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.
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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.
And African Americans and South Africans found common ground in the shared terrain of political struggle, civil disobedience and dissent against apartheid in both the U.S. and South Africa, both nonviolent and armed—the Black Panthers and the African National Congress' Umkhonto we Sizwe, or “Spear of the Nation.”
Rep. John Lewis, the former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who was severely beaten during the 1965 Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Ala., characterized Mandela as an “extraordinary human being” who showed no malice toward “those who arrested” and brutalized him for decades.
“He must be looked upon as one of the foremost activists of our time, one of the most committed and dedicated human beings to human freedom, and the liberation of not just the physical body—but of the mind and spirit of people,” explained Lewis.
Mandela’s death has touched leaders across the spectrum, with Morris Dees, the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, observing that “Mandela's courage during his 27 years of imprisonment will forever inspire people to stand up to oppression and injustice,” and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calling Mandela “the father of multiethnic democracy in South Africa. All freedom-loving people will miss him, but we will never forget his sacrifice and his achievements.”
The South African struggle against racial apartheid mirrored, in many respects, America’s painful history of struggle against Jim Crow: Segregation, denial of constitutional rights and profiling and murder by law enforcement represented a shared history of suffering that forged a special bond between two communities and two movements.
Mandela’s death allows us to reflect on the current status of that special relationship. Next year will mark two decades since South Africa elected its first black—and first democratically elected—president. Both the U.S. and South Africa have experienced enormous change since that time, highlighted by President Obama’s presidential election. The triumphs of Mandela's and Obama’s elections have been tempered by bitter realities on the ground in South African Bantustans and American inner cities. The relationship, marked by so many historic and contemporary parallels, continues to be an important gauge of the health of democracy, racial equality and citizenship both abroad and at home.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.