Reflections on Thirty Years of Democracy in South Africa

International Conference Against Apartheid, January 1986 (Digital Public Library of America)

The essays featured in the roundtable on Black Perspectives have illuminated some of the many fruitful and exciting directions of anti-apartheid scholarship centered on the 30th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections. The end of apartheid had local and international implications, especially for continental and diasporic Africans, so it is fitting for Black Perspectives and AAIHS to devise a roundtable on this important event, the legacies of which scholars are still grappling to understand. I have enjoyed reading these contributions, some of which spark debate, generate consensus, and invite opportunities for deeper analyses of anti-apartheid history. My comments on the collection are organized into the following themes that reach across essays: solidarity, liberalization, and legacies.

Solidarities: The essays emphasize the enduring organizing and the wide-ranging solidarities that assisted the end of apartheid. Four essays in the forum reflect on the international anti-Apartheid movement, with specific attention to U.S.-based solidarity organizations, including national ones such as the American Committee on Africa (ACOA), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), and the UAW, and regional or local ones such as the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA), the South African Task Force, the ILWU’s Local 10, and the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement.

Grant, Webb, and Wilson’s essays highlight important anti-apartheid solidarities sustained by Black activists. Grant’s essay investigates the spectacular but lesser-known aviation protests against South African Airlines in Houston, contending that local Black opposition to the SAA, which modeled itself into a portable advertisement of white supremacy, expressed a 1980s Pan-Africanism. Webb locates a long tradition of transnational worker power and shows that when historians look beyond the AFL-CIO, they will see that U.S. trade unions, particularly Black US workers, were strong anti-apartheid advocates in the “last days of the working class.” Wilson’s essay on the TWWA efforts against apartheid through the 1979 International Women’s Day’s focus on South African women presents insights about solidarities forged among communities of African, Indigenous, Chicana, and Asian women who were collectively resisting colonialism. Wilson argues that the TWWA constructed their solidarity within an analysis of “triple jeopardy,” signaling how racism, sexism, and colonial exploitation were entangled and also operated internationally.

The array of tactics undertaken by these groups was also creative and effective. The South African Task Force joins an international group of aviation protesters who turned up to airports across the U.S. and the world to express their disapproval of flight routes that connected the Apartheid state to their own. Workers globally disrupted supply chains by refusing to handle South African goods. The TWWA and the CBTU raised funds and sent monies in the form of direct financial assistance to African organizations, particularly unions and women’s groups. Another way that U.S. organizers made connections was to create campaigns around Africans facing punishment for their involvement in the struggle. This is reflected in how the CBTU organized around Oscar Mpetha and the TWWA around Josina Machel. These are all welcome contributions to existing discussions of Black anti-Apartheid politics. Further investigations could examine when, how, and why these Black-led interracial organizing initiatives held.

This U.S. solidarity focus is juxtaposed by other pieces on organizing against apartheid in South Africa, which offer analyses of resistance politics within South Africa on the eve of the transition. Foregrounding young activists, Nieftagodien examines the pivotal role Black South African students played challenging white minority rule, cultural imperialism, and apartheid education. Whether though the emergence of Black Consciousness, the founding the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) or collaboration with trade unions to organize strikes, Nieftagodien’s piece asserts Black students and youth as movement leaders. It was the Black student-led 1976 Soweto Uprisings that inspired U.S. Black Power activist Kwame Ture to declare that “students are spark.” Martin’s analysis of queer advocacy networks such as the Gay and Lesbian Organization of the Witwatersrand (GLOW) and the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality offers insight into the forging of international alliances from within South Africa rather than from exilic sites. Queer South African organizers like Simon Nkoli, working in GLOW, formed bonds of solidarity among queer literary circles internationally in Los Angeles and Oakland, Toronto, and London. At the same time, queer advocacy organizations in South Africa radicalized the ANC by fighting to ensure queer peoples’ constitutional protections under post-apartheid law.

Author interviews with South African scholars Masola and Baderoon provide a rich discussion of women’s intellectual contributions in histories of anti-apartheid struggles. From a Black feminist lens, both experts share snippets of their methodological approach for studying marginalized voices and experiences, and how their sources bring forth new conclusions about the relationship between knowledge production, print culture, religion, language, and race. Masola’s interview emphasizes the epistemological importance of writings in African languages in order to grasp the range of ideas and debates circulating in the twentieth century. Similarly, Baderoon’s piece highlights the writings of women like Makhosazana Xaba, whose work charts how Black South African women forged new networks for poetic expression after apartheid to combat their continual marginalization from dominant publishing arenas. What emerges from these scholars’ conversations are the creative measures Black women writers took to strengthen global feminism, turn words to worlds, and use multiple African languages to share their visions with the public.

