Dismantling U.S.-style apartheid: what can the immigrant rights agenda learn from the Free South Africa Movement?

Author:Tennant, Evalyn

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...

To continue reading