As Chairman of Freedom, Inc. in Youngstown, Ohio, a community based, Pan Africanist organization, I was privileged to be among a small group of activists/organizers who launched the mobilization to hold the first African Liberation Day (ALD) in the U.S. in 1972. The focus of ALD was to mobilize political and material support for the liberation movements fighting to achieve independence in the last remaining European colonial regimes in Africa – Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Southwest Africa (Namibia), Rhodesia/Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Mozambique and of course South Africa. Of all of these brutal regimes, the vicious apartheid regime in South Africa seemed to be the most impregnable. An entrenched and determined White minority ruthlessly controlled more than 85% of the land and resources and compelled the vast Black majority to live like sub-humans in wretched conditions under a system of rigid separation of the races.
Time and time again, the White supremacist regime demonstrated its willingness to use the state controlled mechanisms of force/violence to crush protests, rallies and demonstrations as evidenced by the Sharpsville massacre in 1960, merciless suppression of the Soweto uprising in 1976 and countless overt efforts by the Black majority and its allies to shatter the shackles of apartheid. But, the thirst for freedom and will to resist oppression could not be extinguished in large measure because of the man who came to encapsulate and symbolize the aspirations of the people, Madiba, Nelson Mandela.
Mandela was the “tallest tree” in a forest that included many movements and stellar leaders, e.g., the Pan African Congress, Black Consciousness Movement, Mass Democratic Movement, Steve Biko, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Allan Boesak, Cyril Ramaphosa, Albertina and Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo to mention a few. This is an important note because there is a tendency to cast successful movements as the result of the acts of a solitary heroic figure. As is the case in many reform and revolutionary struggles, in South Africa there was a multifaceted movement fighting to bring down the walls of apartheid. Nelson Mandela was part of the largest and most widely accepted organization within that movement, the African National Congress (ANC).
Mandela emerged as the face of struggle in South Africa and abroad because of his vision, courage and commitment as a leader and his willingness, if necessary to die for the cause – an expression of courage and commitment which he unapologetically stated at his trial before being sentenced to prison. His willingness to face death and suffer a long imprisonment while never surrendering or giving up on the dream of a multiracial, democratic South Africa is the stuff that made him the symbol and face of the movement, an icon and legend even before the apartheid regime was forced to release him.
“Free Mandela” became the battle cry of the freedom struggle in South Africa and the world. This was certainly the case in the U.S., most notably among the forces within the Black liberation movement. While sympathetic to various organizations in South Africa, most groups and leaders in the South Africa support movement embraced Mandela and ANC as the leader and organization with the broadest support and greatest potential to effectively dismantle apartheid. Mandela’s and ANC’s pledge to “nationalize” the major means of production to ensure an improvement in the quality of life for the Black majority was also persuasive. At the human, visceral level, however, it was the story of Mandela’s courageous commitment, sacrifice and suffering that made him the symbol of the South Africa support movement. “Free Mandela” signs and chants were standard fare at marches, rallies and demonstrations in the U.S. With his wife, the courageous, militant Winnie Mandela, consistently voicing the aspirations of the South African masses and keeping the memory of her husband alive, freeing Nelson Mandela to lead the people to the “promised land” of Black majority rule became a major goal of the evolving Free South Africa Movement in the U.S.
What an amazing era this was. In 1972 some 25,000 people marched/rallied in Washington, D.C. for the first African Liberation Day, another 10,000 in the San Francisco Bay Area and 10,000 in Toronto, Canada. Under the leadership of Maurice Bishop the New Jewel Movement in Grenada also mobilized a solidarity rally. Though ALD 1972 was organized in support of liberation movements in all of the non-liberated territories, the struggle in South Africa had a prominent place on the agenda and chants of “Free Mandela” reverberated throughout the rallies.
An incredible movement was exploding across the country. Over the objection of the U.S. government students organized campaigns to demand that colleges/universities divest or withdraw investments from South Africa. City councils around the nation followed suit. There was an aggressive effort to use economic sanctions/boycotts to force U.S. corporations doing business in South Africa to divest as well. South African lobster tails, Budweiser beer and Coca Cola Company come to mind as some of the targets. Indeed “Coke Sweetens Apartheid” was one of the more popular slogans of the time. The Congressional Black Caucus mounted a vigorous campaign to impose economic sanctions on South Africa to break the back of apartheid. With the mass movement intensifying, Congress overrode the veto of President Ronald Reagan to impose sanctions and finally place the U.S. government on the right side of the heroic freedom struggle in South Africa. Hundreds of leaders, activists and organizers also converged on the South African Embassy on a regular basis for sit-in demonstrations to demand freedom, democracy and Black majority rule in South Africa.
In the face of fierce and unrelenting resistance inside the country and internationally, after 27 years, February 11, 1990, the illicit regime in South Africa was compelled to free Madiba, Nelson Mandela, the courageous leader and symbol of the movement for freedom, democracy and economic elevation of the masses of South Africans! What a memorable day. It seemed that the whole world watched as Mandela strode, tall, proud and confident out of the gates of imprisonment with Winnie Mandela at his side. I shall never forget Mandela’s first speech after his release. Despite his iconic status, he made it clear that he was first and foremost a servant of the people, grounded in and accountable to the organization that had played a leading role in his emancipation, the ANC. He also struck a tone of reconciliation to unite all South Africans to create a new nation.
At last the slogan/chant “Free Mandela” had been realized and with it the hopes and dreams of a long suffering people seemed closer to fruition. Now Mandela and the ANC were faced with the daunting task of transforming a resistance movement into a governing Party and to navigate a risky path of negotiating an agreement with the National Party that represented the White minority. While the ANC had a military wing that had engaged in armed struggle, its forces were far too weak to seriously threaten the vastly superior might of the South Africa security forces, whose ultimate mission was to protect the economic interests of the elite. Under these circumstances, Mandela led the way in encouraging a “truth and reconciliation” process which essentially allowed those who had committed crimes against humanity to confess their transgressions in exchange for immunity from prosecution (persons with the resistance forces were also requested to confess their transgressions). The National Party was also provided certain constitutional guarantees to protect the political interests of the White minority.
Finally, Mandela persuaded the ANC to abandon the goal of nationalizing the major means of production, thereby assuring that the same individuals, families and companies that dominated the economy during the era of apartheid would be safely in control in the new South Africa. This did not mean that ANC abandoned its pledge to improve the quality of life for the Black majority, but the negotiated settlement meant that these promises would largely have to be met through policies enacted by the government. The hard fought victory to end apartheid meant that those who had been locked out of the political process could voice their aspirations at the ballot box. They could elect a President and government that could open opportunities for education, housing, jobs, healthcare and other benefits through public policies designed to achieve these objectives. However, the cold reality was/is that the Black majority held the keys to political power while the White minority held on to the keys to the means of production and control of the economy.
Now that our beloved Madiba, this giant of a man who inspired generations to engage the struggle for a free, non-racial, democratic South Africa has joined the ancestors, it marks the passing of an era. Perhaps his passing is an appropriate time not only to reflect on his heroic legacy but to assess the results of the negotiated settlement that has produced the “new South Africa.” Perhaps it is time to examine the unfinished freedom struggle in South Africa.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com.