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The Sanctions Movement Mandela Backed Was Key to Ending Apartheid

Activist Randall Robinson speaks about America's support for South African apartheid and the life of Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela at the UN.
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Flickr


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As we continue our coverage of the death of Nelson Mandela, we begin with Randall Robinson, founder and past president of TransAfrica. He helped found the Free South Africa Movement and was arrested many times during the 1980s protesting the apartheid regime. He is now a law professor at Pennsylvania State University. He joins us from his home in Saint Kitts.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Randall.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your immediate reactions to the news that you heard yesterday of—that the world heard, that Nelson Mandela had passed?

RANDALL ROBINSON: Well, deeply, deeply moved. He was an extraordinary human being. Seldom do you find combined in one personality this kind of brilliant thoughtfulness. He was a contemplative man. He was nuanced. He was not a doctrinaire. He was charming, and he was warm. At the same time, he was as strong as steel and highly principled, and a figure around which, of course, so many across the world could easily rally. He was, of course, everything to the anti-apartheid movement, and seldom do you find that. His life was a very rare, a very rare thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Randall Robinson, you were pivotal in this country leading the anti-apartheid movement, being arrested numerous times. Talk about that struggle. I mean, we just talked about how, in fact, President Nelson Mandela was not taken off the terrorist watch list in the United States until 2008. That was 14 years after he was elected president. Each time he came into the United States—I suppose that included 1990 right after he was released from prison—he got a waiver to come in, as even his foreign minister did and other leaders of the ANC.

RANDALL ROBINSON: Well, when he—when we went to the embassy on November 21st, 1984, to meet with Ambassador Fourie, Nelson Mandela was not a popular figure in policy circles in the United States. I remember giving a speech in San Francisco to American mine interest people, mining interest people. And when I suggested that he would one day be president of South Africa, I was roundly booed, just in a very hateful kind of way. And this was a general feeling in American policy circles about Nelson Mandela. We went to the embassy and met with Ambassador Bernard Fourie and told him that we weren’t leaving the embassy until Mandela had been released, along with Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki and all of the other political prisoners. And, of course, President Reagan had of course rolled out the carpet to the white government, and in addition to which the State Department had promised South African officials that the United States would remove their polecat status and legitimize them in the eyes of the world.

And so, things were quite different then. But we knew what kind of man Nelson Mandela was, and we knew what he was fighting against. And the ambassador made a bad strategic error when he chose to have us arrested that day, when I went with Congressman Walter Fauntroy and Mary Frances Berry. And the three of us were arrested, followed by 5,000 Americans who came to the embassy over the following years—year to be arrested. And of course that helped to propel through the Congress the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. So, it—and then American investments in South Africa began to tumble. And, of course, that, combined with the internal pressures in the country, produced the circumstances in the government there, the readiness to negotiate and to ultimately release Nelson Mandela.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, and the critical importance of that divestment movement? Because now we’re hearing all of the accolades and the lionizing of Mandela, but really, our government really played a key role in prolonging the apartheid system and resisting the efforts by young people across the country and in colleges and universities building a movement for divestment from South Africa. How critical do you think that was in finally convincing the apartheid government that they would have to negotiate a transition to democracy?

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