Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare
Sobukwe and Apartheid
Close comparisons of the “freedom struggles” of African Americans and of black South Africans are difficult to make because of the great differences in the situation and the prospects of people of color in the two societies. One fundamental difference was brought home to me in the spring of 1989 when I visited the Reverend Allan Boesak, then a leading figure in the domestic resistance to apartheid, in his office in a “Coloured” suburb of Cape Town. In both his inner and his outer offices, Boesak had hung large portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr. I knew also that he had written a dissertation in theology at the University of Leiden on the ethics of Dr. King and Malcolm X.1 But when I asked him to reflect on the relationship between the black American movements of the Sixties and his own anti-apartheid campaign, he argued that there was a big difference between a minority’s battle for equality in a predominantly white society and a black majority’s effort to overthrow the rule of a white minority. The distinction that he made between an essentially reformist civil rights movement and a revolutionary effort to empower a disenfranchised majority seemed totally persuasive.
But the unexpected events of the past two years have blurred this distinction somewhat. By deciding to give up the armed struggle and negotiate with the de Klerk government, the African National Congress has not abandoned its goal of winning power for the black majority, but the methods it must now use to achieve this end may bear comparison with those used by African Americans to dismantle legalized segregation in the 1960s. Up to now, the ANC has not had much success in mobilizing the masses for non-violent action to put pressure on the government for a new constitution based on one-person-one-vote; it has been preoccupied with violent challenges to its claim to speak for blacks, especially from the Zulu-based Inkatha movement. In its efforts to build an effective and disciplined popular movement—one that can give muscle to the negotiating position of its leaders by giving them the capacity to call forth effective consumer boycotts, general strikes, and mass demonstrations—it may find that the southern Civil Rights movement offers some useful tactical lessons.
Despite the obvious differences in racial demography (and the subtler differences between a population descended from slaves who were transported by force from one continent to another, and one deriving mainly from conquered peoples, who were dominated and oppressed but left with some shreds of autonomy and dignity), black South African leaders and intellectuals have often in the past looked to African American movements and ideologies for inspiration and guidance. Odd as it may seem now, some of the men who founded the African National Congress (originally called the South African Native National Congress) in 1912 were under the spell of Booker T. Washington and his doctrine of black self-help and accommodation to white authority. In his acceptance speech, the first president of the Congress…
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