Anatomy of a resistance: How the Free South Africa Movement succeeded

We had a goal of ending U.S. complicity with apartheid in South Africa. Here's why it worked in the '80s

Published March 11, 2018 10:30AM (EDT)

Anti-apartheid demonstrators march on the University of California Berkeley campus, April 17, 1985.  (AP/Ron Tussy)
Anti-apartheid demonstrators march on the University of California Berkeley campus, April 17, 1985. (AP/Ron Tussy)

Excerpted from "History Teaches Us to Resist: How Progressive Movements Have Succeeded in Challenging Times" by Dr. Mary Frances Berry (Beacon Press, 2018). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

* * *

After singing the lines of the reggae song we have sung so many years, we at last saw him “walking hand in hand along the streets with Winnie Mandela.” And now here I was, privileged to be among those in the Cape Town mayor’s office to greet him after his release from prison. It had been a long day for him, us and the thousands of people massed outside, pursuing their own celebratory waiting. Rumors flew; he is on his way; he is not coming. The hours passed in debate over whether the crowd was too unruly and wondering what was taking so long. Then suddenly he was there in the room. After he greeted each of us warmly and personally, he went out to speak to the masses of South Africans.

Finally, the man they called “Baba”—father—was here. They had danced the toi-toi a million times at demonstrations, legal and illegal, and prayed for his release. They had suffered miseducation or none at all, bad or inadequate food and housing in the townships and squatter villages. But today they were here to celebrate—pressed up against each other hour after hour in the hot sun with no water, no lavatories and a loudspeaker system that did not work. When it did, they heard speakers in a language many of them did not understand.

But when Baba began to speak, the restless crowd became still. Those who spoke only Xhosa watched those who understood the English, cheering when they did. When he spoke Xhosa directly to them at the end, the cheering became louder. He told them to go home and they did. They had seen and heard Nelson Mandela. When he came in again to sit with us, mainly everyone laughed and made small talk as one does among family and friends. Tomorrow we would begin again worrying what comes next and what we must all do. But for the moment I was content. My wait for Nelson Mandela had come to an end. —Mary Frances Berry, Philadelphia Inquirer, February 22, 1990

On the night before Thanksgiving in November 1984, Randall Robinson, executive director of TransAfrica; Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Georgetown law professor; Congressman Walter Fauntroy, a Democrat representing the District of Columbia; and I kept an appointment at the South African Embassy with Bernard Fourie, South Africa’s ambassador to the United States, to discuss growing brutality and repression in South Africa, which had instituted apartheid in 1948. Throughout 1984, the international media had covered a large number of labor strikes and youth protests violently suppressed by corporations and government military forces. In addition, reports revealed the horrendous effects of the apartheid regime on the daily lives of black South Africans in rural areas and the townships, who protested against rent increases, poor education, housing and apartheid policies.

The South African government, also, installed a new constitution that continued to exclude blacks from participation in Parliament while giving Indians and “coloreds,” people of mixed black and white race, limited representation. South Africans protested this newly constituted Parliament designed to signal that the apartheid system was undergoing reformation. But any pretense of reform was misleading. Not only had nothing changed for the better, but the system was becoming worse.

We talked with the ambassador for forty minutes about the treatment of demonstrators and the need to imagine a future beyond apartheid, and then Eleanor Holmes Norton, as previously planned, made excuses and left the meeting. After another ten minutes, Randall said to the ambassador, “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 charge, 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.”

TransAfrica staffer Hazel Ross and intern David Scott back at the office made calls to ensure the media knew we had begun a protest. Television, radio, and print media journalists arrived outside the embassy on this slow news night before Thanksgiving. Acting as spokesperson, Norton explained that if our government was prepared to pressure South Africa to end its repression, we wouldn’t be protesting. Cecelie Counts, a Harvard law graduate and founding member of the Southern Africa Support Project, and a TransAfrica staffer, had about fifty demonstrators gathered to march and chant “Freedom yes! Apartheid no!”; “The people united will never be defeated!”; “Free Nelson Mandela!”; and other slogans.

