How U.S. Activists Helped Push South Africa Away From Apartheid

U.S. civil rights leaders were among the first Americans to shine an international light on apartheid in South Africa. But calls for economic sanctions eventually led to wider actions, from college campuses to Wall Street. Richard Knight, project director of the African Activist Archive, remembers the role the U.S. indirectly played in South Africa's struggle.


Growing up when I did, going to high school and college in the '80s and early '90s, I don't think I saw real political activism until I encountered the anti-apartheid movement. My own church sent a busload of congregants to picket the South African embassy. We all felt like we had a moral stake in ending apartheid and freeing Nelson Mandela.

Richard Knight says the anti-apartheid movement helped put pressure on South Africa's white leaders.

RICHARD KNIGHT: In many ways, the U.S. movement and the South African movement reflected each other. For instance, after the 1976 Soweto uprising by the youth in Soweto and the massacre by the South African police, it led to a tremendous growth of the anti-apartheid movement, especially on college campuses in the U.S.

You saw similar things as the movement grew in South Africa. Following the formation of the United Democratic Front and the growth of the trade unions, you saw that paralleled in the movement here.

RATH: The big movement that I saw on campus was the movement to divest for American companies and for universities and so on to stop their financial dealings, investments in South Africa.

KNIGHT: Yes. The divestment movement on the college campuses and in cities and states was extremely important. You know, starting in the late '70s with the campaign against bank loans in South Africa, which included groups all across the country, the pressure grew so much that even a big regional bank, NCNB, which was the only regional bank to ever have offices in South Africa, stopped making loans.

RATH: You know, there are critics of the movement to divest who said that you're really going to be hurting the poorest South Africans, that you'll be - the ones who will suffer will be more the black South Africans as opposed to the white elites. Was there anything to that?

KNIGHT: No, there was nothing to that. There might be - some people - if they lost a job, whatever their struggle, it may cause you some pain. But not struggling also causes you pain. People are definitely better after the apartheid.

RATH: A skeptic might say, well, this is a course of history that would have happened anyway. But do you feel that the approach of the movement both internationally and in South Africa that this anti-apartheid movement that it worked, it was successful?

KNIGHT: It did work, and it was successful. You've got to remember, by this time, South African white businessmen were flying to different countries in Africa to meet with the ANC. And the ANC was almost virtually unbanned by the people in South Africa.

You know, in the old days, if you had a coffee cup with the ANC logo on it, you'd go to jail. And that - the government just couldn't stop it anymore because of the mixture of the domestic movement supported by the international movement.

The end of apartheid didn't come because the whites and the Nationalist Party suddenly decided to be nice.

RATH: That's Richard Knight.

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