Dismantling U.S.-Style Apartheid

Evalyn Tennant asks what can the immigrant rights agenda learn from the Free South Africa Movement?

By Evalyn Tennant Mar 21, 2004

Veterans of the civil rights movement like the Rev. James Lawson, who spoke at the rally sending the Los Angeles riders off, and Rep. John Lewis, who welcomed them in D.C., have eloquently expressed the connections between the Freedom Rides 40 years ago and those of today. Others have drawn and will continue to draw parallels between civil rights campaigns of the 1960s and contemporary immigrants’ rights campaigns. But there may be some additional “lessons from history” to be drawn from another, more recent campaign—the Free South Africa Movement launched by Randall Robinson and others in late 1984 that resulted in a national mobilization and the passage of economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa, even over President Reagan’s veto.

Both the Free South Africa Movement and the Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides were conceived as a way to connect African Americans’ struggle for racial justice in the civil rights era to the struggles of other groups—for the FSAM, it was black South Africans; for the IWFR, it’s immigrant workers (and their children) in the U.S. today. Such calls to action are based on broadly conceived, even expanded, understandings of solidarity rather than narrow conceptions of interest.

The Free South Africa Movement succeeded in many of its specific aims—getting Congress to impose economic sanctions that deprived the apartheid regime of its ally and an important source of foreign investment in its economy, and building a movement infrastructure from the ranks of student, labor, religious, and African American community organizations. What enabled the Free South Africa Movement’s “meteoric rise,” and what did the FSAM succeed in doing?

Launching a National Movement

In 1984, in the face of escalating violence and repression in South Africa and the refusal of the Reagan administration to take measures against the Botha regime, a group of Washington-based anti-apartheid and civil rights leaders launched the Free South Africa Movement. Randall Robinson, then director of TransAfrica, along with Mary Frances Berry, Walter Fauntroy, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, arranged a meeting with the South African ambassador. During that meeting, Norton left to call the media to announce that the other three would not leave the embassy until their demands—that the South African government release all political prisoners immediately and dismantle apartheid—were met. The media and supporters were there to capture the removal of Robinson, Fauntroy, and Berry in handcuffs, and the daily protests outside the embassy began. The protests spread from the embassy in Washington, D.C., to South African consulates and other symbols of the South African government around the United States. Over the next two years, at least 6,000 people would be arrested at embassy and consulate protests including major figures from the civil rights movement, members of Congress and other political figures (even a few Republicans), and many artists and entertainers.

The FSAM protests were immediately successful, and everyone remembers the high-profile political figures and entertainers who signed up to protest and be arrested, usually in front of the cameras. These people were joined by workers, students, members of religious communities. The impact and newsworthiness of the protests in the U.S. were closely connected to the escalation of protest in South Africa and the mainstream American media coverage of those protests. The images of violence in South Africa, of white policemen beating unarmed black protesters, sometimes looked strikingly similar to the civil rights protests of the 1960s. The FSAM provided a way to convert American outrage into mobilization and support.

Like the IWFR, the Free South Africa Movement explicitly invoked both the tactics and the moral authority of the civil rights movement. Both were planned at a national level to garner support for the passage of legislation by Congress. And both were orchestrated to attract mainstream media attention to help get their message out to, and mobilize support from, a broader public. But the Free South Africa Movement achieved its successes as a national movement for national legislation, largely because it mobilized existing local, grassroots anti-apartheid groups and their allies for a new campaign.

Anti-Apartheid Activism before the FSAM

The struggle against U.S. government and corporate support for apartheid had been going on for two decades when the FSAM caught fire. In the early and mid-1960s, civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr. and others began criticizing not only South African apartheid and the United States’ support for its supposed ally, but also the role of U.S. banks and other corporations as “partners in apartheid.” The first actions in the 1960s targeted banks that provided loans to the South African government, but soon went beyond banks to include corporations doing business in South Africa, focusing on the effects of these corporations’ involvement on the ability of the apartheid regime to maintain its hold on power and its brutal repression of the black majority.

In the early 1970s, the Boston-based Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement mounted a campaign against its employer’s involvement in South Africa and in producing the technologies used to make the “passes” black South Africans were required by law to carry. Around the same time, activists initiated a boycott of Gulf Oil, whose payments to Portugal for the right to drill for oil in the Angolan enclave of Cabinda financed the Portuguese dictatorship’s wars to hold on to their African colonies in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau. African solidarity activists became even more focused on South Africa after Portugal withdrew from Angola and Mozambique in 1975 and South African forces invaded Angola.

Activists called on banks and other corporations to withdraw from South Africa, but very few did. When Polaroid withdrew in 1977, seven years after the PRWM started, it was one of the first U.S. firms to do so. Corporations kept touting their business in South Africa as a “progressive force” for change in South Africa, and they implemented some limited programs to benefit their black workers and black educational institutions. Even if such efforts had been serious, the South African government made sure there could be no real black advancement. In fact, it implemented policies requiring that black students be taught in Afrikaans, a language few spoke or wanted to speak, so that they could better serve Afrikaans-speaking whites.

Black high school students in Soweto, and then across the country, rose up against this policy in 1976, attracting increased international attention. Students on campuses around the U.S. came out in force to support black South African students and demanded that their universities get rid of stocks in corporations that were helping the apartheid state maintain its policies.

Opportunities seemed poor for U.S. national legislative action, so activists opted for more local targets—including state and local governments and institutional investors such as universities, pension funds, and churches. A new wave of local organizing was born, and new local coalitions forged. Usually the targets were local and state government relationships with corporations doing business in South Africa, but sometimes, targets were more direct. The ILWU in San Francisco, which formed part of the core of the extensive Bay Area anti-apartheid movement, took their protest to the docks to prevent the unloading of South African cargo.