Ambassador Fourie looked out the window and seemed astounded. He couldn’t believe what was happening. He looked at Walter Fauntroy to ask whether, as a member of Congress, he would help to quell the protest. Walter told him he was present because he had devoted his life to racial justice, and that cause had brought our group there. Fourie left his office to call for advice. We sat there as time passed. After about twenty minutes, Herbert Beukes, deputy chief of mission, who had been silent throughout the previous forty minutes, asked if there was anything they could do to work things out.

I responded, “You can comply with the demands.” His reply indicated anything but compliance. I answered, “No.”

Fourie came back into the room after his phone consultations. We remained seated as he called in uniformed U.S. Secret Service officers, who arrested us. We were elated; if he had locked us in the office and left for the holiday or had us dumped on the lawn, our protests would have failed like others who had protested at the doors of the embassy. But instead, handcuffed images of Walter Fauntroy, Randall Robinson, and me being taken away in a police wagon in handcuffs were broadcast widely and repeatedly — over cable news and international television.

While we were being charged with trespassing by unlawful entry of an embassy, punishable by a hundred-dollar fine and six months in jail, at the northwest Washington, D.C., police station near the embassy, the press coverage brought a swarm of supporters and politicians to wish us well. Fauntroy and Robinson spent the night in the central cellblock downtown. I was taken to spend the night in the D.C. women’s prison. The lights were kept on all night, so I passed the hours following nonviolent protest protocol, talking through the bars with the other inmates about what brought them there and explaining apartheid, hoping the guards also listened while they kept trying to shut us up.

On Thanksgiving, the next day, we refused to post bond but were released on our own recognizance. At 11 a.m., we went to the House of Representatives Rayburn office building, where we held a press conference in a full committee room. A crowd of journalists watched as we announced the Free South Africa movement (FSAM) as a TransAfrica project and the goal of ending U.S. complicity with apartheid by the passage of comprehensive sanctions legislation. To accomplish the goal, it took our steering committee chaining itself to the embassy entryway and others bringing caskets to the embassy symbolizing those killed in South Africa, sitting in at Shell Oil Company, and then all of us working with labor, religious, and civil rights groups in an international campaign against the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation and the corporations tied to the South African regime. Also, those of us on the steering committee shut down Deak-Perera, a major money-exchange dealer, to educate people not to buy South African gold Krugerrands. When Deak-Perera had the office heat turned off, we slept on the cold slate floor at night, kept our signs in the windows, used a portable toilet we had sneaked in while posing as customers, and ate the snacks we’d brought with us. The demonstrations and arrests were to continue for two more years, and each of us was arrested several times.

We experienced moments of sheer elation and optimism. We held marches in Washington, DC, and other places, with celebrities increasingly joining in. Desmond Tutu came to the embassy protests one day to receive a petition that had been signed by a million Americans demanding an end to apartheid. Cecelie Counts was there every day coordinating the protests rain or shine, and we continued even on the day Reagan’s second inaugural parade was canceled because it was too cold.

The press could count on a demonstration and arrests every weekday at 5 p.m., with either large numbers of arrestees or celebrities or both. Car traffic in front of the embassy proceeded as drivers responded to the signs saying: “Honk Your Support,” car horns filling the air until the arrested were taken away. Some critics thought we shouldn’t have engaged in civil disobedience. A distinguished lawyer in Southern Africa Support Project (SASP) advised us that we would look silly, and we should litigate instead. Harry Belafonte, a TransAfrica board member, was shocked that there had been no discussion of this secret initiative we started. Nevertheless, he came, spoke, and was arrested and gave every support to the effort.

Thousands of people were arrested at the embassy. Groups scheduled days to march and protest, bringing large numbers usually in the range of hundreds. Gay McDougall, a Southern Africa Support group member and the head of a lawyers’ international human rights group, brought other lawyers; William Lucy, AFSCME secretary-treasurer and president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, brought unions; and black Baptists and AMEs came by the busloads. Politicians, mayors, and others came to get arrested. Lowell Weicker became the only US senator ever arrested in a direct-action, nonviolent protest. Tennis star Arthur Ashe and musician Stevie Wonder, Coretta and her children Yolanda and Marty King, and most of the Congressional Black Caucus members came. Rosa Parks not only got arrested but also spoke.

