Galvanizing the American Public, ANC and Anti-Apartheid

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

A group of union members and civil rights activists in Smyrna, Georgia protesting the Shell Oil Company’s continued business with South Africa in spite of apartheid (Georgia State University Library Digital Collections)

This year marks thirty years since the end of South African Apartheid. In April 1994, following nearly half a century of Apartheid, South Africans elected veteran anti-apartheid activist and African National Congress (ANC) president Nelson Mandela to serve as the country’s first Black head of state. Several years earlier, in 1990, shortly after his release from prison, Mandela visited the United States, where he met with cheers from the thousands of supporters who came to pay their respects to the revolutionary freedom fighter.

Then and now, Mandela and the ANC have been widely hailed as the heirs to a decades-long anti-apartheid struggle. But this legacy, one claimed by many ANC leaders themselves, was not a foregone conclusion. Throughout its century-long history, the ANC worked with and also jostled for political space alongside other movements, organizations, and individuals, each with their own vision of liberation. More recently the party has faced competition from other organizations and movements, including the Economic Freedom Fighters, whose recent electoral success has threatened the ANC’s majority. Defeating Apartheid and fending off challenges has frequently necessitated forging alliances. Some of the partners sought out by the ANC on its journey from revolutionary movement to governing power, including with American media and US corporations, have been more surprising than others and raise questions about the ANC’s claim as the primary heir to the anti-apartheid struggle.

Since its founding in 1912, the ANC (originally named the South African Native National Congress) has maintained ties with other organizations based outside South Africa. One of the earliest connections made by the ANC was with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), whose charter served as inspiration for the ANC’s charter. Such connections proved crucial in generating international support for the ANC and the anti-apartheid struggle. Shortly after the ANC’s banning in 1960, the NAACP called for a boycott of South African goods. The NAACP later expanded its call to include all US investments and loans to South Africa, urging the US government “to sever all economic, diplomatic, military, and cultural relationships with the racist regimes of Portugal, Rhodesia, and South Africa, and . . . extend recognition and aid to the . . . liberation movements of these areas.”

NAACP support notwithstanding, over the years, the ANC struggled to maintain support among Black Americans amid a rapidly changing domestic and global political landscape. Recalling an encounter with a Black American cab driver in New York City in 1974, ANC ambassador to the United Nations Johnny Makatini noted “the cabby realized his passenger wasn’t from the US, and asked where he was from.” An elated Makatini, who believed Black Americans would “constitute a natural ally” for the ANC began exclaiming about the ANC’s recent victory to expel South Africa from the UN. The cabby, however, interrupted him, saying, “No, I don’t agree with the communists,” referring to the ANC.1, Daily World, Tuesday, March 5, 1985: 4-D; A. Philip Randolph Education Fund, David Jessup papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University, Box 20, Folder African National Congress.] The exchange, while hardly representative of Black Americans, who held wide-ranging and complex views on the ANC’s alliance with the Communist Party, sheds light on some of the challenges faced by the ANC in attracting American support amid the Cold War.

Meanwhile, another set of international developments adhering more closely to the contours of the African diaspora, as opposed to the global imaginaries of superpowers, saw increased support for Black nationalist solutions to the problem of Apartheid coinciding with criticism of the ANC’s commitment to non-racialism. Two events in particular—the Soweto Uprising and the death of Black Consciousness activist Steve Biko while in police custody—proved particularly mobilizing for a generation of Black Americans raised on Black Power.

Figure 1: Demonstration in front of the South African mission to the United Nations in New York City for a Steven Biko memorial. Liberation News Service, September 23, 1977. Courtesy of Michigan State University.

Subsequently, the 1970s and early 1980s witnessed a new wave of anti-apartheid action on US college campuses and in cities, during which the ANC was notably absent. This absence was not solely the result of ideological and/or political disagreements. Strategy played an important role as well. During the first decade in exile, the ANC focused its attention on building alliances with anti-apartheid activists in Europe, as well as the African continent. Meanwhile, the ANC mission in New York City—first established in 1972—remained consistently underfunded. What little resources it did have went towards lobbying the United Nations. Describing a visit to the ANC’s U.S. office, Secretary-General of the ANC in Dar-es-Salaam K.W. Kgositsile noted, “there is very seldom ever anyone in the office, there is no one even to answer the telephone or see anyone who might drop by the office.”

