FREEDOM MOVEMENT IN SOUTH AFRICA:
ITS INTERNATIONAL IMPACT
All national movements for freedom and justice spread ripples beyond their national boundaries. But some stand out as beacons guiding and inspiring peoples all over the world and for generations. Such was the great freedom movement of Ireland, and I believe the movement in my own country, India. Such, indeed, is the movement for freedom in South Africa which has been engaged in a long and difficult struggle against an injustice that has hardly a parallel.
The unique oppression that has, since 1948, been described as apartheid – despite the pseudo-religious justifications given by its proponents – is contrary to all ethical values. It seeks the transformation of an African country into one where the children of the soil are aliens. It has forcibly separated people by “race” and even families as in the days of slavery. It has involved deliberate lowering of standards of education of Africans for an entire generation – because the “master race” has lost confidence in its superiority.
As against this has developed in the last century a movement which is unmatched in morality – a movement which rejects all hate and all racialism, which seeks to build a community of humankind, and which has been twice honoured by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in the persons of Chief Albert Lutuli and Bishop Desmond Tutu. Nelson Mandela, leader of this liberation movement, confined in prison for over 22 years by a regime which hoped he would be forgotten, has received more honours all over the world than any political prisoner. He stands more than ever as a symbol of Africa’s indomitable will to be free and of humanity’s rejection of racism.
The South African liberation movement inspired and assisted freedom movements in all neighbouring countries. Leaders of the former High Commission Territories – Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland – were among the founders of the African National Congress of South Africa and could count on the assistance of the latter when they formed their own movements after the Second World War.
The Southern Rhodesian Native Welfare Association, founded in the 1920s, had close contact with the African National Congress of South Africa, while the Southern Rhodesia Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union, formed around the same time, was inspired by the powerful South African body of the same name. In the 1940s, the Southern Rhodesian African National Congress was established after the pattern of the African National Congress of South Africa, and its main concern was also to protest against unjust “land apportionment” or rather the expropriation of ancestral African land by the European settlers and their descendants. After the Second World War, a Southern Rhodesian Youth League was formed and performed a similar function as the African National Congress Youth League of South Africa in revitalising the parent body.
Influence of ANC
SWAPO, the Namibian liberation movement, had its origins partly in the union of Ovambo workers formed in Cape Town in 1959. Eduardo Mondlane, the founder of FRELIMO of Mozambique, received his early political training and experience during his student years in the Transvaal, where he met many leaders of the ANC.
The influence of the South African freedom movement, in fact, extended much further afield in Africa since it was one or two generations ahead of freedom movements in many other African countries. Several leaders of those movements had studied in South Africa and had come into contact with the African leaders in South Africa. The hymn, God Bless Africa, composed for the founding conference of the African National Congress in 1912, became the hymn of freedom for many African nations in Southern Africa.
ANC had, from its inception, looked upon freedom in South Africa in the context of the redemption of the continent of Africa. It consistently opposed the ambitions and manoeuvres of the minority regime in South Africa to dominate the High Commission Territories, South West Africa and Southern Rhodesia.
The ANC delegation, which went to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 opposed the placing of South West Africa under South African administration in terms of a mandate agreement and espoused the cause of the African people of Southern Rhodesia. In 1946, when the President of ANC, Dr. A.B. Xuma, visited the United Nations in New York, one of his main concerns was to petition against the plans of the Smuts regime to annex South West Africa.
ANC participated since 1900 in Pan African Conferences, which brought together leaders from Africa, the Caribbean, the United States and Britain, and in the All Races Conference in London in 1911. In 1927, its President. Josiah Gumede, attended the Conference of Oppressed Nationalities in Brussels (which was also attended, among others, by Jawaharlal Nehru from India and Sean MacBride from Ireland).
The 1944 Manifesto of the ANC Youth League affirmed belief “in the unity of all Africans from the Mediterranean Sea in the north to the Indian and Atlantic Oceans in the South.” Many of the leaders of the post-war freedom movement were members of the Youth League. Nelson Mandela was its Secretary.
