After word of Nelson Mandela's death was announced, my son and nephew both called just to check on me. Both are in their 30s but as kids I drug them to more anti-apartheid rallies, marches, organizing meetings or fundraisers than any of us can remember. They grew up with posters of Winnie Mandela, Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela on their walls.
As I was talking to them, I realized the anti-apartheid movement was their door to the worldwide freedom movement. They were sad yet genuinely grateful to have grown up in a world where Mandela was present in the same way that many of my generation felt about Martin Luther King.
I tried to get into South Africa in 1989 while Mandela was still in jail. While I was there, then-African National Congress president Tambo was rushed to London after a heart attack, Texas Congressman Mickey Leland died in a plane crash in Gambela, Ethiopia, and Mandela was still in jail. I never got out of the airport.
A year later I had the opportunity to organize buses from South Carolina to Atlanta to greet Nelson & Winnie Mandela when they spoke at Georgia Tech in 1990. I at least got to shake a brother & sister's hand and be on stage, up close, to hear Madiba speak.
What happened to South Africa after Mandela’s presidency is another story. As singer Miriam Makeba put it: "We got the flag, but they got to keep the money."
There was expectation that the political and economic disenfranchisement of South African blacks would be dealt with when Mandela took over power. The new leadership under the iconic leader didn’t implement radical social change and wealth redistribution that could have helped the millions of impoverished black South Africans. That work remains to be done.
Still, 27 years in prison over the issue of self-determination is certainly worthy of giving Mandela his due respect.
Mandela said during a speech in April 1964 that he just wanted “to be remembered as part of the collective."
Those who fought against the United States’ cooperation with the racist apartheid regime are “part of the collective.”
The names of people and organizations that helped set South Africa on the course of democracy are too numerous to mention.
Yet, in this country, if we’re giving props, first mention ought to go to advocacy group TransAfrica and its then-leader Randall Robinson.
In the 80s, they were on point organizing “civil disobedience that led to jailings for over a year.”
In the South, most of my organizing was done under the auspices of the African Friends Service Committee, which sponsored Thandi Luthuli-Gcabashe, daughter of Chief Albert Luthuli, who was president of the African National Congress from 1952 until his death in 1967. Gcabashe went into exile in the late 1960s, and in 1981 she was named director of the Southern Peace Education Program of the Quakers in Atlanta, Georgia, a post she held for 15 years.
Then there was the work of the Congressional Black Caucus throughout the years with elected leaders like Ron Dellums (who introduced an anti-apartheid bill in 1972), Maxine Waters, Bill Gray, Parren Mitchell, Mervyn Dymally, to name a few who led the legislative battle against apartheid.
The ’84 and ’88 presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson brought more people to the collective. Sanctions against South Africa and support of the liberation movement were central to Rainbow Coalition’s cause.
In 1986, Dr. William F. Gibson of Greenville, then national chairman of the NAACP, orchestrated a national post-card campaign in support of the ultimately successful the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986.
On the other side, it was jarring to see that one of the first images on TV after Mandela’s death was a clip of Ronald Reagan in 1990 saying Mandela should be included in talks about the future of South Africa. Reagan had fought economic sanctions against the government just four years earlier, considering Mandela a terrorist. ” Reagan insisted that the 16 percent minority white population in power were "strategically essential to the free world," although the 84 percent majority of black South Africa's citizens (to include Coloureds and Asians) were to be violently kept un-free.
Conservative hardliners like South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, Phil Gramm of Texas and Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and others, including future Vice President Dick Cheney, then a Republican congressman from Wyoming, supported Reagan’s position against the act. Helms filibustered the sanctions bill. Cheney still says he made the right decision in ’86. He said, the ANC was then viewed as a terrorist organization … I don't have any problems at all with the vote I cast 20 years ago.''
I was truly surprised that all the major daily papers in my hometown of Columbia could offer the world after Mandela’s death was a 1998 picture of a 95-year-old Strom Thurmond holding up Mandela’s arm as though he’d just won a prizefight. The photo was snapped during the South African President’s visit to Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
Maybe someone thought the photo of Thurmond was funny or ironic. Maybe the person who posted the picture was, at best, ignorant of history or, at worst, trying to revise history by giving the photographic impression that Thurmond supported Mandela and the anti-apartheid cause.
It would have been more accurate to post a picture or write something about Senator Ernest F. Hollings’s efforts. Hollings co-sponsored the failed 1985 anti-apartheid bill but succeeded in having an anti-apartheid plank added to the Democrat’s platform in ’84 and ’88.
Reagan and his supporters were on the wrong side of history. Fortunately, Congress ultimately overrode his veto.
In the moments after Mandela’s death, Bill Clinton tweeted, “I will never forget my friend Madiba.” In response someone tweeted back, “Then why didn’t you take him off the terrorist watch list?
Mandela wasn’t removed from the list until 2008 when then-Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice asked George Bush to do so.
What occurred to me in the midst of all the international mourning, but in particular, what was going on in the U.S. with the mainstream narrative of “Mandela forgiving his oppressors,” was a sense that a whole lot of individuals who were once on the wrong side of history were doing their best to get on the right side. Even more, they were trying to get the United States on the right side since it was the CIA that delivered Mandela over to South Africa's security service in August 1962.
Those trying to get on that right side crowded out the stories of those who had actually fought the good fight, such as those involved at the grassroots level and the students who forced over 70 colleges and universities to partially or fully divest from companies that did business with South Africa. That effort affected a total of over $411 million in investments.
From Massachusetts to New Mexico, by 1985, 12 states and the District of Columbia, over 25 cities, including Columbia, SC, where I live, 4 counties and the Virgin Islands had enacted divestment legislation, withdrawing more than $5 billion from U.S. corporations that had investments in South Africa. And more and more cities were beginning to follow suit.
Doubtless, many credit, and rightfully so, “Artists Against Apartheid,” led by E-Street Band member Steven Van Zandt and his song "Sun City" with helping to fuel the artists’ boycott of the rouge nation. But also remember that Van Zandt followed in the footsteps of Harry Belafonte, who helped South African artists and musicians to spread the word of their condition around the globe. And we shouldn’t forget Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson’s From South Africa to South Carolina, released in1976 with the songs "Johannesburg" and “Let Me See Your I.D.”
There’s an activist history yet to be written. When it is, it will include familiar names like Roger Wilkins, Mary Frances Berry, Walter Fauntroy, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Barbara Lee. And those in the union movement — led by Bill Lucy and the Coalition for Black Trade Unions, the American Federation of State, Country and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the AFL-CIO.
In that history there will be scores of names not so familiar and those who will never be mentioned.
All were part of the collective.
"Amandla Ngawethu!” "Power to the People!"