How was South African Apartheid defeated? The movement against the racist system was many-faceted, relying first of all on the determined resistance of the Black majority inside and outside of the country. The dogged efforts of the African National Congress in waging diplomatic and military struggle against the white-supremacist regime — and especially the mass uprising after Soweto that increasingly rendered the country “ungovernable” — laid the groundwork for the system’s overthrow.
But it was international pressure, culminating in the US, which delivered the final blow to the Apartheid regime. The UN had begun to take up the issue of South African Apartheid as early as the 1950s, but economic sanctions were resisted by the major Western powers Britain, France and the US. As a consequence, although Apartheid was condemned regularly in the General Assembly during the 1960s, it was only in 1977 that the Security Council adopted a mandatory arms embargo. However, the South African regime found ways to evade the measure and obtain military hardware, most notably from Israel.
Eventually, in 1986 a US Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act was stunningly passed over Ronald Regan’s veto with near unanimous Democratic votes joined by a minority of Republicans. After the override vote, even Pres. Reagan felt compelled to warn the white South African leaders: “It would be tragic to lose this opportunity to create a truly free society which respects the rights of the majority, the minority, and the individual. There is still time for orderly change and peaceful reform. South Africans of good will, black and white, should seize the moment.”
Action in the US Congress cleared the way for further mandatory UN sanctions. The South African economy faced gradual strangulation and capital flight. It was no accident that the first public contacts with the outlawed African Nation Congress at its Lusaka, Zambia exile headquarters in the late 1980s were led by South African businessmen. Apartheid’s days were clearly numbered.
But the 1986 Congressional action in the US did not come out of the blue. Rep. Ron Dellums had introduced the first anti-Apartheid legislation in the House as far back as 1972.
In the interim, a broad popular movement for divestment and sanctions against Apartheid had taken root, first on college campuses, then in progressive city governments and state legislatures, and finally in Washington. Noisy boycott campaigns and demonstrations, especially against the sale of South African gold “Krugerrands,” helped to gain public attention. Prominent civil rights leaders risked arrest in protests at the South African embassy.
All of these actions helped to create a momentum which made the preferred Republican and corporate policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa politically untenable.
Next month, people will gather in Cambridge, Mass, to examine these lessons and attempt to integrate efforts against Israeli Apartheid into a more effective political campaign to influence Congress. The initiative was launched by the Massachusetts chapter of Peace Action, an anti-war organization which has its roots in the nuclear disarmament movement of the 1950s, together with a coalition encompassing most of the area Palestine solidarity groups.
Titled “A NEW DAY?” the November 14 conference will examine the current state of US politics and policy regarding Israel-Palestine, assess the growing partisan divide on the issue and take concrete steps to organize on-going efforts based in each Massachusetts Congressional district.
Speakers include Rami Khouri, a Palestinian-Jordanian and a U.S. citizen, attached to Middle East research centers in Beirut and at Harvard and Tufts; he is editor at large of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut; MJ Rosenberg, after thirty-five-years in government and four years at AIPAC, now a vocal opponent of the “pro-Israel” lobby; Nadia Ben-Youssef, the first US Representative of Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, is now working to promote a human-rights-based approach in US policy toward Israel/Palestine after four years of activism on behalf of Israel’s persecuted Bedouin communities.