Pressure to End Apartheid Began at Grass Roots in U.S.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow, Coretta (center), and children Bernice and Martin are arrested outside the South African Embassy in Washington in 1985. High-profile arrests helped raise American awareness of apartheid.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta (center), and children Bernice and Martin are arrested outside the South African Embassy in Washington in 1985. High-profile arrests helped raise American awareness of apartheid.

By Stephen Kaufman
IIP Staff Writer

Washington,
16 December 2013

On November 21, 1984, a group of African-American leaders, frustrated by South Africa’s systematic racial injustice, entered the South African Embassy in Washington and demanded freedom for Nelson Mandela and the release of South Africa’s political prisoners. When the leaders refused to leave, they were arrested.

Protests outside South Africa’s embassy would continue nearly every day for the next few years, attracting larger and larger crowds. Over time, there was increased media attention as the list of those arrested included 25 members of the U.S. Congress and leaders from the U.S. civil rights movement such as Rosa Parks, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow and two of his children. In all, about 5,000 people were arrested outside the embassy, including tennis star Arthur Ashe and musician Stevie Wonder.

But the Washington protests were only one part of a decentralized but widespread U.S. public campaign to pressure the South African government over its apartheid policies and express solidarity with the South African people’s struggle to change their country.

Beginning in the late 1970s, a grass-roots movement of American college students and faculty across the country started demanding that their academic and civic institutions divest their holdings in companies doing business in South Africa and that pension funds and banks divest any South African assets. The divestiture movement, in part, was a response to the 1976 uprising by the youth in Soweto and the massacre of protesters by the South African police.

By 1988, more than 155 academic institutions had fully or partially divested from South Africa, including the University of California, which withheld some $3 billion from the country. In addition, by 1989, 26 U.S. states, 22 counties and more than 90 cities had taken economic action against companies doing business in South Africa.

U.S. groups also raised funds to help pay legal expenses for South African political prisoners and their families and organized boycotts of South African sporting events and cultural performances to show their solidarity with the South African people. Many U.S. churches also voiced their protest and found ways to apply economic pressure.

The combined force of this decentralized group of American anti-apartheid activists finally pressured the U.S. Congress to pass the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which imposed economic sanctions against South Africa until the government agreed to release Mandela and all political prisoners and entered into “good-faith negotiations” with the black majority. President Ronald Reagan vetoed the measure, but Congress overturned that veto and followed by voting for even more restrictive sanctions.

These efforts, accompanied by increased media interest in the anti-apartheid struggle within South Africa itself, helped to educate an American public that in the mid 1980s largely never had heard the names of Nelson Mandela, martyred South African activist Steve Biko or Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who himself was arrested outside the South African Embassy in Washington in 1986.

The grass-roots effort to pressure the South African government and raise awareness was so successful that only five years after many Americans first heard the term apartheid, hundreds of thousands met the newly freed Nelson Mandela in New York at the start of his 1990 visit to the United States. People across the nation flocked to hear his remarks in the U.S. cities on his 11-day tour.

In a December 7 broadcast, National Public Radio journalist Arun Rath reflected on the mass mobilization, which coincided with his high school and college years of the 1980s and early 1990s.

“I don’t think I saw real political activism until I encountered the anti-apartheid movement,” he said. “My own church sent a busload of congregants to picket the South African Embassy. We all felt like we had a moral stake in ending apartheid and freeing Nelson Mandela.”

In his own recollection, President Obama, who was attending Harvard Law School at the time Mandela was freed, told an audience in Senegal June 27 that the period “gave me a sense of what is possible in the world when righteous people, when people of goodwill work together on behalf of a larger cause.”

Three days later in Cape Town, South Africa, Obama said that the grass-roots mobilization inspired by Mandela had shown that “one man’s courage can move the world.”

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