There were mishaps. A publicity stunt went awry when we couldn’t find the glo-lites we’d planned to have protesters aim at the sky. We had persuaded a TV station to send a helicopter to fly over the Capitol and broadcast the protest. On another occasion, we couldn’t find the keys to Fauntroy’s church bus when we were ready to carry two hundred demonstrators to the embassy to protest. I don’t recall what happened to the keys or how the demonstrators got to the embassy.

In the meantime, there were shantytowns erected and more divestment pressure applied on college and university campuses and across the country. Massachusetts, where divestment campaigns had a long history, enacted the first statewide divestment law in 1983 and served as a model for other state and local jurisdictions. Mel King, a lifelong community activist in Boston and former Urban League affiliate head, who was elected Massachusetts state representative in 1972, and Jack Backman, a liberal, white state senator, introduced the bill and shepherded its passage, an effort fueled by continuing divestment campaigns. The first school in the country to divest was Hampshire College in western Massachusetts in 1977. The Southern Africa Solidarity Committee at Harvard brought members of African liberation groups to campus, held material aid drives for Zimbabwe, and sponsored fund-raising concerts. The Boston Coalition for the Liberation of Southern Africa (BCLSA) included different groups of interested people and individuals in the Boston area. Themba Vilakazi, the Boston representative of the African National Congress (ANC), in 1985 worked to coordinate local antiapartheid work.

Willard Johnson, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founder and head of the Boston chapter of TransAfrica, and also a member of its national board, guided much of the African solidarity work in the city from the late 1960s onward. He deliberately set up an interracial steering committee, even though nationally TransAfrica made clear from the beginning that the Free South Africa movement and the congressional sanctions drive was a black-led campaign. It focused on racism and understood apartheid as being analogous to segregation in the South, which the civil rights movement attacked. The FSAM was essentially a new phase of the civil rights movement.

The Boston chapter was enormously successful. They announced a demonstration outside the South African consul’s office when Desmond Tutu visited Boston. When chapter representatives arrived, the consul met with them, agreed with their position, and gave them a copy of his letter of resignation. The local chapter also mounted protests against the sale of Krugerrands in late 1984, which coincided with TransAfrica’s national campaign. The campaign spread, and Deak-Perera discontinued its sale of Krugerrands in August 1985.

In New York City, the Reverend Herbert Daughtry and others organized successive protests at the South African consulate. In August 1985, the American Committee on Africa and a coalition of religious, community, and labor groups led by Cleveland Robinson, the secretary-treasurer of the United Auto Workers (UAW), had a major march in the city. Maxine Waters, then a member of the California legislature, led a group of protesters who sat in at the South African consulate in Beverly Hills.

In the San Francisco Bay area, labor activist Leo Robinson, of Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, recalled that the April 1977 two-day shutdown at the docks to prevent the unloading of South African cargo was effective because Local 10 members who were sympathetic took those jobs, knowing that were not going to work. They tied up the ship for two days. They continued demonstrations at the docks over the years, but they received the most attention on November 23, 1984, after FSAM, a project of TransAfrica, launched its campaign. On that day, when they refused to offload cargo from South Africa, some 250 people came out in the rain to support their protest. But the effort was becoming better organized and apartheid atrocities and protests were attracting increasinglyintense media attention. The movement continued demanding the release of Nelson Mandela and added an entertainer boycott of South Africa, and in 1985, specifically of the Sun City resort for white South Africans. The slogan was “Don’t go, and if you do, demand to speak to Mandela.”

After more than two years of what became a nationwide movement of direct-action protest, local constituents were telling their representatives to change US policy. On October 2, 1986, Congress handed President Reagan his first major foreign policy defeat by overriding his veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. Apartheid began to crumble.

