As articulated on Saturday at the memorial service held at the Rev. Herbert Daughtry’s House of the Lord Church, Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and eventual election as president of a government ruled by a nonracial constitution represented a penultimate victory for activists in my generation who had forged long and personal ties to the struggle for liberation in southern Africa, including Namibia, Zimbabwe and Guinea-Bissau.
From 1971-1973, I served as the midwestern coordinator for the African Liberation Coordinating Committee. This was a coalition of anti-apartheid activists primarily comprised of college students throughout the nation. Each spring, we would mobilize a march to end apartheid, colonialism and neocolonialism at the U.S. Capitol and at the White House. Cleveland Sellers and Howard Fuller (Owusu Sadauki) were the leaders and guiding spirits of this movement. The late Jitu Weusi and Adeyemi Bandele and Elombe Brath were the local leaders who supported this movement. Randall Robinson, founder of TransAfrica, provided a public policy expression on behalf of this movement.
Upon being elected to the New York State Assembly in 1981, I joined forces with Assemblyman Albert Vann to co-author the New York State Divestiture Legislation. This bill sought to prohibit New York state government from doing business with any corporation that contracted with the apartheid regime. The legislation would eventually serve as a rallying point for the local movement.
The late labor leaders Cleveland Robinson and Jim Bell and the activist artist Harry Belafonte provided invaluable support for this legislation.
Although we allies in the movement employed diverse strategies, we were very conscience of the fact that Mandela and the liberation forces in South Africa were “freedom fighters” and involved in a struggle for liberation that necessitated an armed defense of their right to human dignity and life itself.
We were aware that the Sharpeville massacre and the Soweto uprising were titular examples of the violent and fascistic oppression that the apartheid regime had directed at the Black African majority. We were aware of the fact that more than 2,000 South African youth were being slaughtered every year as a result of this brutal reign.
Given this reality, we wholeheartedly supported and endorsed the liberation movement’s right to armed resistance and self-defense in pursuit of a nonracist South Africa.
In this spirit, we applauded the sacrifices of Joe Slovo and Chris Haney, who served as the leaders of the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC).
As a professor at Medgar Evers College, I am deeply disturbed by the revisionist interpretation of Mandela and the ANC leadership’s strategies and tactics. Our children should be taught a history that is consistent with the truth. We should not engage in an interpretation of history the appeases the conscience of the “power elite” or the fantasies of U.S. corporate media.
Mandela and the leadership of the ANC were revolutionaries who consistently calculated which tools they should use as they sought to secure democratic governance. When Mandela was released from Robben Island, the ANC was actively promoting armed resistance to the apartheid regime. However, he was aware of the fact that his movement was gaining the upper hand because of the growing international isolation of the apartheid regime.
Mandela was aware of the fact that the Congressional Black Caucus, under the leadership of Ron Dellums, had achieved a major victory when it moved the U.S. Congress to institute economic sanctions against the regime over the protests of President Ronald Reagan.
Mandela and the leadership of the ANC were also aware of the fact that the enactment of sanctions occurred because the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement had successfully used the tools of the victory.
Basil Paterson has a photograph on his wall depicting how he and I were arrested in front of the South African Consulate General with Randall Robinson. This action was intended to draw attention to the Soweto uprising and draw support for sanctions. While on Robben Island, Mandela and the leadership of the ANC were provided with information about this action. These realities would eventually lead to a negotiated “truce” between the liberation movement’s ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress. This truce could be best categorized by Malcolm X’s admonitory speech “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Madiba’s genius is based on the fact that the ANC made it very clear that they were prepared to use any means appropriate to secure rule by one person, one vote.
Finally, when Randall Robinson, Jesse Jackson, June Douglass, Dellums, Daughtry and I returned from the U.N. World Conference for the elimination of apartheid in Paris, we knew that Mandela would be released in a matter of months. It was at this moment that a meeting was called with Bill Lynch, Mayor David Dinkins, Cleveland Robinson and Bell to prepare a grassroots welcome for Madiba in the United States.
From the beginning, I had proposed that the first stop should be at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. I argued that the youth of my generation had been instrumental in building a grassroots movement for this cause. Belafonte, Lynch and Cleveland Robinson agreed. To whit, I was given the responsibility of serving as the political coordinator for the welcoming committee and the chair of the event at Boys and Girls High School.
However, I am most proud of the fact that the coordinators of this event were representatives from the youth section of the ANC in North America and a broad coalition of youths in Brooklyn who came from the Palestinian community, Latino community, etc., as I articulated at the House of the Lord Church. Following his speech at Boys and Girls High School, Madiba turned to Winnie Mandela and uttered the words, “I think I’m in Soweto,” as a broad cross section of youth stirred up dust to “The One Who Stirs Up Dust.”