When I was a graduate student, I became aware of the politics related to the severe racial tensions in Africa. From 1978 to 1980, I studied at the Institute of Formative Spirituality at Duquesne University. My classmates were English-speakers from around the world. Some were from Africa or had spent time in various countries on the African continent.
Revolutions were happening throughout Africa. One classmate, born and raised in Rhodesia, told me of this fellow named Robert Mugabe who was leading the revolt which would result in the new country named Zimbabwe. While she supported a change in government, she also feared for the lives of her family members. She was not sure if she would ever return home. Last I knew, she was living in another part of Africa, working as a physician in a leper colony.
Others told me stories of racial segregation in South Africa. I had never heard of this thing called “apartheid” until then. It sounded totally inhumane. I began to see more about this cruel system of segregation in South Africa in some religious newspapers, particularly the National Catholic Reporter. Over the next few years, I went to study events and retreats at a non-denominational center called Kirkridge, located in the Pocono Mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania. In 1983, they had a bishop from South Africa leading a weekend retreat. It was then I learned much more about this thing called apartheid and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (The following year, Tutu received the Noble Peace Prize.)
These were the years of Reagan’s first term in office. The Reagan administration created its own forms of segregation, making sure that people with a new disease called AIDS received no government assistance while also taking steps to change healthcare in the United States to be more profitable for corporations. The name Nelson Mandela was in the news on occasion, but generally as a reference to his role as leading a Communist group called the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC wanted power in the hands of the people and a change of social order. No matter how inhumane apartheid may have been, the Reagan administration would not support a change in the social order of South Africa particularly if it were led by the ANC.
People in the US who wanted to see change in South Africa had few options available to them. Because the Reagan government was clear as to which side it supported, other avenues aimed at social change for South Africa were needed. The primary strategy became to pressure corporations to divest their holdings in South Africa. While the idea of financial divestment in South Africa began in 1977 with the development of the Sullivan Principles, written by the Rev. Leon Sullivan, a member of the board of directors of General Motors, organized action didn’t take hold in the US until the mid-1980’s. By 1984, demonstrations were occurring on university campuses and many people like me were boycotting products like Coke-a-Cola. Some US cities and states passed resolutions to not do business with companies invested in South Africa. By the end of the 1980’s, the impact of the move for economic divestment was felt as apartheid crumbled.
Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, Nelson Mandela was portrayed by US officials as a criminal who was justly imprisoned because of his attempts to overthrow the South African government. It was only left-leaning social activists who saw him as a hero of the people and the potential leader of a new nation.
Today in the US, Nelson Mandela is largely celebrated at the father of his nation. It is good and just that he be remembered for his contributions to South Africa and his example to the world. However, I think it’s dangerous for us to attempt to re-write history by forgetting the ways many people in the United States and our government actively opposed the end of apartheid. History has shown that, as a nation, the US was on the wrong side of justice.
As the world bids farewell to one of the greatest men of our era, a noble leader who worked for justice and peace, a man who stood up to intolerance and hatred, can we have the courage to admit that the developed nations of the world allowed apartheid to occur? Can we learn from this serious moral failure? From the lessons that can be learned, what insight can we apply to those who now struggle for justice?
We can’t correct the mistakes of the past or act as though they didn’t occur. Instead, we can be inspired by Nelson Mandela and the transformation that continues to take place in South Africa. In the end, the only tribute we can offer to Nelson Mandela is to commit ourselves to make the world a place of equality and fair-play for all its people. To do otherwise is to repeat the sins of the past.
© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.