Experts reflect on anti-apartheid movement since Mandela’s release
Many people thought they would never live to see the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison in February of 1990, said Edward Ramsamy, chair of the Africana Studies Department.
“The anti-apartheid movement was one of the most important movements of the 20th century,” Ramsamy said.
Two decades later, the Department of Africana Studies organized a retrospective examination of the anti-apartheid movement.
The symposium, “The Global Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Transition to Democratic Rule in South Africa: Reflections After Twenty Years,” took place yesterday in Alexander Library on the College Avenue campus.
Keynote speakers included Rev. M. William Howard, former chair of the Rutgers Board of Governors, and Enuga Reddy, former assistant secretary general and director of the United Nations Center Against Apartheid.
Apartheid refers to a system of racial segregation in South Africa, and those who fought against it were a part of the anti-apartheid movement, a 50-year global struggle.
“One person in prison inspired millions of people around the world,” said Reddy, who himself was a key figure in the campaign calling for Mandela’s release.
The movement was an international and a generational struggle, said Abena Busia, chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies.
As a child, Busia came to political consciousness the year of Mandela’s trial. She remembered asking her father questions, like what the word “boycott” meant.
The day of Mandela’s trial is “etched in her memory” because of the 27-year buildup that followed in waiting for him to be released.
“I sat down and started thinking of those moments and thought I wanted to bear witness to my generation of what this 27 years has meant, because it has been our entire lives,” Busia said.
Ramsamy said the anti-apartheid movement was intimately connected to Rutgers.
Paul Robeson, the third black man to attend Rutgers, was an activist who tried to connect African American struggle with international struggles. He also formed the Council on African Affairs.
Writers and activists played a very important role in bringing the African struggle to an international level, Ramsamy said.
“A movement is spontaneous,” Howard said. “There are many, many thousands of people who were actively engaged in the struggle.”
The anti-apartheid movement “popped up” around the world because it was a such pivotal moment in human history.
When Howard was doing civil rights work in the 1980s, he came to Rutgers and was escorted to a room on the College Avenue campus.
There, he met and encouraged a group of students who were lying on the floor engaged in a hunger strike.
These student demonstrations set the stage for what would later happen in the state of New Jersey.
“The ‘Free South Africa’ movement, as we came to know it, really came of a decision by a few leaders in D.C.,” Howard said.
A bill was proposed to Gov. Thomas Kean suggesting New Jersey divest its holdings from companies doing business in South Africa.
The assembly adopted the bill, but Kean, until long after the legislation, did not sign it. As a result, Howard and fellow activists organized an all-night vigil on the steps of the state capital.
“We stayed all night,” Howard said. “By morning, people started coming to work, and we were disappointed because our objective was to get arrested.”
Finally, around 8:30 a.m. one morning, a police officer approached Howard.
“I said, ‘Uh oh, it’s about to go down,’ he said.
Instead of arresting Howard, the officer said the governor wanted to see him.
Howard and the other protestors had a conversation with the governor. Later, on his way home from Trenton, he heard WCBS radio announce that Kean had agreed to sign the divestment bill.
All these student activists, like the ones at Rutgers on hunger strikes, got into some kind of academic or financial trouble.
“They took risks,” he said. “Their entire college aspirations were thrown into jeopardy.”
Howard believes the virtue of these students’ strong advocacy caused New Jersey to be one of the first states to divest.
“This, I would say in part, is done by students like you,” Howard said.