African Liberation Solidarity and Anti-Apartheid Victory

This post is part of our forum on the “The End of South African Apartheid Anniversary.”

A group of Augusta College students are shown demonstrating with anti-apartheid signs in 1981 (Digital Public Library of America)

After the African National Congress (ANC) won South Africa’s first democratic elections in April 1994, world-wide jubilation commenced to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s victory. The poet June Jordan watching the scenes through her television set in the United States was overwhelmed by the news. Like many others, who had supported the anti-Apartheid cause decades earlier, when it was unpopular to do so, she clung to a hopeful vision of worldwide anti-imperial possibility. Jordan’s vision for a Free Palestine, Nicaragua, and African America was contiguous with the onset of a Free South Africa and the furtive possibilities of what this victory could mean for ongoing anti-colonial struggles. The ANC’s 1994 electoral victory and its memory, however, obscures this tension within the global anti-Apartheid movement, including long-standing efforts to liberalize, and as a result hamper, the capacious anti-colonial radicalism about which Jordan both dreamed and drafted.

In the United States, the American Committee on Africa (ACOA), TransAfrica, the Free South Africa Movement, organized labor, and university students led the foremost anti-Apartheid solidarity efforts, moving the issue of South African Apartheid from periphery to center in US political discourse. They were so successful that on October 2, 1986, the US Congress voted successfully to override President Ronald Reagan’s veto of the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (H.R. 4868), which imposed sanctions against the Republic of South Africa for its Apartheid policies. The vote to override H.R. 4868, which required the support of more than two-thirds of Congress, was a rare bipartisan success.

Anti-Apartheid became a consensus position in the United States by the late-1980s. The US anti-Apartheid Movement won the support of many groups spanning a political range broad enough to incorporate “colorblind” conservatives, anti-communist liberals, multiracial leftist coalitions, and Black radicals, demonstrating that Apartheid opposition was not necessarily a signifier of leftwing politics. Between the 1950s and 1970s, anti-Apartheid grew its own moderate, liberal, and left strains with enough supporters to provoke the successful override of a popular president’s veto. The spectral development of US anti-Apartheid politics begs the question: what does a movement have to lose in order to win?

Understanding the role of the ACOA in global anti-Apartheid offers insight into this question, juxtaposing radical and liberal approaches to anti-Apartheid organizing. Established in 1953, five years following the codification of Apartheid, the ACOA grew into one of the United States’ largest anti-Apartheid organizations with the goal of generating support for African independence struggles. In time the Committee won praise from esteemed African liberation figures, such as Oliver Tambo, Amilcar Cabral, and Eduardo Mondlane for its consciousness-raising work.  The Committee’s first executive director, antiwar pacificist and civil rights organizer, George Houser, formulated the ACOA’s mission and supervised the incubation of liberal anti-Apartheid politics in the United States between 1955 and 1981.

The ACOA rose to national prominence after the dissolution of the Black Communist-led Council on African Affairs (CAA)—or “the Council”—an organization that began raising US awareness about European colonialism in 1935 as the International Committee on African Affairs (ICAA). Under the leadership of Paul and Eslanda Robeson, Alphaeus Hunton, and W.E.B. Du Bois, the Council moved beyond the political education goals of the ICAA and adopted strategies to fight colonialism and Apartheid while imagining new economic and social arrangements for decolonized polities.

During the early Cold War, the ACOA leadership presented itself as an anti-communist, anti-colonial alternative to the Council. Striving to become the dominant liberal force on African political developments, the ACOA competed with the Council by rebuffing its efforts to collaborate on South African-led campaigns that both organizations supported such as the Congress Alliance’s Defiance Campaign. In his 1989 memoir, No One Can Stop the Rain, Houser explained that the ACOA aimed to bring American liberals to African liberation, providing them with an opportunity to engage in US foreign policy. The late historian Francis Nbuju Nesbitt reveals that Du Bois warned about the liberalization of African liberation under the ACOA. He feared that the ACOA would re-orient the goals of Black-led anticolonial struggle to fit within the Committee’s anti-communist, liberal political beliefs.

With Black Communist anticolonial activism repressed, and Cold War civil rights elevated, Houser steered the ACOA towards filling a vacuum in left politics. The ACOA’s left ideology, however, was governed a liberal theory of change that was anti-communist, liberal internationalist, and espoused both a Black Scare/Red Scare antagonism towards, and an erasure of, Black communist and Black Power radicalisms. As African liberation struggles grew increasingly militant and embraced armed struggle, communism, and Black Power, the ACOA selectively funded African liberation movements and solidarity efforts that aligned with its own ideological commitments.

As the ACOA grew more prominent, it launched the Africa Fund in 1966 and the Washington Office on Africa in 1967. The ACOA’s tremendous expansion afforded it greater institutional legitimacy, public visibility, and access to political power. The Committee’s authoritative stature corresponded with the dissolution of major Black anticolonial organizations like the Revolutionary Action Movement, the Council of Afrikan Peoples, the African Liberation Support Committee, the Student (later) Youth Organization for Black Unity, and the Institute of the Black World.

The ACOA nourished an anti-Apartheid liberalism that ran parallel to other liberal solidarities in both South Africa and the global anti-Apartheid movement. While the Committee certainly comprised leftists and radicals—they also supported African liberation organizations and anti-colonial leaders, and led demonstrations that drew from civil rights protest strategies—the organization’s liberal leadership influenced the organization’s direction. Despite building coalitions with Apartheid resisters to achieve shared goals, ideologically, the ACOA adhered to a liberalism that South African Black Consciousness founder and theorist Stephen Bantu Biko determined prohibitive of true decolonization and African liberation.

The ACOA is an instructive example of how liberalism operates within social movements, housing leftist and radical dimensions, while advancing liberal modes of change that can win majority support. When it came to the ACOA, Du Bois ultimately cautioned, “You cannot depend on it to tell the whole African story,” suggesting that more radical alternatives, risky actions, and insurgent perspectives would be elided. As South Africa charges Israel with genocide against Palestinians at the International Court of Justice and the memory of the anti-Apartheid movement recirculates, activists and scholars of African liberation and Black diaspora solidarity should be especially attentive to these nuances within any social movement, no matter how successful, and parse their relationship to the Black Radical Tradition.1

  1. Penny von Eschen, Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997) 144.
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Amanda Joyce Hall

AJH is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who writes about worldwide Black opposition to South African Apartheid. She tweets from @amandajoycehall.

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