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To understand why FSAM and the antiapartheid movement succeeded in the Reagan administration when other antiapartheid organizations and protests were not able to stop U.S. support of apartheid requires one to consider the history of U.S. policy and protest and antiapartheid activities. A confluence of factors made it possible for FSAM to influence American policy that then helped destroy the apartheid regime. The people in South Africa took risks, struggled, died, went to prison, and lived “banned” and isolated lives in their own cause to make their country ungovernable as long as their lives were suppressed. Antiapartheid activism and support for the ANC by some Western European countries helped to sustain the ANC and those exiled. Organizations, leaders, and ordinary people in the United States tried repeatedly to upset US policy that sustained apartheid. This all laid the groundwork for the successful FSAM campaign.

The South African government formalized apartheid in 1948. In the United States the NAACP in 1951 tried unsuccessfully to end World Bank loans to South Africa. In 1960, after the Sharpeville massacre, in which police fired on protesters leaving sixty-nine people dead, the ANC, which was the principal antiapartheid party, was banned.4 In November 1962, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution setting up a Special Committee on Apartheid and called for sanctions against South Africa, which only led Western nations to boycott the committee. The antiapartheid movement in Britain began to pressure politicians, holding a conference in London in 1964. The Labor Party endorsed sanctions during the election campaign that year, but it retreated after winning and gave the standard “Sanctions might hurt the very people we are trying to help” rationale for inaction.

In the United States, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), founded at the University of Michigan in 1960 and at the time a multi-issue organization seeking university reform, civil rights, and community organizing, responded to the Sharpeville massacre by protesting against Chase Manhattan Bank. In the spring of 1965, SDS protested the bank’s involvement in a revolving credit arrangement that bailed out the South African government by attempting sit-ins and distributing Chase Partner in Apartheid buttons. The bank went to court and enjoined their activities. The SDS bulletins and materials publicized the protests, but the national media gave it scant mention.

In 1964, Nelson Mandela, then serving a five-year sentence for leaving the country without a passport and for incitement, and ten other leading apartheid opponents were convicted in the Rivonia trials. At Mandela’s trial, he gave his often-quoted last speech before emerging from prison twenty-seven years later, saying he “cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”  He hoped to live for this ideal. But if necessary, he said, “it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Britain and the United States, hoping to suppress international negative opinion, and with some degree of success, issued a statement opposing death sentences for those charged in the Rivonia trials. By 1965, the antiapartheid struggle had receded from public attention and consciousness.

The civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests expanded the space for civil disobedience in the United States. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, higher-education affirmative action measures brought more black students to predominantly white campuses. Civil rights activists and black students at white institutions and historically black colleges and universities became especially interested in colonialism in the Caribbean and Africa and ties between blacks in the United States and on the continent. Continued restiveness and resistance among southern African blacks gave rise to some intermittent protest actions. Though the Nixon administration was dominated by expansion of the Vietnam War “in order to make peace,” and then by the president’s Watergate troubles and resignation, it pursued some activity that reinforced the apartheid regime. Nixon’s national security adviser at the time, Henry Kissinger, in a memorandum, rejected the decolonization emphasis of the previous administrations and recommended a relaxation policy advocating closer ties with the white governments of Mozambique, Angola, Rhodesia, and South Africa. American companies were urged to increase business with South Africa, and South Africa once again could buy aircraft and other military materials in the United States.

In Congress, change toward more support for ending apartheid developed. In the House, Charles Diggs became chair of the Subcommittee on Africa, in 1969, the first black chair of that committee. The committee invited testimony from scholars, experts, and black activists, and not just the usual corporate leaders and government officials. Hearings on events and policy in southern Africa became routine. As the number of black members of Congress grew, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), founded in 1971, included more members interested in Africa.

