The Free South Africa Movement's 25th Anniversary

By Nicole Lee -Guest Columnist- | Last updated: Dec 9, 2009 - 11:54:06 AM

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The word apartheid has slipped from our daily vocabulary. It is not a part of the news coverage we read each day and school children are more than likely not taught about this political construct. But 25 years ago, apartheid in South Africa was the number one parasite on the collective Black soul. Twenty-five years ago, Black South Africans were controlled by a government that reduced them to slaves in their own country. Black South Africans were denied all political and economic rights and were killed when they raised their voices in protest.

In 1976, the children of Soweto were slaughtered by the police for demanding to be taught in their own language. There is a poignant photograph of the body of 12-year-old Hector Pieterson being carried as the children of the township tried to escape a shower of bullets.


We all know that it took more than protests and arrests at an embassy to topple apartheid. The victory over a racist regime was won with the loss of human life and a global commitment to do what is right.
Twenty-five years ago, Nelson Mandela was in a South African prison charged with sedition. He was the leader of the South African resistance movement and became the symbol of the international resistance. The world chanted, “Free Nelson Mandela!” Musician Hugh Masekela sang, “Bring Back Nelson Mandela” but few thought that would ever happen. Powerful nations such as the United States, Britain and France were comfortable with a policy they called “constructive engagement” which was a polite way of saying that they would not punish the South African government for the brutal repression of 85 percent of its population.

And so 25 years ago the leadership of TransAfrica created a strategy to draw attention to apartheid in South Africa and force the U.S. government and U.S. corporations to stand up against apartheid. TransAfrica's then-President Randall Robinson, civil rights leaders Mary Frances Berry and Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Washington D.C. Congressional Delegate Walter Fauntroy requested a meeting with the South African Ambassador. The meeting was set for the night before Thanksgiving, 1984. The visitors demanded the release of political prisoners. Needless to say, they were asked to leave. They refused. Randall Robinson, Walter Fauntroy, and Mary Frances Berry were arrested. But TransAfrica's strategy was not limited to the meeting with the ambassador and the arrests. The strategy included protests outside of the embassy and national media on site. The belief was that the day before Thanksgiving was a perfect date to create a national ruckus and get full media coverage. They were right.

With that, the Free South Africa Movement (FSAM) was formed. Every day, average people came to protest and many were arrested. A few days after the first arrests, Rosa Parks asked to be arrested on the anniversary of her arrest in Montgomery, Alabama, twenty-nine years earlier. That set off a wave of movie stars, musicians, and members of Congress joining the ranks of protesters. Many volunteered to be arrested for the cause. These ongoing protests in Washington D.C. and at South African embassies and missions in the United States and around the world, helped to keep the brutality of apartheid on the front pages. Universities in the U.S. began the slow move toward divestiture. They were followed by pension funds and corporations. The momentum continued with the passage of anti-apartheid legislation in the U.S. Congress which President Ronald Reagan vetoed. It took the strength of conscience of some Republican leaders in the Senate to override the veto and put the United States on the correct side of history.

We all know that it took more than protests and arrests at an embassy to topple apartheid. The victory over a racist regime was won with the loss of human life and a global commitment to do what is right. As we mark the 25th anniversary of the Free South Africa Movement, we recognize the power and force of the moral high ground even against all odds. Where were you in 1984 as apartheid ravaged an entire race? Where are you now as we stand up against other forms of government-sanctioned oppression?

(Nicole C. Lee is executive director of TransAfrica Forum.)