The Fight Against South African Airways in Houston

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

South African Airways Boeing Aircraft (Wikimedia Commons)

On Thursday December 9 1982, a South African Airways (SAA) Boeing 747 landed at Houston’s Intercontinental airport for the first time. The flight directly connected the American South West to Johannesburg as anti-apartheid protests were intensifying throughout the country. SAA’s passengers to Houston were met by demonstrations organized by the newly formed Southern African Task Force (SATF), who picketed the terminal and delivered speeches condemning South Africa’s white minority government. Months earlier, representative Mickey Leland, the only Black Texan serving in Congress at the time, led the charge in resisting the apartheid airline. He formally challenged the decision of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) to approve the new route, and perhaps most dramatically, in the week before the inaugural flight, Leland threatened to stand on the runway to block the arrival of the first SAA jet.

While the struggle over SAA’s presence in Houston is not a particularly well-known moment in the history of the US anti-apartheid movement, the incident sheds light on how the South African government worked to normalize apartheid in the United States, while also demonstrating the importance of local politics in driving national and international opposition to the white settler regime in Pretoria.

For the South African government, its national airline had long been integral to its efforts to promote apartheid overseas. Air travel further facilitated the flow of finance in and out of the country, strengthening the bonds of white brotherhood through the promotion travel and tourism, while also serving as a means to negotiate and expand political relationships with other nation states. As far as apartheid policymakers were concerned, the key function of the airline was to keep the white settler Republic—both figuratively and literally—‘on the map’. However, those who opposed apartheid – from the leaders of newly independent states in Africa to anti-apartheid activists around the world – repeatedly challenged this narrative. Recognizing the significance of SAA as a transnational carrier of whiteness, they worked to restrict the airline’s operations through international boycott and sanctions campaigns and, in the process, insisted that travel was a fundamental human right integral to the process of decolonization.

The efforts to keep South African Airways out of Houston were part of these broader global attempts to resist the apartheid state through the politics of air travel. They show how local activists were acutely tuned in to the ways apartheid infected day-to-day relationships and arrangements in the United States, as well as the ways these connections worked to bolster racial inequality at home. As Leland asserted at the time, “Apartheid cannot be separated from the expansion of air service to Houston.” SAA was understood as a physical manifestation of South African apartheid on American soil, one that reinforced racial oppression across borders and made clear how both government and finance in the US were hostile to the rights of Black people locally and globally. As the Houston-based trade union organizer Gene Lantz stated bluntly while petitioning the CAB to block the new route, “Don’t we have enough racists here now?”

Lawmakers and activists in Houston were building on earlier attempts to prevent the apartheid airline from reaching the United States. When it was first announced that SAA would be launching flights to New York City in 1968, Detroit congressman and Chair of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Charles Diggs, worked with the American Committee on Africa (ACOA) to oppose the new connection. As the legal scholar Joanna L. Grisinger has noted, this formative moment in the US anti-apartheid struggle demonstrates how Black legislators applied domestic civil rights law to the international political arena.While these efforts were ultimately unsuccessful and SAA began servicing New York in 1969, they make clear how the airline was an important symbol of the movement of people, goods, and finance between South Africa and the United States. Air travel could be used to examine the entanglements of race, racism, and US foreign policy.

Indeed, a central aspect of Leland’s case against the CAB’s decision to grant SAA the Houston route in the 1980s was his refusal to accept the Board’s ruling that this was not a foreign policy concern for the US. Pointing to decisions to withdraw permits from LOT and Aeroflot in response to Soviet repression in Poland, Leland insisted that, “[t]he political and racial repression in South Africa is at least equally repugnant and, to most Americans, utterly contemptible.”Leland refused to accept the argument that any potential economic benefit the new connection might bring to the city outweighed the political and moral harm the route would inflict on the nation and its people. As he argued in his petition against the decision,

In conferring benefits on SAA that exceed that bilateral agreement and for which there is no reciprocity, the board violated statutory aviation policy . . . No real public need for the service has been shown. In effect, the Board reached beyond the contractual undertakings of the United States to do South Africa a favor. The Board’s decision is legally and morally wrong and should be reconsidered.1

Leland was clear—the US government could no longer afford to sidestep the issue of apartheid as questions of race and human rights needed to be at the center of America’s foreign policy considerations. While his petition ultimately did not convince the CAB to change course, Leland’s work delayed the arrival of SAA in Houston for over three months, which seemingly caused enough of a headache for South African officials that they later confirmed they were not planning to launch additional air services to the US.

The arrival of SAA was also significant in terms of reinvigorating Black activism in Houston. The Black-led organization, Southern African Task Force (SATF), was at the forefront of protests against the airline, often working out of Leland’s office. SAA’s potential arrival dominated the agenda of 1982’s Houston’s Black Unity Conference, held on the campus of Texas Southern University. At the conference, SATF representative Omowale Luthuli asserted, “It’s time to say black Americans will no longer tolerate what is happening to our people in South Africa . . . I’m contending we need to begin to organize and mobilize our total resources and understand the issue is not one that does not affect blacks here.” The arrival of SAA in Houston was a key unifying moment that expanded the scope and added momentum to the local anti-apartheid movement in the city. Over the next few months and years, SATF and other local anti-racist groups repeatedly pressured the city government and institutions to divest from South Africa. By late 1985, the SATF were coordinating weekly protests outside the South African consulate in Houston.

The history of South African Airways tells us a lot about how the apartheid regime— through lobbying, commerce and travel—combatted its increasing isolation throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Perhaps most importantly though, attempts to block the apartheid airline became a way of interrogating and ultimately severing these connections. In Houston the arrival of SAA helped galvanize the anti-apartheid movement in the city, illustrating the vital contributions of local groups in fighting for the liberation of Southern Africa. Ultimately, these protests remind us of the extent to which the anti-apartheid movement “went local” in the 1980s, underscoring the importance of grassroots activism for generating national and international debates that drove political change.

  1. Petition of Congressman Mickey Leland For Reconsideration of Order 82-9-15, Before the Civil Aeronautics Board, Washington D.C., October 8, 1982, 23.
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Nicholas Grant

Nicholas Grant is an Associate Professor of United States History at the University of East Anglia, in the UK. His first book, Winning Our Freedoms Together: African Americans and Apartheid, 1945-1960 was published in 2017 with UNC Press. His articles have appeared in, Modern American History, Safundi, the Radical History Review, the Journal of American Studies and Palimpsest: A Journal of Women, Gender and the Black International. He is currently working on the history of South African Airways and the anti-apartheid movement, tentatively titled Apartheid in the Air: Race, Aviation and Decolonization, 1948-1994.

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