Impact on India and United States
More impressive than the impact of the South African freedom movement on the rest of Africa is its influence on far away lands across the oceans.
In 1893, an Indian barrister, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, went to South Africa. He returned to India 21 years later as the Mahatma to lead the people of the largest colonial country to freedom. If Mahatma Gandhi had a significant moral influence on the course of the South African struggle, his experiences and experiments in South Africa were decisive in determining the character of the movement in India. We, in India, owe a historic debt to South Africa, to all its people.
Many decades later, when the African National Congress launched a non-violent passive resistance movement – the Campaign of Defence against Unjust Laws in 1952, in which 9,000 people, African, Indian, Coloured and White, courted imprisonment – the impact on the Black people in the United States was remarkable. The campaign shattered the stupid racist myth that the African and Black people were somehow incapable of an organised and disciplined non-violent resistance.
Soon after the launching of the Defiance Campaign, Paul Robeson wrote in July 1952: “Just imagine if you started something like that in the South – or even in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Louisville and Los Angeles ”¦.we’d have our civil rights.”
The Black people in the United States were groping toward decisive and determined action for their dignity, and soon a civil rights movement was launched by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who had a strong identification with Black freedom struggles in Africa.
The Defiance Campaign and the struggles that followed its suppression in South Africa - the sit-in , the bus boycott, the potato boycott, the call for sanctions – had their parallels in the South of the United States.
The thousands of people who are now marching and courting imprisonment in the United States under the aegis of the Free South Africa Movement are, in a sense, repaying their debt to the South African freedom movement. The links that bind the non-violent passive resistance movements in South Africa, India and the United States are perhaps widely known.
In my work in the United Nations in promoting the international campaign against apartheid, I have been most impressed by the much wider impact of the South African struggle on many countries, especially in the Western world.
Role of Anti-Apartheid Movements
Since the Defiance Campaign of 1952, and especially the appeal of ANC in 1958 for a boycott of South Africa and the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, millions of people around the world have been moved to make sacrifices to show their concern for the oppressed majority in South Africa. The anti-apartheid movement became one of the most significant public movements of our time attracting people from all segments of life. Religious leaders have been prominent in the movement and many political leaders received their early training in it. Sportsmen and musicians have rejected offers of millions of dollars to play or perform in South Africa. Two thousand people in New Zealand went to jail in demonstrations against the tour of a South African rugby team in 1981. They have made sacrifices not out of pity for the oppressed millions in South Africa, not even merely in solidarity with the South Africans struggling for a non-racial society, but for their own sense of integrity.
Above all, I think of hundreds of activities of anti–apartheid movements who have sacrificed careers and worked with tremendous perseverance for over two decades to see that their own societies dissociate themselves totally from involvement in the crime of apartheid. They have countered vicious propaganda spread by the apartheid regime and its friends at a cost of tens of millions of dollars a year. Their work has had a significant impact in their countries, in focussing attention on the need for morality in foreign policy, at a time when the imperatives of the so-called “Cold War” seemed to overshadow the international commitments to “Four Freedoms”, “One World”, the Atlantic Charter, the United Nations Charter and all other war aims of the Allies. They have helped people not only to be concerned about apartheid in far away South Africa, but also to become sensitive to manifestations of racism in their own countries. The campaigns against apartheid were instrumental in educating public opinion on other social issues.
Impact Far and Wide
I would like to give two instances of the wider effect of the campaigns against apartheid.
In 1971, students in Australia organised protests against a South African rugby tour and secured the support of churches, trade unions and others. The government of the day confronted them with harsh police measures and almost hysterical propaganda, hoping to return to power as the party of “Law and Order.” Many young men and women were injured and some five hundred people were jailed. One of the immediate effects of this experience was the growing public awareness of racism in Australia itself and the development of the movement for the rights of the aboriginal people. Somewhat similar developments took place in New Zealand.
