As part of their celebration of Black History Month, the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University hosted a discussion panel on Feb. 6 entitled, “Washington, D.C. and the Free South Africa Movement: A Retrospective,” detailing the involvement of D.C.’s political activist community in the anti-apartheid movement.
The event was co-sponsored by The Ronald W. Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center, and included former Congressman Ronald Dellums and Dr. Sylvia I. B. Hill, a professor at University of the District of Columbia and board member of TransAfrica. Dr. Howard Dodson, director of the Howard research center, served as the panel’s moderator.
Hill was the secretary general of the North American delegation to the sixth Pan-African Congress in Tanzania in 1974, and served on the steering committee of the Free South African Movement. She led the campaign of civil disobedience that catalyzed the escalation of anti-apartheid protests in the United States and worldwide. She also played an integral role in organizing Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the U.S.
“One of the important points about that period was that while we were beginning to get somewhat a larger lump of people engaged in Pan-African ideas, most people had not been to Africa,” said Hill. “Most people had very little idea about what was going on in South Africa. “
“It is really important, I always feel, that we know that movements don’t just happen,” she added. “People have objectives, they plan and strategize ways to implement social change and it takes a lot of work to make it happen.”
Hill credited part of the success of the anti-apartheid campaign to the support it received from the U.S government, private think tanks, and corporate funding.
“It was a very complex force of power that we had to try and defeat, and no one organization can do that,” she said.
In addition, the campaign against apartheid in South Africa had organizations including Trans-Africa and the Washington Office on Africa doing an immense amount of work on Capitol Hill. These groups advocated and created forums to build “congress among ordinary working people,” Hill said.
Dellums played a key role in the Free South African Movement, particularly with his emphasis on divestment in corporations doing business in South Africa. He served in the House of Representatives for 28 years as a Democratic congressman from northern California, during which time he was the chair of the House District of Columbia Committee and later the House Armed Services Committee.
Upon his election to Congress, Dellums said he was given a vehicle that would allow him to challenge apartheid in South Africa.
“In November 1970, the largest group of African American elected to the United States Congress since reconstruction came forward,” Dellums recalled. “There were 13 of us, we looked at each other and we organized the Congressional Black Caucus.”
Dellums also recalled a meeting with a militant group of Black workers from Polaroid Corporation who traveled from New England and demanded to meet with the Black Caucus. During the meeting, Dellums said that Caucus members were shown Polaroid pictures of “pass books” that Blacks in South Africa were forced to show when challenged.
From that meeting came anti-apartheid legislation introduced by Dellums in 1972 that, among other sanctions, embraced the idea of disinvestment and economic disengagement from South Africa. The caucus also attempted to convince President Richard Nixon to use his executive authority to impose disinvestment of American corporation doing business in South Africa.
“It became very clear that President Nixon wasn’t interested in taking that step,” said Dellums, whose political stance would earn him a spot on the president’s “enemies list.”
Dellums’ anti-apartheid legislation would not be passed until 1986, and even then faced a veto from President Ronald Regan which was overridden by Congress. However, the sanctions placed on South Africa as a result of the law were credited with a role in ending apartheid in the early 1990s.