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US Anti-Apartheid Movement Helped Bring Change to South Africa

  • Chris Simkins

It's been 20 years since the end of apartheid in South Africa, the system of racial segregation that curtailed the rights of black South Africans for decades. One of the strongest protest movements outside South Africa to dismantle apartheid was in the United States during the 1980s.

Television news images of the violent struggles to end apartheid in South Africa captured the attention of Americans in the 1980s.

They also galvanized support for the U.S. anti-apartheid movement. Former U.S. Congressman Ron Dellums was one of the leaders of the movement.

"Challenging apartheid in South Africa became a logical next place to go," he said.

Dellums worked to expose the plight of South Africa's blacks along with the injustices carried out by the white minority government. Dellums introduced anti-apartheid legislation in Congress banning trade and investment in South Africa, and also led many demonstrations in which ordinary people and many celebrities were arrested.

"They went out there to put themselves on the line to say, 'Look if South Africans could be beaten and jailed the least we could do is go out there and experience some discomfort ourselves and be one with our sisters and brothers in the struggle to liberate them," he said.

Howard Dodson, director of the Howard University Library, remembers protesting with his son outside the South African consulate in Atlanta.

"The anti-apartheid activities in the United States actually reverberated around the world leading other people to develop their own demonstration activities and that was probably as critical to the overthrow of apartheid as anything else that was going on," he said.

Students also protested on university campuses - calling on schools and corporations get rid of their investments in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela's granddaughter Tukwini says the U.S. anti-apartheid movement and others helped turn international opinion decisively against the apartheid regime.

"My grandfather and others really appreciated that because they realized that without the support from the outside there would not have necessarily been successful in dismantling apartheid," she said.

In 1986, Congress approved a law (The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act) imposing tough U.S. economic sanctions against South Africa. President Ronald Reagan opposed the measure and vetoed it. But days later, lawmakers overrode his veto.

Former Republican Senator Richard Lugar supported the sanctions.

"This led the South African government, I believe, to reconsider its policies not immediately but certainly under the dint of the difficult sanctions that were there," he said. "And it led to the freedom of Nelson Mandela."

Apartheid ended in 1994, and Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa's president. During a state visit to Washington he thanked Americans for their support.

"You have no idea how your involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle in our country actually helped to facilitate the transformation," he said.

Ron Dellums says the greatest reward for his anti-apartheid work came during a meeting with Mandela.

"He [Mandela] looked at me and said Ronald Dellums we have heard much of you," he said. "You gave us [South Africans] hope you kept us alive and he hugged me and I broke down and cried. I will never forget that moment for as long as I live."

Dellums says there's no doubt the determination and sacrifice by so many in the U.S. anti-apartheid movement helped to change the course of history in South Africa.

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