Groups pressing for divestment faced a new obstacle in 1977, just as they were gaining momentum. The Rev. Leon Sullivan, a member of the GM board of directors, complicated the call for withdrawal by providing an apparent alternative, a code of conduct for corporations calling for such things as desegregating lunchrooms and other workplace facilities and offering educational and career advancement opportunities to their own black workers. The burden was on anti-apartheid activists to show that such changes mattered little. They would affect only the relatively few black workers directly employed by American firms, while those same firms’ contribution to the South African economy in general, and to strategic sectors like the military and high tech in particular, played a substantial role in bolstering the apartheid regime’s grip on power.

Between 1977 and late 1984, divestment legislation had been passed at the state or local level in 16 states and the District of Columbia, and campaigns were on in several others. During this period, activists honed their arguments against the Sullivan Principles’ approach to corporate responsibility in South Africa. In almost all cases, these efforts were undertaken by coalitions of black and predominantly white groups representing a range of constituencies and working, sometimes uneasily, across significant racial and ideological differences. Much of the cooperation across racial lines was accomplished by black activists who took the time to work with both black groups and predominantly white, multiracial groups. Some multiracial groups, like the Chicago-based Coalition for Illinois Divestment from South Africa (later the Chicago Coalition in Solidarity with Southern Africa), made explicit efforts to deal with issues of race within the group. According to one of the original members of CIDSA, “The board… very consciously from day one had black leadership and wanted to keep that but also always was a multiracial formation and we came to understand that as part of our mission, to be that, and realize how hard that was.” Unfortunately, in many cases the interest in dealing explicitly with racial issues and tensions in the local and national context did not extend so far.

Shifting to a National Focus

When Randall Robinson and others launched the FSAM, existing anti-apartheid organizations, especially in the cities, state capitals, and university communities of the Northeast, Midwest, and on the West Coast, were often ready to work out among themselves who would picket in front of South African consulates on which days, and how to work in newly recruited blocks of protesters—from labor, religious, and community organizations. New groups formed, especially on college and university campuses, around the country even in places where they had not been strong before. Where there weren’t existing anti-apartheid groups, labor and church groups took the tasks of organizing demonstrations.

Within longer-term anti-apartheid efforts, racial tensions and ideological differences never disappeared, but most activists put them aside in favor of achieving shared goals. As long as everyone could get behind the same strategy, the incentives to downplay differences, especially in public, were great. On one level, it mattered little which South African liberation movement one supported when the target was the U.S. Congress. Most activists seemed to see the strategic value of having the public face of the FSAM be both black-led and multiracial, even those who thought that was not the way the movement really was or should be.

The Free South Africa Movement succeeded in getting a national mobilization “against South African racism—and against Ronald Reagan’s approach to dealing with it,” as Newsweek put it, and ultimately in getting sanctions passed in the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, over Reagan’s veto. The sanctions legislation itself, while significant, used the Sullivan Principles criteria for some purposes, rather than requiring full corporate withdrawal. The FSAM also succeeded in getting local and state divestment efforts going in new locations where there had not been the kind of long-term anti-apartheid activism presence as in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and California.

On the other hand, momentum generated in the sanctions and campus divestment campaigns did not get converted to a broader progressive anti-racist movement focused on local or national issues, in part because the focus on short-term goals was often combined with a reluctance to get into the deeper, more complicated issues of racial tensions in local and national contexts. What was an extremely decentralized anti-apartheid movement before the FSAM campaign quickly returned to that form. The Free South Africa Movement had, to a significant degree, turned a collection of locally based coalitions into the organizational infrastructure for a national mobilization: a mobilization directed at a national target—Congress and U.S. foreign policy—making strategic use of national media, and, especially, invoking the connection to U.S. civil rights struggles.

From Free South Africa to Freedom Ride

The solidarity expressed in the FSAM was with a struggle far away (far away at least in practical terms, even if it was also conceived by many as fundamentally a global struggle), but it was a solidarity that was organized and expressed locally in corporate boycotts, in consulate pickets, and in local and state divestment campaigns in cities across the United States before it could be effectively mobilized for the national campaign for sanctions.

The solidarity that has to be expressed for the IWFR campaign to succeed would also seem to need to be locally, not just nationally, organized and built. Anti-apartheid activists could not change U.S. foreign policy directly with their divestment campaigns aimed at local and state governments and institutional shareholders like universities, churches, and pension funds. Similarly, immigrant rights activists cannot get federal immigration law changed by local and state governments. But in the course of trying to get state and local governments to issue driver’s licenses and other documentation recognizing immigrants’ presence, if not all of their rights, the benefits might be twofold, especially if the kinds of labor, people of color, and civil rights constituencies behind the IWFR are sought out and brought into local campaigns. The anti-apartheid experience points to the potential that in addition to the obvious benefits of local victories, there could be important longer-term benefits in terms of building a diverse, organized local base that can be mobilized for national action when the time is right. This potential was not realized in the way many anti-apartheid activists had hoped, although in some local organizations it came close.

As Robin D. G. Kelley, among many others, has pointed out in Freedom Dreams, dreams (and the solidarities they envision) are not necessarily contained within national boundaries; nor should people’s exercise of their human rights be limited by national boundaries. Freedom dreams and solidarity struggles also need not take for granted the wedges, especially racial wedges, that have divided workers’ struggles. But they need to be many people’s dreams, and not just some people’s or some organizations’ strategy. Even in the current globalized world, even given the importance of national and global media attention, there still has to be real, ongoing and organized local support behind the vision of a national campaign.