Liberalization: All movements have tensions, many of which demarcate ideological fault lines, but personalities, access to resources, and positionality also shape alliances, divisions, and effectiveness. Hall, Levy, and Farnia’s essays allude to forms of subterfuge and deradicalization that unfolded within and against the solidarity movement. Putting these three in conversation, we see how movements can be moderated away from their more radical ambitions as they bloom. My essay takes a closer look at the liberal dimensions of the ACOA’s solidarity and contends that the ACOA’s early sidelining of Black Power and Communist activists produced a strain of the U.S. anti-Apartheid struggle that was molded by what Charisse Burden-Stelly calls the Black Scare/Red Scare long durée. I suggest that it is imperative to understand the consequences of this and how it shaped the presumed victories of anti-apartheid solidarity in the last decade of struggle. Levy’s essay questions how the ANC came to win popularity among U.S. Americans during the 1980s by examining the role Black celebrities played in promoting and familiarizing the U.S. public with the ANC. Levy shows that the ANC’s intention to boost its image by garnering celebrity endorsements occurred alongside the organization’s efforts to form public and private partnerships with corporate businesses and repressive political regimes.

Still, it is important to note that the ANC had a significant presence in the U.S. before its public-facing initiatives of the 1980s. The U.S. public would have been familiar with the ANC through U.S. solidarity organizations. The ACOA, for example, was one of the ANC’s biggest U.S. champions, a relationship that began in the 1950s. One way college students became familiar with the ANC was through the ACOA’s efforts in organizing campuses. Though Levy is correct to say that the ANC did not have a direct presence on U.S. campuses on the eve of divestment, the Congress had tremendous indirect influence through the ACOA, which sent ANC representatives like Dumisani Kumalo on nationwide campus tours. Many divestment organizers recall meeting with ANC representatives on their campuses, not to mention all of the South African students who worked, taught, and studied on U.S. campuses who carried various liberation party affiliations. They all had a familiarizing effect. Analyzing the ways that local, regional, and national U.S. anti-Apartheid solidarity organizations aligned with and promoted the ANC is crucial to tracking the ANC’s popularity in the U.S. on the eve of transition.

Liberalism in the international movement is contrasted by the National Party’s countermovement, its deadly scheming and manipulation of opposing factions in 1990s South Africa. Farnia’s essay reassesses the conventional narrative of Chris Hani’s assassination by the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB). Instead, Farnia shows that though the National Party projected a willingness to moderate its anti-Blackness internationally through reforms, it colluded with South Africa’s far-right AWB to have Hani murdered. Hani, the forthright, uncompromising Communist liberation fighter, represented the ANC’s most radical wing. The government marked him an “obstacle” to negotiations and the South African police force’s primary enemy combatant, which, as Farnia argues, made his assassination a concerted effort rather than an unhinged racist murder executed by the far-right. This grim and sobering account asks what post-Apartheid political possibilities died with Hani? Taken together, these three essays reveal aspects of the liberal engineering of the post-apartheid nation-state from both inside and outside of South Africa.

Legacies and Futures: As all the essays in the forum show, the global movement to end apartheid in South Africa was complex, expansive, and filled with previously overlooked actors. Baderoon and Masola’s interviews, in particular, point to the ways this struggle did not resolve all political, social, and economic problems in South Africa, yet many still insist on aliveness, on pleasure, and sihamba nazo/siyacenga. Their pursuit of anti-colonial vitality in the present stretches beyond national borders, leading many to support the liberation of Palestinians, too.

Most of the essays refer to South Africa’s significant stance against Israel’s war on Gaza, and its tremendous efforts in establishing juridically that the totality of Israel’s violence be defined as genocide. South Africa’s 2023 stance at the International Court of Justice extends a much longer solidarity that predates the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, where organizations declared Israel an apartheid state. This solidarity was fashioned through anti-apartheid politics that were internationalist and saw commonalities between Apartheid in South Africa and Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, including its policies of forced removal and settlement, and its practices of surveillance and confinement. Hall, Wilson, and Farnia’s essays gesture to this broad anti-apartheid politics, which equally targeted U.S. policing and imperialism on the African continent and in the Caribbean for annihilation, whether highlighted through the thoughts and writings of June Jordan, Chris Hani, or the radical feminists of the TWWA. There are myriad other legacies of anti-apartheid that deserve to be investigated but right now, we have futures to attend to. As U.S. students occupy their campuses to express their solidarity with Gaza and demand divestment from war, we see a new, broad anti-apartheid politics reawakened by their fearless organizing and direct action. Drawing links between Cop City, Haiti, Congo, and Sudan on their encampments, this uprising makes connections between regimes of oppression and opposing movements for self-determination. They remind us that the legacy of apartheid’s end in South Africa is the continued struggle for another world.


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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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