The issue of apartheid and the initiatives of the South African freedom movement and the anti-apartheid movements were instrumental in persuading the World Council of Churches to establish the Programme to Combat Racism in 1969. That programme not only assisted anti-racist movements in many countries but precipitated a healthy debate in the churches in the West on the problem of racism and the moral responsibility of religious bodies.
I am sure that in every Western country, and in many other countries, researchers can find evidence of the direct and indirect impact of the South African liberation movement and the anti-apartheid movement.
I must make special reference to the Nordic countries where the boycott movement spread rapidly in 1960 and began to have a significant impact on national life. There soon developed a solidarity with all African freedom movements and a friendship with independent African States. I would venture to say that this has been a significant development in international affairs since 1960. The Nordic governments and public have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to the freedom movements in Southern Africa and to frontline States.
Goodwill from White Countries
The solidarity of the Nordic countries - and of other Western countries, among which Ireland deserves special mention - has been most helpful to the United Nations efforts against apartheid, especially in countering the ill-advised attempts of those who sought to drown the southern African freedom movements in the cauldron of the Cold War. Perhaps even more significant was the effect in preventing the growth of anti-White racism in Southern Africa and in Africa as a whole. If the national liberation movement in South Africa, and OAU, have consistently espoused non-racialism - despite all the crimes of the racist regime in South Africa - the goodwill and assistance they received from “White” countries was not an insignificant factor.
In the United Nations, the annual consideration of the South African situation until 1962, and the constant attention given to the matter since the Special Committee against Apartheid was established in 1963, have had a wide-ranging effect far beyond the growing consensus on total rejection of apartheid and support for the legitimate struggle of the oppressed people for freedom.
Many precedents were set, such as the recognition of liberation movements, the rejection of the legitimacy of the apartheid regime, the establishment of an inter-governmental fund for legal and humanitarian assistance to political prisoners and their families and, perhaps even more important, the effort by the United Nations to reach public opinion in countries which resist effective action against apartheid. The concept of a United Nations “campaign” was initiated on the problem of apartheid and adopted many years later on disarmament.
Although racism was a matter of world concern at the end of the Second World War, there was little action by the United Nations on racism until the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and the independence of African States. Since then, the United Nations adopted a declaration and a convention on the elimination of racial discrimination and proclaimed Decades of Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination.
The sensitivity resulting from the discussion of apartheid, and the precedents set thereby, facilitated action on such issues as social responsibility of transnational corporations and treatment of prisoners.
The South African freedom movement, and the public organisations supporting it, helped the entire system of United Nations agencies to undertake greater action on violations of human rights.
Movement with a Vision
The influence of this freedom movement on world opinion has invariably been wholesome. For it results from the fact that it has been one of the most ethical and inspiring freedom movements in this century. The African people, brutally oppressed, have been sustained by a vision of justice, reinforced by the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and carried forward by such humanists as Chief Lutuli.
The South African freedom movement readily accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as its objective and chose the 26th of June, the anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter, as its Freedom Day.
The African people and people of African origin, moreover, have been in the bottom of the pile in South Africa and elsewhere. Like the leaders of the struggle against slavery and the Pan African Movement, Chief Lutuli and other African leaders of South Africa have pointed out that the freedom of their people can be achieved only by freeing all the people including, in a way, even the oppressors degraded by their inhumanity.
Even when it felt obliged to abandon strict adherence to non-violence and undertake an armed struggle, the South African liberation movement has been most humane, eschewing militarism and terrorism, and showing great respect for human life. The restraint shown by the movement in the face of tortures of its members in prison and the cowardly and gruesome killings of its refugees in Lesotho and Mozambique, is truly remarkable.
No one could have morally blamed the African people if they had responded to the enormous violence of the racist regime by violence against the oppressors. If they chose that path and stooped to the level of morality of the regime, they could have killed many innocent Whites in the country where every White home has African servants and the whole economy is dependent on labour by the African majority.
