South Africans and African Americans Bound by Struggle

The anti-apartheid and civil rights movements share a history of fighting for democratic change.

Nelson and Winnie Mandela at the grave of Martin Luther King Jr., June 1990
Nelson and Winnie Mandela at the grave of Martin Luther King Jr., June 1990 LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images

We often hear about the “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain—rooted in history and personified by the close personal friendship between President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair during the 1990s. But there’s another “special relationship,” one less commented upon but equally noteworthy, between the African-American community and black South Africans.

The death of Nelson Mandela this week at the age of 95 offers the perfect context to look back on the relationship that helped bring greater freedom and democracy to two different nations and continents, and forged bonds between them.

America’s civil rights struggles helped to inspire South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, and the Sharpeville Massacre, reverberating around the world in 1960 after South African police killed 69 peaceful demonstrators, became a clarion call for civil rights activists in the U.S.

The black power movement during the 1960s and 1970s inspired the “black consciousness” movement in South Africa under the leadership of Steve Biko, whose tragic death while in police custody would be immortalized in the 1987 film Cry Freedom.

Yet it would be Mandela’s story that would solidify this special relationship between black South Africans and African Americans. Mandela symbolized the fight against apartheid in much the same way that Martin Luther King Jr. symbolized the American civil rights movement. During the black power era, Pan-Africanists in this country saw South Africa as the crown jewel of a continent undergoing a renaissance of freedom and decolonization.

By the 1980s, African-American activists were leading a national anti-apartheid movement led by TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and activist Harry Belafonte, designed to pressure American corporate and federal power to stop investing in a regime based on racial oppression.

The anti-apartheid movement swept college campuses, offering a new generation of activists, including, famously, a young Occidental College student named Barack Obama, a chance to join a social movement.

After Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, he came to represent the struggles on both continents, and around the world, for a world free of racial oppression. By the time Mandela visited New York City later that year, he was universally acknowledged and received as a global statesman for human rights.

African Americans viewed Mandela, along with his second wife, Winnie, as proof of the power of social change and political transformation.