Throughout the 1970s, antiapartheid activism remained for the most part decentralized. Any number of organizations, including state and local governments, churches, civic organizations, foundations, peace groups, labor, colleges and universities, played roles in keeping the fight alive. The American Committee on Africa (ACOA) was the oldest antiapartheid organization. George Houser, Bayard Rustin, and Bill Sutherland of the Congress on Racial Equality founded it in 1953 to support the 1952 Campaign to Defy Unjust Laws (Defiance campaign) called by the ANC. In 1954, Houser traveled to Africa to meet with leaders of liberation struggles throughout the continent, including Chief Albert Luthuli and Walter Sisulu in South Africa. When Houser returned, he went to work for ACOA full time, serving as executive director until 1981, when Jennifer Davis, who served during FSAM’s campaigns, took over. ACOA hosted African leaders in the United States, lobbied the United Nations and the US government, arranged meetings for Africans leaders who came to the United States, produced reports, and raised funds for African university students and refugees. In 1972, ACOA joined with Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ denominations to form the Washington Office on Africa as a lobbying arm for African issues. In the labor movement, the international units of the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers educated local members and provided congressional testimony.

Several short-duration grassroots organizations also emerged during this period. Black employees at Polaroid headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, started a revolutionary movement to spread information and education in opposition to the use of Polaroid photographs in the South African passbook system. The National African Liberation Support Committee of elected officials and community-based organization coordinated African Liberation Day marches in 1972 and ’73. Scholars whose research trips to Africa had been funded by the government and foundations became vocal critics of apartheid. In 1975, banned activist and poet Dennis Brutus moved from Britain to the United States, settling at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, and traveling the country talking about apartheid. Between 1981 and 1983, US government efforts to deport him led to a successful fight waged by ACOA, TransAfrica, and other groups to gain asylum for him.

The overthrow of the forty-year dictatorship in Portugal in 1974 left the way open for the liberation of Portuguese southern Africa, including the present countries of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau. Kissinger, in the environment of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, and ignoring America’s colonialism and apartheid hypocrisies, tried to define the southern Africa issue as helping South Africa contain communism. This focus involved encouraging civil war in Angola, keeping Marxism that was already ensconced in Mozambique from spreading to Rhodesia, and demonizing protesters in South Africa as communists. But the conflict in Angola acquired global dimensions, with antiapartheid activists in Europe and the United States finding openings for shattering Kissinger’s anticommunist mantra. Activists countered with charges that South Africa was pursuing an anti-liberation goal and only interested in shoring up apartheid from all geographical sides.

In June 1976, the Soweto uprising was the catalyst for new energy and sustained mobilization and protest by antiapartheid activists. Beginning on June 16, about 20,000 children protested in streets against teaching Afrikaans in the schools. The number of children killed by police ran into the hundreds, enough to gain international press attention. In the United States, campus protests, local candlelight vigils, picket lines, and groups aligned against apartheid grew exponentially.

The Interfaith Committee on Corporate Responsibility, founded in 1973, gained momentum and pushed the antiapartheid principles promoted by Leon Sullivan, a black minister from Philadelphia and member of the General Motors board. GM was the largest employer of blacks in South Africa. The principles, known as the Sullivan Principles, embodied social responsibility for corporations doing business in South Africa. Corporations would have a policy of equal treatment of employees and an integrated environment without race discrimination. The idea was that companies would be forced to stop doing business in South Africa, since the principles directly conflicted with apartheid. At the same time the antiapartheid movement lobbied individual businesses to adopt and comply with the Sullivan Principles, the movement opened an attack on institutional investors.

Activists advocated for withdrawal from investments in South African–based companies and divestment from any U.S.-based companies with business in South Africa that had not adopted the Sullivan Principles. Pension funds became a major target. Some companies ceased doing business in South Africa while others endorsed the principles but remained. The principles did shelter companies that stayed in South Africa from criticism during the disinvestment campaigns before the FSAM protests started. In 1987, after the movement had gained momentum, Sullivan would renounce his own principles as not going far enough.

Students at the University of California, Michigan State, Stanford, and other schools protested until their universities divested completely. Some state and local governments passed limited disinvestment laws. In 1978, the City of San Francisco opted not to invest in corporations and banks doing business in or with South Africa.

By Mary Frances Berry

Dr. Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former chairwoman of the US Commission on Civil Rights, the author of 11 books, and the recipient of 35 honorary degrees. Dr. Berry has appeared on "Real Time With Bill Maher," "The Daily Show," "Tavis Smiley," "PBS NewsHour," "CBS Evening News," "Al Jazeera America News" and various MSNBC and CNN shows.

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