal and legislative knowledge, creativity, and people power.
While TransAfrica and its president, Randall Robinson, became the symbol of the leadership of the anti-apartheid movement within the United States, it is important to remember that the ultimate success of the legislative sanctions strategy depended on all of these long-term organizations that had honed their expertise and capability in ways that could sustain pressure against the U.S. government and transnational corporations.
It’s also important to realize that the media focuses its attention on a leader and the actions of the moment in order to shape their stories and images. It is these stories and images that expanded the base of the movement. The FSAM recognized that the many facets of the work to be done could never have been accomplished by any one organization. Yet the movement did not sustain organizational strength across the various networks during the post-apartheid decade for a variety of personal, political, and strategic reasons that are too complex to engage in this particular forum. I think what we in SASP recognized is that trying to build a legitimate coalition with trust, respect, and democratic transparency in the midst of a complex international movement just couldn’t happen. We only had the will and time to concentrate on the political and strategic organizational demands of the time. The best we could do was keep the peace among us and focus on the primary struggle of ending U.S. foreign policy support of apartheid.
- The Significance of Sustained Symbolic Protest
We had thought we could sustain a weeklong protest and arrests. By the end of the week, citizens began to call and request that their groups be arrested as a way of expressing outrage with our government’s “constructive engagement” policies. Many critics dismissed the protests because they argued that people were not remaining in jail and that the protests were merely symbolic because people did not suffer. Yet the protests were powerful given their numbers, diversity of people, types of groups, national spontaneity, and ability to sustain popular activism. People came to protest at the embassy from throughout the United States and all over the world. Like the involvement in the United Democratic Front (UDF) during the time of the ANC’s banning, people came to the picket line under the banner of their organization or geographical space. The idea of naming a day of protest based on a constituency group emerged from the people. They called with a request for their organization, church, school, or university to get arrested in protest of U.S. support for South African apartheid policies. What I’ve come to believe is that the arrest is symbolic. It is a way to let the protester express opposition to a policy, practice, or government. It gives public voice to one’s internal disdain for U.S. foreign policy. It really isn’t important that people are not jailed and placed on trial. What is significant, from the organizer’s point of view, is that the person expresses public opposition instead of private disdain for policies. The challenge for the organizer is to find a creative space that will permit ordinary citizens to express collective opposition. Instead of expressing isolated opposition at home or in the classroom, it is the task of the organizer to create venues for internal feelings of disdain to be expressed publicly so that the combined disdain can place public pressure for policy changes!
This, the Free South Africa Movement accomplished; therefore, one of our profound lessons of this movement is that one should never underestimate the power of symbolic protests to create a political climate for political change. Of course, even though protests create a political climate, the organizers must have the organizational infrastructure to respond politically to a legislative agenda, cracks in the strongholds of the power elite, and unexpected openings for policy changes.
- Centering the Struggle within the Middle/Working Classes
We were not absent of theoretical perspectives or simply political operatives. We had a political framework, and I think we had enough movement experiences to appreciate that talking with people who thought like you was not going to change U.S. foreign policy. We had to shift our focus onto the very people who elected officials at the local and national levels. One of the reasons that SASP and TransAfrica could be allies was our focus on centering the struggle within the middle class and working class. As a matter of policy, SASP designed consciousness-raising activities that were rooted in the popular cultural activities of different strata within the African-American community. For example, we organized gospel concerts that included a slide show on the situation in South Africa, or we hosted a labor speak-out so that workers could speak about their injustices within the context of the injustices South African workers were experiencing.
As the movement grew, we intersected with the upper-middle class as they grappled with how they wanted to view themselves in this struggle. For many, this struggle represented an opportunity to right their failure to act during the Civil Rights struggle. Both TransAfrica and SASP knew that we would not be able to influence the power structure until we had enough people power to signal to politicians that it’s better to be with the growing visible opposition than other power centers. Otherwise, one may find themselves on the wrong side of history. To this day, President Mandela continues to symbolize, for many in the general public, a hero with conviction.
Mass opposition against the apartheid regime and U.S. foreign policy had another effect. It gave space for the growing number of Black people who worked in corporations and other traditional centers of power to argue within their organizational structures that the corporation or organization needed to oppose apartheid. Thus, the Black Vice-Presidents of Corporations Against Apartheid emerged. It’s not that these groups were going to be the types of allies that would take the most radical approach we might desire, but their willingness to reveal their views and act within the comfort of their workplaces began to show cracks in the wall of silence.
Finally, much of this rich history for the modern-day anti-apartheid movement in D.C. began with a decisive risk that President Julius Nyerere was willing to take on a band of young people who proposed to him that they could organize the Sixth Pan-African Congress! At the very beginning, I think Fletcher Robinson and I were the oldest people at 33 and 32, except for C.L.R. James and Pauulu Kamarakafego (Roosevelt Brown).
Finally, a question I’m often asked is why did you do this? Why did the leadership of SASP and FSAM emerge? Many people suspect some ulterior motive of the quest for fame and riches. I want to dispel that notion by identifying what I believe are the reasons and publicly saying that none of us are among the rich and famous. First, we all had a tradition of activism and a commitment to internationalism. Some of us were activists in the Civil Rights Movement, the Black consciousness student movement, and the antiwar movement. Others were key activists in organizing the Sixth Pan-African Congress and later were key organizers of President Nyerere’s presentation at Howard University in August 1977, where he delivered an address to the people of the United States entitled, “The Haves and the Have Nots.” Others had served in the summer Venceremos Brigades in solidarity with Cuba. Many of our political views and work methodologies had been nurtured by the national liberation movements of Africa, the Caribbean, and South America. Thirdly, we follow a 100 year-long tradition of Pan-African thought and activism in the African-American community that guided our international solidarity work. ((Bernard Magubane, The Ties That Bind: African-American Consciousness of Africa, Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, Inc., 1987.))
We are in search of self-affirmation as we reclaim our humanity and political empowerment. It is an effort to be involved in, as Amilcar Cabral would say, reclaiming our historical process as a people in the Diaspora. ((Amilcar Cabral, Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral, Africa Information Service, ed., New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973)) Thus, as the late Samora Machel said, international solidarity “is about mutual aid between people fighting for the same objectives.” As we enter this new phase of solidarity work, we have many challenges to redefine what international solidarity will mean in the age of globalization.
We urge that one final lesson must not be forgotten and that is the importance of constituency politics in the United States. In a complex society like the United States, a country or group outside of the Western power elite has people power as one of its greatest arsenals against the tyranny of a superpower. Thus, international solidarity is not only very important when a national liberation movement is struggling to achieve State power, but also when the movement becomes a nation-state. The newly empowered State must collaborate with and nurture its constituencies in the U.S.
Dr. Sylvia Hill is an educator, co-chairperson of the Southern Africa Support Project, and leader of both the Free South Africa Movement and the Sixth Pan-African Congress.
Copyright © 2020 Sylvia Hill. All rights reserved.
[maxbutton id=”2″ ]