But the leaders of the African people have been conscious that South Africa is a microcosm of the world with people of many racial origins. They sought to build a society in which all the people, Black, White, Brown or whatever, could live together. They were sustained in their faith as a result of common struggles in which the Coloured and Indian people, and even some Whites, participated, as well as by the support from all the regions of the world. The martyrs in the struggles include not only numerous Africans, but many Coloured people and Indians, as well as some Whites such as Bram Fischer, Neil Aggett, Ruth First and Jeanette Schoon.
In 1984 the Coloured and Indian minorities in South Africa rejected the privileges offered by the regime and with great courage, showed their full solidarity with the African majority by opposing a new racist constitution. That gesture has few parallels in history. Respected leaders of the Coloured and Indian communities are now charged with high treason along with African leaders and face the threat of a death penalty for their refusal to betray the African people. A movement with such a vision and such a record of inspiring people of all origins and backgrounds to strive and sacrifice for a just society deserves universal respect.
Seventy-five years, ago, on May 8, 1910, Count Leo Tolstoy wrote to Mahatma Gandhi, who was leading the Indian passive resistance movement in South Africa :
“And so your activity in Transvaal, as it seems to us at the end of the world, is the most essential work, the most important of all the work now being done in the world, and in which not only the nations of the Christian, but of all the world will undoubtedly take part.”
The freedom movement in the past generation, under African leadership, encompassing all the people, is even more significant. It has, indeed, secured wide international support from governments, organisations and individuals irrespective of ideological, religious and other differences.
Role of Western Powers
But it is tragic and painful that freedom has eluded the people of South Africa, that the winds of change have not yet swept away the racist order in that country and that oppression has in fact increased despite the immense suffering of the people and the great sacrifices of the liberation movement.
The fact that two Africans from South Africa have been awarded Nobel Peace Prizes for 1960 and 1984 for the same struggle is, in a sense, an indictment of the international community which has been unable to secure the elimination of apartheid or even the isolation of a regime denounced unanimously by the United Nations for committing a “crime against the conscience and dignity of mankind.” This failure should shame the civilised world, which already carries the moral burden of five hundred years of humiliation and rape of Africa.
A hundred years ago, in 1885, gold was discovered in South Africa. Instead of becoming a boon to the people, it has led to immeasurable sorrow for the children of the soil, who have suffered from the greed of the rulers and foreign economic interests.
More recently, framers of military and foreign policy in some countries professing to seek a “free world” have been carried away by short-sighted and ill-advised “strategic” considerations in dealing with South Africa, so as to make the oppressed majority an innocent victim of powerful forces.
While the great majority of Western states have come to support effective international action against apartheid, a few major powers and financial centres provide comfort to the racist regime. Their course is a sure prescription for a greater tragedy in South Africa and in the relations between the West and the rest of the world.
The people of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Federal Republic of Germany have a great moral responsibility.
I submit that the smaller Western countries – among them Ireland with its great heritage and its independence of military blocs – have a duty, particularly to exert all their influence on the major powers to persuade them to join in concerted international action against apartheid under the aegis of the United Nations.
The events of the past year should persuade the international community to act with a sense of urgency. The assessments of those who felt that any change can occur only through the benevolence of the racist regime and that it should be cajoled with such inducements as even acceptance of its suzerainty over the whole of southern Africa, have proved as erroneous as those of their predecessors, who believed that the centuries-old Portuguese colonialism could not be defeated by the African liberation movements.
The regime in Pretoria is now faced with a grave crisis and is unable to control the growing resistance of the African people whom it sought to deprive of their very nationality behind the cover of propaganda about so-called reforms within apartheid.
A delay in decisive international action can only mean that the international community has stood by and abandoned the people of South Africa to a catastrophic conflict. I hope that history will not indict us and that we will discharge the great moral debt that humanity owes to the great freedom movement led by Chief Albert Lutuli and other leaders who have, under severe tests, shown their attachment to non-racialism, human rights and democracy.
The Albert Lutuli Memorial Lecture under the auspices of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement at the Mansion House, March 19, 1985. Published in Mainstream, New Delhi, June 7, 1986.