25 Years Later: Remembering The Movement that Unraveled Apartheid

Getty Images
Getty Images

There comes a time in the life of a people when the tyranny of their government becomes too much and they rebel. There comes a time when the quality of life is more important than life itself.  That time for black South Africans came in the 1950s, when the yoke of Apartheid grew tighter still.  Freedom fighters such as Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and others led the cry for freedom.

Their civil disobedience in response to the violence perpetrated against them by the South African government rose to levels that would force the Apartheid government to pay attention to the demands of the black majority population.  From its inception, Apartheid demoralized black South Africans and brutally forced them into a form of slavery in their own country.  The working conditions for black South Africans were unjust and their living conditions inhumane.  Children were taught a history devoid of their ancestors’ rich contributions on the land.  People were put in prison for speaking against the regime and all citizens faced the threat of death for voicing opposition.

The rest of the world sat and watched as Apartheid took hold of South Africa.  Corporations dared not risk the lucrative profits from the South African market and Western governments feared raising the question of race relations in their own countries.  The world conveniently turned a blind eye to what their callousness was costing black South Africa.  By the early 1980s, the U.S. Congress had bought into the Reagan Administration’s “Constructive Engagement” with South Africa.  Mr. Reagan maintained that the South African government could be gently coaxed into humane treatment of its black citizens.  The U.S. was joined by Britain, France and other European countries in this policy.  They felt sanctions against the Apartheid regime would hurt black South Africans.

But Western leaders failed to see was that black South Africans were now willing to make any sacrifice to overthrow Apartheid and African Americans were going to join their fight.  Both the U.S. government and U.S. corporations underestimated the American concern for the people of South Africa.

At this point, the leadership of TransAfrica had been focusing  on Southern Africa for several years.  The efforts to get Congress to pass anti-Apartheid legislation were failing and a new strategy needed to be put in place.  On Thanksgiving eve, November 21, 1984, TransAfrica’s President Randall Robinson, scholar and human rights activist Mary Frances Berry, Congressional Delegate Walter Fauntroy and scholar Eleanor Holmes Norton (now Washington, D.C.’s Congressional delegate) met with the South African Ambassador to the United States at the Embassy in Washington.  Their request was for the release of all political prisoners in South African jails and the expeditious end of apartheid.  When their request was denied, they refused to leave the Embassy.  They were forcibly removed and arrested in front of a growing picket line—not to mention a gaggle of media. A bold new strategy was now in place.

Twenty-five years ago, African Americans joined closely with continental Africans in a universal struggle for freedom.  The Free South African movement gave Africans on the North American continent a clear vision that their security and freedom was inextricably linked to Africans in the mother land. Over the years, black leaders from Marcus Garvey to W.E.B DuBois to Kwame Nkrumah to Amilcar Cabral and Paul Robeson had spoken about the notion of one African consciousness, and indeed, there have been glimmers of such a movement throughout the centuries. Many black nationalist organizations failed to reach their goals due to interference by government and internal disruption.  But the Free South African movement was uniquely positioned for success because it was occurring during a specific point in time: the late 20th century.  Its leaders used this to their advantage.

One advantage was the benefit of both time and history. The brutality facing blacks in South African mirrored the experience of blacks in the United States: Black Americans had been oppressed and enslaved because of the color of their skin. That reality resonated with people around the world.  The second advantage: The increasing number of black elected officials in Congress and across the country.  Blacks elected to Congress formed the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971, and now used their collective leverage to focus attention on South Africa.  The third advantage: The media’s interest in the story. Both the Washington arrests and eye-witness testimony about the brutality in South Africa made for a compelling story; it launched protests against the South African government at consulates around the world and on college campuses throughout the U.S. The furor was overwhelming even to those who had crafted and supported “Constructive Engagement.”

The steady list of pension funds, corporations and governments that divested from South Africa proved to be the death knell to Apartheid. It ensured the release of political prisoners — political prisoners that went on the lead South Africa’s first majority rule government.  Civil Rights leader Roger Wilkins is quoted as saying, “The Free South Africa Movement, with exception of the Jackson campaign, is arguably the most important initiative undertaken by black private citizens since Martin Luther King died and it’s one of its most successful.”  The Free South Africa Movement expanded the influence of African Americans in U.S. foreign policy. 

Danny Glover is the Chairman of the Board of TransAfrica Forum.


Nicole C. Lee is the President of TransAfrica Forum.