RONALD REAGAN’S REPUBLICAN USA may have been a tough nut to deal with during the 80s, but harping on about the perceived slight caused by his party’s treatment of Nelson Mandela, whom they Republicans’ labelled a ‘terrorist’, ignores the substantial contribution of many other personalities from within the ranks of the Democrats and broader American civil rights movement.
Personages such as Dr.Martin Luther King Jr., late John F Kennedy, the late Robert F Kennedy, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and UN ambassador Andrew Young, demonstrate the enormous USA impact which ultimately boosted the anti-apartheid movement (AAM) both within and outside the country.
The first American political leader to show genuine interest in South Africa was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. By the time of Senator Kennedy’s visit in 1966, Dr. King had publicly linked the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
“Our responsibility presents us with a unique opportunity. We can join in the one form of non-violent action that could bring freedom and justice to South Africa – the action which African leaders have appealed for – in a massive movement for economic sanctions.” Martin Luther King’s London address 1963
It was this democratic movement for universal rights which formed the basis for the anti-apartheid movement, a movement whose historical trajectory spans decades of progressive extra-parliamentary activism and whose aims were far broader than the narrow ideological constraints of party politics.
Robert F. Kennedy’s historic visit to South Africa in 1966, remains one of the most important visits by an American during the worst years of apartheid. As Senator Kennedy’s address at the University of Witwatersrand and meeting with Albert Luthuli, shows, he was a strong advocate for liberty, equality, human dignity, democracy, human rights and justice.
Later it was Andrew Young whose trip to SA in 1977 first raised the spectre of serious economic pressure on the apartheid government and ushered in a sanctions campaign which did more to liberate the country than any Russian-supplied weapons and Soviet-style rhetoric.
The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 was thus a law enacted by the United States Congress. The law imposed sanctions against South Africa and stated ‘five preconditions for lifting the sanctions’ that would essentially end the system of apartheid.
It is an historical fact that the conclusion to apartheid and white minority rule came as the result of broad economic pressure and that the military campaign at the behest of MK and others, at the end of the day, played a rather minor role.
Partisan propagandists stuck inside Cold War rhetoric forget that Paul Robeson’s American Committee on Africa (ACOA) was the first major group devoted to the anti-apartheid movement, and predate the later boycott movement formed in 1959.
Later incarnations played an equally important part, with the result evolving into the African Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000, which lowered trade barriers by lowering tariffs, and providing economic opportunities and incentives.
It would be a shame to see South Africa lose its beneficial trade status in exchange for appeasement of a Russian dictator opposed to the democracy and civil rights we take for granted? It is no secret that Putin’s United Russia Party is opposed to LGBTIQ rights, and perceives the conquest of Ukraine as a colonial and imperial endeavour.
In 1984, TransAfrica became a founding member of what it termed the Free South Africa Movement resulting in demonstrations on US campuses. While supportive of UN resolutions against apartheid, and the chief supplier of weapons during the conflict, Russia played a marginal role and absolutely no part in the transition process. In fact it was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and end of the USSR in 1991 which brought a wave of democracy and freedom across Eastern Europe, whose impact is still felt in South Africa today.