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African Americans & African Africans

Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare

by James H. Cone
Orbis Books, 358 pp., $22.95

Sobukwe and Apartheid

by Benjamin Pogrund
Rutgers University Press, 406 pp., $14.95 (paper)


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 called Washington his “guiding star,” because he was “the most famous and the best living example of our Africa’s sons.”2 Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican black nationalist who based his “Africa for the Africans” movement in Harlem and attracted widespread African-American support just after World War I, also had a vogue in South Africa. Besides gaining the admiration of some members of the African elite, he inspired messianic popular movements fed by a prophecy that he would appear at the head of a black American army to overthrow white rule. 3

In the 1940s, the ANC was led by an American-educated physician who drew inspiration from the civil rights activities of the NAACP. Dr. A. B. Xuma, president of the ANC from 1940 to 1949, had studied in the United States for thirteen years. (At the University of Minnesota he met Roy Wilkins, the future head of the NAACP, who was to be a lifelong friend.) At the time he headed the ANC, Xuma had an African American wife and remained in close touch with American developments. 4 During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Black Power movement in the United States provided most of the rhetoric and some of the ideas for the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa.5 Julie Frederikse’s documentary history of ideological currents in the anti-apartheid struggle, The Unbreakable Thread, provides new evidence of how the thinking of young Africans in the early 1970s could be revolutionized from reading Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Eldridge Cleaver.

But there is a conspicuous and revealing gap in the history of an African American influence and example in South Africa. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the nonviolent direct action for equal rights that he represented had relatively little meaning for the anti-apartheid resistance in South Africa. There is nothing mysterious about this. In 1952, three years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the African National Congress, under a new leadership, including Nelson Mandela, that was more militant and confrontational than the elite that previously ran it, had embarked on a campaign of nonviolent resistance. Ruthless repression, culminating in the massacre at Sharpeville in 1960, convinced the African nationalist leadership that nonviolence would not work in the face of an implacable and unscrupulous racist regime, and that force, initially limited to sabotage but later including guerrilla warfare, would have to be employed.

Thus, at about the time that King was achieving international recognition as an advocate and practitioner of nonviolent direct action, the South African struggle had taken a turn that tended to make his philosophy outdated and irrelevant. In James H. Cone’s comparative biography of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Martin & Malcolm & America, we discover that in a 1964 radio talk in Britain Malcolm X used Nelson Mandela’s conversion to violence as a reason for describing King’s nonviolent philosophy as “bankrupt.” Cone also notes that King was always more popular in Europe than in the third world: “His philosophy of nonviolence was ignored in many Third World countries as their colored inhabitants took up arms against European colonizers.”

What happened in the African National Congress between the 1940s and the 1960s—or between the age of Xuma and that of Mandela—was that the struggle was redefined. An earlier, more moderate ANC leadership had viewed their cause as one of gradual reform to achieve equal rights, a clear counterpart to the NAACP’s program for the United States; a new and more militant leadership, emerging from the ANC Youth League of the 1940s, moved from nonviolent confrontation to armed struggle, with an increasing conviction that their model was anti-colonialist revolution rather than an American-style civil rights movement. Only when revolutionary, anti-imperialist rhetoric began to come from black Americans in the late 1960s did African American thought again strike a chord with a substantial number of black South African activists.

If one looks for the recurring themes in the history of dialogue and cross-fertilization between African American and black South African thought about equality or liberation, it becomes evident that blacks in the two societies have shared a common problem that did not have to be faced by most anti-colonial revolutionaries. In simplest terms, it was the question of what to do about the whites. Although only a minority in South Africa (currently about 15 percent of the total population), Europeans have been there for almost as long as those in the United States and seem likely to stay. Occasionally there has been talk of pushing the white man into the sea, but prominent black leaders of all ideological persuasions have tended to accept the white presence as an unalterable fact of life.

In the United States, an extreme version of black nationalism has emerged from time to time to call for a total separation of the races through black emigration or by ceding blacks a part of the United States, but most black thinkers and political leaders have assumed that African Americans would continue to live with whites in a common society and under a single government. The difficult question, applicable to both situations, is whether blacks should go it alone in their struggle against white supremacy or whether they should cooperate with those whites who profess a commitment to racial justice. The nationalist position is that blacks have to fight their own battles. White allies will be unreliable because few will be able to overcome completely their culture’s assumption of white superiority, and undesirable because their presence in a black liberation movement will endanger the racial solidarity and spirit of self-determination deemed essential to group pride and mobilization. (Malcolm X’s verdict on the white liberal was that “when the chips are down, you’ll find that as fixed in him as his bone structure is his sometimes unconscious conviction that he’s better than anybody black.”)6

Interracialists, or (to use the South African terminology) “nonracialists,” welcome the involvement of some antiracist whites because the cause is defined as a crusade to transcend race in the name of a color-blind conception of democracy. The actual history of a debate over relations with whites is not, however, as neat and simple as this abstract dichotomy would suggest. In practice, the lines between interracialism and separatist nationalism could blur in response to the opportunities or exigencies of the moment. For example, it was sometimes argued that blacks needed to go it alone in the short term in order to develop the strength and self-confidence to interact and make common cause with sympathetic whites at some time in the future—when they could do so on the basis of feeling equal. Because of similarities in the ways such issues were formulated and resolved, there are some instructive analogies between the “separate or together” debate of the Sixties in the United States and the South African debate that began in the 1950s and continues today between “nonracialists” and advocates of “Africanism” or “Black Consciousness.”

James H. Cone’s Martin & Malcolm & America is an illuminating discussion of how the issue of integration vs. separatism was played out in the thought of the two most influential black leaders of the 1960s. Although unknown to most whites, Cone himself is a major figure in recent black intellectual history. A professor for many years at Union Theological Seminary, he is usually regarded as the father of “black theology”—the synthesis of Christian belief and Black Power ideology that emerged out of the ferment of the late 1960s.7 Because he went beyond narrow ethnocentrism and made the plight of blacks in the United States a symbol of the oppression of the poor throughout the world, arguing that Christ’s message for the modern age was social revolution, he influenced the founders of Latin American liberation theology (which may explain why his latest book is published by the Maryknoll fathers). He also helped to inspire the development of a Black Theology in South Africa and has engaged in a serious, ongoing dialogue with black South African churchmen opposed to apartheid.8

  1. 1

    This dissertation has recently been published in Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, edited by David J. Garrow, Volume I (Carlson, 1989), pp. 58-126.

  2. 2

    Peter Walshe, The Rise of African Nationalism in South Africa: The African National Congress, 1912-1952 (University of California Press, 1971), p. 13.

  3. 3

    See Robert A. Hill and Gregory A. Pirio, ” ‘Africa for the Africans’: the Garvey Movement in South Africa,” in The Politics of Race, Class and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century South Africa, edited by Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido (Longman, 1987), pp. 209-253

  4. 4

    Some of this information comes from my own work in the Xuma papers at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

  5. 5

    See Gail M. Gerhart, Black Power in South Africa: The Evolution of an Ideology (University of California Press, 1978), pp. 273–281.

  6. 6

    The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Grove, 1965), p. 27.

  7. 7

    See Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power (Seabury Press, 1969) and A Black Theology of Liberation (Lippincott, 1970).

  8. 8

    See Dwight N. Hopkins, Black Theology, U.S.A. and South Africa: Politics, Culture, and Liberation (Orbis Books, 1989).

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