The Third World Women’s Alliance and Anti-Apartheid Organizing

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

Evelyn G. Lowery and others protesting apartheid (Digital Public Library of America)

When Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress (ANC) won South Africa’s first democratic presidential election in April of 1994, his victory signaled the final defeat of apartheid by ushering in a new wave of Black electoral power. Mandela’s win was made possible by the countless Black Southern Africans, including members of the ANC, who sacrificed their lives fighting against Afrikaans’ institutionalized white supremacy. The long anti-apartheid movement was global and galvanized support from many North Americans, who joined the struggle in myriad ways. This included raising public consciousness through local political education sessions and broadcast programming, fundraising to send supplies abroad, and pressuring American corporations, businesses, and universities to divest from South Africa. The Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA) was a part of this international anti-apartheid movement, in which members engaged in creative outlets to condemn the US’s role in Southern Africa and draw attention to how women were distinctively impacted by colonialism.

Emerging out of the Black Power and New Left movements, the TWWA was among the first women-of-color organizations in the US. Black women in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a radical civil rights/Black Power group, founded the TWWA in 1970 after a series of consciousness-raising sessions with Puerto Rican women in New York City. The TWWA soon expanded to the West Coast with a sister chapter in the San Francisco Bay Area and a loosely affiliated branch in Seattle, Washington. The group’s diverse membership included Black, Chicana, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Native American women, who all organized under the shared commitment to “triple jeopardy”—the struggle against racism, sexism, capitalism, and imperialism. When the NYC headquarters closed in 1977, the TWWA Bay Area members picked up the mantle as the last standing Alliance branch and continued organizing around a “triple jeopardy” framework.

In March of 1979, the TWWA Bay Area chapter hosted its sixth annual celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD), themed around women of Southern Africa. Global commemoration of IWD has historical roots in the US socialist labor and women’s suffrage movements of the early twentieth century. The Socialist Party of America observed the first National Women’s Day holiday on February 28, 1909, to honor the women of the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York City. At the following year’s Socialist International meeting in Copenhagen, German representative Clara Zetkin and others proposed an “international” women’s day to promote equal rights for women and advocate for women’s suffrage around the world. Following the conference, IWD celebrations took place throughout Europe in countries such as Denmark, Austria, Germany, Russia, and Switzerland. Most Americans, primarily because of the US’s violent suppression of communism, dismissed IWD until the United Nations officially recognized the holiday in 1977.

The TWWA Bay Area’s IWD celebrations encapsulated the group’s main effort to bridge local women of color’s issues to global movements throughout Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Like other Western feminist organizations of the 1970s, the TWWA commemorated IWD to honor the struggles, aspirations, and progress of women around the world. When Alliance members dedicated their 1979 IWD theme to Southern African women’s experiences under apartheid, they also used the event to launch their year-long material aid campaign to support women and children in Zimbabwe and Namibia. Alliance members created the Josina Machel Committee, named after the Mozambican freedom fighter, to oversee the group’s fundraising and their ongoing political education around Southern Africa. Josina Abiathar Muthemba Machel headed FRELIMO’s (Liberation Front of Mozambique) Department of Social Affairs amid the country’s independence struggles with Portugal, in which she labored to establish education and childcare centers in the northern region. Two years before her passing in 1971, Machel traveled abroad to international women’s conferences and shared firsthand accounts of the Mozambique liberation struggles. The TWWA’s decision to name its committee after Machel not only honored her legacy but also was a way for members to align themselves within the revolutionary lineage of African women freedom fighters.

The TWWA’s Josina Machel Committee planned a two-day IWD celebration in 1979, consisting of a picket in front of the South African consulate in San Francisco on Thursday, March 8, and a free cultural event on Southern African women on Sunday, March 11. On the event flyer, Alliance members justified their schedule: “A picket will be an active demonstration of solidarity because . . . it shows the United States government and repressive regimes around the world . . . that people of all colors, nationalities, ages, and backgrounds support . . . the struggle for liberation and self-determination of the people of South Africa.” They also argued, “it can expose those local and national businesses and corporations which continue to help prop up the repressive southern African regimes despite growing domestic opposition.” Complementary to the demonstration, members viewed the cultural part of the celebration as another avenue to galvanize support for their material aid campaign and an opportunity to convey political messages through mediums like poetry, music, dance, films, and decorations. Members wanted to emphasize women’s foundational role in “bearing and nurturing of future generations, and the transmission of culture.”

Supporting the global anti-apartheid struggle also involved creating and disseminating leaflets on women’s oppression in Southern Africa. Alliance members framed their 1979 IWD leaflet around a series of “Did you know?” questions in order to contextualize struggles in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Rhodesia. This included an analysis of women’s conditions under South African apartheid, the US government’s diplomatic ties to these countries, and how these global issues impacted communities of color in the US. The women’s section argued, “In a region where Africans are considered to have worth only as a source of cheap menial labor—women have been declared as ‘unnecessary, superfluous appendages’. Their labor role is limited to that of a domestic or in rare circumstances as an unskilled industrial worker.” When discussing the US support of apartheid, the TWWA explained, “the U.S. government maintains diplomatic ties, has allowed the recruitment of U.S. citizens as mercenaries in direct violation of American law, and has consistently opposed the imposition of economic sanctions.”

The last section of the leaflet concluded with ways local activists could challenge US imperialism in Southern Africa, which included contributing to the Josina Machel Committee’s material aid campaign. Alliance members also encouraged locals to vote yes on the “Responsible Investment Initiative” that would force the city of Berkeley to withdraw all monetary support for the South African apartheid regime. The TWWA’s political education material on Southern Africa matched theory with practice, grounding the group’s grassroots activism and cultural work. Alliance sisters intentionally equipped local activists with the ideological tools to critically assess their privilege in the West and the US’s role in the world. Their 1979 IWD leaflet illuminates how the Bay Area sisters continued orientating themselves within a “triple jeopardy” framework, emphasizing the importance of an international lens to grassroots activism in the US.

This month we commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the end of apartheid in South Africa. An example of North American feminists’ participation in the larger anti-apartheid movement offers insight into the creative measures activists took to challenge global white supremacy. The TWWA’s creation of the Josina Machel Committee and its 1979 IWD celebration provide a snapshot into the ways Black global events shaped the trajectory of women of color organizing in the US. Throughout the 1980s, former Alliance members would continue hosting IWD celebrations and raising awareness of women’s experiences under apartheid. With the ongoing genocides in Palestine, Sudan, and Congo, it is even more urgent that today’s activists, community members, and scholars continuously critique and challenge the US’s—including American corporations, institutions, and businesses—role in exacerbating these conflicts.

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Tiana U. Wilson

Tiana U. Wilson, Ph.D. is a Just Transformations postdoctoral fellow in African American Studies at the Pennsylvania State University and an incoming assistant professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (Fall 2024). She recently completed a Ph.D. in History with a portfolio in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Drawing on political speeches, newsletters, articles, pamphlets, and travel logs, her book project, “Revolution and Struggle: The Enduring Legacy of the Third World Women’s Alliance,” examines Black women’s contributions to women of color feminist groups in the U.S. from the 1960s to the present. Professor Wilson’s academic and public writing has appeared in numerous venues, including the Journal of African American History, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Oxford Bibliographies in African American Studies, Not Even Past, Handbook of Texas Women, Perspectives on History, and theWashington Post’s Made By History. Her research has been supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Center for Engaged Scholarship, the Sallie Bingham Center, Smith College, the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @PhenomenalTiana.

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