How African-Americans Helped Free South Africa

By Norment, Lynn | Ebony, August 1994 | Go to article overview

How African-Americans Helped Free South Africa

Norment, Lynn, Ebony

Throughout the past century, thousands of African-Americans have expressed support for Black South Africans as they fought for freedom. With demonstrations, donations, protests, boycotts, written and verbal denouncements, divestment campaigns - and, most significantly, by going to jail - Black Americans individually and collectively expressed outrage at the cruelty of apartheid, even while continuing to fight racial injustices at home in the United States.

Over the years, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, Randall Robinson's TransAfrica and Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition - as well as numerous congressmen, community leaders and entertainers - have persistently expressed their support of South African freedom fighters.

Says the Rev. McKinley Young, presiding bishop of the AME 15th Episcopal District in South Africa: "Black Americans have always wanted to claim they could influence world events, such as the Jewish community and the Irish Catholic community have, and this is one case in which African-Americans definitely played a decisive role."

In recent years, leading the vanguard has been Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica. Founded in 1977 as a foreign policy advocacy organization to force attention on issues concerning Africa and the Caribbean, TransAfrica immediately began mobilizing opposition to U.S. support of apartheid. Continuing racist actions against South Africa's 30 million Blacks gave strength to U.S. Blacks' outrage. In 1984, the South African government arrested the entire Black labor leadership, an act that inflamed the world and caused the United Nations Security Council to introduce a resolution of condemnation. At President Reagan's direction, the United States abstained, thus enraging African-Americans even more.

"I felt that we had to do something," recalls Robinson. With colleagues Walter Fauntroy, Richard Hatcher and Mary Frances Berry, he requested a meeting with the South African ambassador in Washington - then refused to leave the embassy in the meantime, the TransAfrica office called the press to a briefing by Eleanor Holmes Norton in front of the embassy.

Inside, the South African ambassador asked Robinson what could be done to persuade the foursome to leave. Robinson demanded two things: That Nelson Mandela be freed immediately and that the South African government take immediate steps to dismantle apartheid. "We will not leave until we have commitments on these two measures," Robinson asserted.

Robinson recalls that the South Africans, "almost blinded by their own race-driven machismo," chose to have them arrested, which was the group's desired objective. "And that provoked the Free South Africa Movement. The rest is history," Robinson says.

That movement resulted in some 5,000 Americans being arrested for protesting in front of South African embassies. It also led to a heightened awareness among Americans of the atrocities of apartheid and spurred action in Congress. Rep. Ronald V Dellums introduced the first anti-apartheid legislation in 1972, and in 1986 his bill was finally passed, "sending a clear message to South Africa that American investment would be divested," Dellums recalls. Support to. the Dellums bill was so strong that it withstood a veto by President Reagan, the first time in the 20th century that a president had a foreign policy veto overridden. The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 imposed economic sanctions against South Africa, and listed five conditions for ending them, including release of Nelson Mandela and all political prisoners and agreement by the South African government to enter "good-faith negotiations" with the Black majority.

The Anti-Apartheid Act triggered sanctions in Europe and Japan and the loss of confidence by the global banking community in the economy of South Africa. At the same time the divestment movement, led by Black Americans, forced scores of universities and businesses to withdraw investment dollars from South Africa.

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