Unit 5. Reigniting the Struggle - The 1970s through the Release of Nelson Mandela

The experiences of individuals who were imprisoned and in exile form an important part of the story of political activism in this period. Nomaindia Mfeketo, an ANC underground operative in the 1980s, had her baby while in a prison cell. White and Indian South Africans also were incarcerated for their resistance. The prison diaries of Ruth First, Fatima Meer, and Raymond Suttner show how torture failed to break the spirit of opponents of apartheid; they each rebounded upon their release to continue the struggle by publicizing their ordeals. Lesser known were the men and women of the underground, such as Robert McBride and Jean Middleton. The published memoirs, diaries, letters, and biographies of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Walter and Eleanor Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, and Eddie Daniels among others, capture the actions, moods, and memories of prisoners on Robben Island, which they skillfully transformed into a "university of struggle." The Robben Island experience of shared incarceration and political debate brought together ANC veterans such as Mandela and Mbeki with the youthful "1976 generation"; this interaction helped to overcome ideological and generational differences between the prisoners and laid the foundations for a new democratic culture. The ANC in exile, led by Oliver Tambo, through its political and diplomatic work, continued to build support around the world for its "government-in-waiting", which could truthfully boast of having more diplomatic representation than Pretoria.

In 1985, President P.W. Botha was expected to give a "crossing of the Rubicon" address to announce a significant break with apartheid; instead he aggressively reiterated his "total strategy" first articulated more than ten years earlier against what was described as the "total onslaught" of a "Communist threat" to South Africa. This speech prompted increased international sanctions and isolation that threatened to cripple the South African economy. Financial sanctions were very effective. Banks ceased rolling over loans, which led to a flight of capital from the country and a plunge in the value of the South Africa’s currency, the rand. In 1986, the United States, Europe, and the British Commonwealth imposed comprehensive sanctions, although oil and arms continued to reach the apartheid state secretly. Cultural and sporting boycotts further isolated the white community.

In addition to these events taking place inside South Africa, the international anti-apartheid movement made a major contribution to ending white domination. It developed a successful form of global networking and social movement solidarity that involved large sections of society. Unions imposed trade bans. Writers and religious leaders spoke out eloquently against apartheid. Musicians, artists, and scholars were drawn into boycotts. Millions took part in rallies and concerts that called for the release of Nelson Mandela. The global anti-apartheid movement made good use of popular culture and mass media. It used star performers, musicians, rock concerts, and pop songs to spread the message of freedom and democracy. People around the world watched nightly television news broadcasts showing police dogs and sjambok whips tearing into defenseless people. This played an important role in destroying the credibility of the Pretoria regime and its supporters. In India and some Scandinavian countries, the anti-apartheid movement could rely on the support of government, making the tasks of the resistance organizations somewhat easier. The United Nations remained prominent in its opposition to apartheid.

In the United States, the anti-apartheid movement successfully convinced the American public and Congress to support sanctions against South Africa. The movement "created new spaces in churches, campuses, stockholders meetings, entertainment and sports venues, city councils, and Congressional subcommittees to broaden support for the sanctions that bypassed state and corporate decision makers and exerted direct pressure on South Africa to end apartheid," (Janice Love). Backing these victories was a network of many groups such as American Committee on Africa, and its educational affiliate, the Africa Fund; the Washington Office on Africa; and TransAfrica and its offshoot, the Free South Africa Movement.

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