Given these circumstances, one might wonder how, in the span of a decade, the ANC made the jump from an organization whose role in the struggle, if not necessarily unacknowledged, was hotly debated, to widely hailed as the heir to the international anti-apartheid movement? A complete answer, which must necessarily account for various developments in and outside South Africa such as the collapse of the global Black Power movement and the support given the ANC by the Organization for African Unity, is beyond the scope of this blog post. Here, I wish to focus on a series of connections forged by the ANC with Americans, which played an important role in boosting the organization’s fortunes—figuratively and literally—heading into the 1994 elections.

Starting in the 1980s, the ANC began to show greater interest in improving its image in the United States, including among Black Americans. One way it did this was through forging relationships with Black American celebrities. As the ANC’s director of the Department of Information and Publicity, future ANC president Thabo Mbeki helped spearhead a major public relations campaign in collaboration with Black Americans in Hollywood. This included the HBO television film Mandela, starring Danny Glover, which premiered on September 20, 1987, and played a key role in shifting American public perception of Mandela from a dangerous militant to a known and sympathetic hero. That same year, Camille Cosby paid Winnie Mandela an undisclosed sum for the rights to produce a movie about her life.

Black American celebrities lent their support to the anti-apartheid struggle in other ways too. In the fall of 1987 Camille’s husband, Bill Cosby, used his fame to raise money for the “Unlock Apartheid’s Jail” campaign protesting the Apartheid state’s “unlimited [police] powers,” including the ability of police “to seize whomever they chose and to hold them indefinitely, without trial, without charge and without any rights of access to lawyers, family or friends.” Within weeks of Cosby’s endorsement, over 2,000 churches, synagogues and civil rights and community organizations had joined the campaign.” Months later, when ANC President Oliver Tambo required hospitalization in London following a severe stroke (from which he never fully recovered) Cosby again came to the ANC’s aid, helping to pay for Tambo’s medical expenses.2

The ANC’s relationship with Black American celebrities went a long way towards reviving the organization’s image among Black and White Americans. Meanwhile other partnerships took some by surprise, including those forged by the ANC with corporate America to generate much-needed funding in the years prior to the ANC’s historic 1994 election victory. The ANC shunned foreign capital for years, joining critics who correctly observed the ways international business exploited Apartheid for profit. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failure of African socialism, more business-friendly voices gained prominence within the party. They reasoned that if the ANC was going to make the transition from a revolutionary liberation movement to a governing party, it needed capital’s support. Starting in the late 1980s, ANC representatives met with executives representing multiple US corporations, including Coca-Cola. During Mandela’s 1990 US tour, the Boston Globe reported on May 23 that companies like Reebok International and Vantage Group co-sponsored a series of fundraising events supporting the resettlement of South Africans living in exile. Many of these same companies subsequently contributed to the ANC’s historic 1994 election campaign.

Looking back, it may be tempting to read the history of the ANC as a natural progression from liberation movement to governing party, the logical heir to the anti-apartheid struggle. History we know is rarely, if ever, that linear. Movements often involve twists and turns, and revolutionaries frequently compromise in their effort to unseat power. In recent years, a growing number of South Africans have questioned the ANC’s place atop the mantle of the anti-apartheid struggle, voicing their frustration with the party’s failure to deliver on the promise of democracy. Some have even speculated that South Africa’s recent case in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Israel is an attempt by the ANC to stir up support in an election year, although there is also evidence of the party’s longstanding support for Palestinians. In either case, as we mark the thirtieth anniversary of the end of Apartheid, it’s worth revisiting the history of the anti-apartheid struggle and the ANC’s place within it.


  1. “While His ANC Counterpart Draws Lessons,” [Undated
  2. “Breaking the Barrier of Silence: Thousands Join Campaign to Unlock Apartheid’s Jail,” American Committee on Africa Action Newsletter, Number 24 (Winter 1987-88), 073/0779/3, Oliver Tambo Papers, University of Fort Hare, Alice, South Africa; Correspondence from Dali Tambo to Camille Cosby, 010/0077/1, Oliver Tambo Papers, University of Fort Hare, Alice, South Africa.
Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Jessica Ann Levy

Jessica Ann Levy is an Assistant Professor of History at Purchase College, State University of New York. She is working on her first book, Black Power, Inc.: Corporate America, Race, and Empowerment Politics in the U.S. and Africa, which examines the transnational rise of Black empowerment politics in the U.S. and sub-Saharan Africa since World War II. Levy’s work has appeared in Enterprise & Society, The Journal of Urban History, Black Perspectives, the Washington Post, and other venues. Levy co-hosts Who Makes Cents?: A History of Capitalism podcast.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *