Clark Atlanta University

The United States and South Africa: History, Civil Rights and the Legal and CulturalVulnerability of BlacksAuthor(s): JoAnne CornwellSource: Phylon (1960-), Vol. 47, No. 4 (4th Qtr., 1986), pp. 285-293Published by: Clark Atlanta UniversityStable URL: 10-11-2019 22:00 UTC

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By JoAnne Cornwell

The United States and South Africa: History, Civil Rights and the Legal and

Cultural Vulnerability of Blacks

THE CULTURAL HISTORIES of blacks in the United States and in Southern Africa provide evidence that on several levels they have been leading

parallel lives. Against the backdrop of international colonialism, the two nations have emerged along similar lines as industrializing, multi-racial superpowers in which the role of blacks in the labor force and later in politics and public life has been crucial. Since the turn of the century, organized struggle against racial oppression in both nations has followed analogous patterns. The careers of individual leaders – particularly of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela – bear witness to a consistent feature of black leadership, that of combining strong moral leadership and effective, if mili- tant, political intervention. Despite striking parallels on the national, or- ganizational and individual levels however, there is a disparity in the outcome of civil rights efforts which is perhaps not as surprising as it is demoralizing. The civil rights struggle in South Africa has been dramatically less successful, though modeled on the most successful in the world – that of the United States. This brief study will evaluate parallels in the cultural histories, the impact of those histories upon the formation and development of civil rights movements and the direction taken by those movements in seeking to minimize the legal and cultural vulnerability of the black populations.

A look at the colonial histories of America and of Southern Africa reveals a

period of several hundred years when European nations were vying with each other for control of the land and its resources. Indigenous populations were dealt with in similar ways by European powers, once they were in a position to mete out decrees. Cultural exchange with indigenous populations was viewed as inimical to the advancement of European civilization. Whenever possible the people were used as a labor force for white settlers. When locals could not or would not be used, slave or indentured populations were imported. This happened in North, Central and South America as well as in Southern Africa. The Khoisan, the original population in the Southwestern Cape area, suffered a fate similar to that of Native Americans. Contact with Europeans in both cases brought new diseases and wars of attrition which, in addition to widespread miscegenation, resulted in a drastic decline in their numbers. Though neither was ever enslaved as a group, their offspring could be made slaves if that had been the status of one parent. With the development of plantation economies came the importation of slave labor. The practices of the Boers of Southern Africa approximated those of European settler groups in the New World. They imported not only African slaves from West Africa and Madagascar, but also Malay slaves from the East Indies and Indian slaves from the Bay of Bengal. Miscegenation between Boers and these groups increased


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the slave population, since, as in the U.S., if one parent – almost always the mother – were a slave, the child took on that status. Bantu populations, who constituted an African racial group distinct from the Khoisan, came into contact with the Boers somewhat later. Though as a group the Zulu, Xhosa, Shona and other Bantu peoples were never reduced to slavery, like the Khoisan they were consistently exploited for their labor and suffered many of the indignities of Africans taken abroad. The first pass laws were instituted by the Boers between 1809 and 1823.1 As with the Native Americans, unwanted or excess populations were relegated to reservations and their movements were restricted. Servitude, whether perpetual or contractual, became the lot of vast numbers of non-Europeans in America and in Southern Africa during the colonial period.

Attitudes of cultural superiority among Europeans became evident very early in both colonial societies, and on all levels the belief in their racial superiority was manifested. The labor system was largely responsible for generating these views. "Commitment to a labor regime under which non- European slaves did virtually all of the menial and subservient work had the effect of lessening the possibility of class conflict among whites by elevating all of them to a relatively privileged social status."2 Such attitudes allowed for a unique kind of servitude to develop where notions of the inherent inferi- ority of the underclass were not only at the root of aesthetic principles, but also at the root of the philosophical, scientific and certainly the religious tenets in which these civilizations were grounded.3 In short, both nations grew strong on the slave, indentured or very cheap labor, so necessary to their economies. Similar kinds of intense exploitation of human resources coupled with the natural wealth of the land and its mineral resources made for rapid industrialization in both places. This industrialization was accompanied by a mind set that attributed the success of European exploitation to a natural racial superiority.

So far, not much has been said about the colonial histories of the U.S. and Southern Africa that does not also describe most European colonies of that period. However, the parallels extend much further. Similar themes emerge in the struggle of local whites to achieve independence from Europe. In both the U.S. and Southern Africa, England was the colonial power to be reckoned with. Toward the end of the 18th century in America, the British were defeated in the Revolutionary War. More successful in South Africa, the British for roughly a century would remain a dominant force in shaping Southern African history. Ironically though, after occupying a position of dominance for roughly a century, the British would remain true to their

1 This and other historical information has been taken from the text by Neil Parsons, A New History of Southern Africa (New York, 1983).

2 George M. Fredrickson, White Supremacy: A Comparative Study of American and South African History (New York, 1981), p. 69.

3 It must be pointed out that the diversity of religious notions in America resulted in early challenges to the justification of legal inequality in America. The Abolitionist movement, a prime force in shifting American opinion away from slavery, was also a Christian-based doctrine.

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policies of majority rule, even to the extent of handing over power in South Africa to the majority white population, the Afrikaners (Boers).

Issues of sovereignty and slavery were central to the conflicts that raged in these societies during the 19th century. Potential new states in America fought to hold on to as much sovereignty as they could, often dragging their feet in hopes of joining the Union only on their own terms. Among the issues in question was invariably that of whether the state would be admitted to the Union as a slave or free state. Ultimately, issues of sovereignty and slavery led to the secession of a number of Southern states, and the Civil War ensued.

Similar issues were at the center of Boer/British conflicts. In Southern Africa, the 1800s saw an era when Boers began to flee northward and eastward from growing centers of British control in the Southwest. They formed indepen- dent states (The Orange Free State, The Transvaal, and Natal) where their lifestyle, which was based on the legal inequality of the races, would be free from the pressure of British policies of equality under the law and from British takeover of the land and industry. However, the Boers were frustrated in their northeastward trek by encounters with strong Bantu military nations, notably the Zulu and the Xhosa. With the British pursuing them, Boers finally dug in and declared war against the British. The South African War, the equivalent of the U.S. Civil War, lasted from 1899 to 1902.

In the U.S., the North was victorious while in South Africa, the British won over the Boers: Presumably, the more democratic or liberal faction was now in control in both countries. Both powers had in fact pressed for the abolition of slavery and other forms of labor coercion. Two very important distinctions must be made here, however. First, while in the U.S. the issue of Emancipa- tion had been central to the conflict, the one in South Africa centered solely around the terms under which a white federation would be established: Black

liberation was not at issue. Second, though (literally speaking) civil rights advances in the U.S. were made on the strength of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments and not on that of the Emancipation Proclamation, it must be admitted that the Civil War paved the way for measures decreasing the legal vulnerability of blacks. In South Africa, though not the military victors, Afrikaners inherited political control of the new Union of South Africa, and immediately began instituting measures which increased the legal vulner- ability of blacks there.

The backlash of Jim Crow legislation after the Civil War, and of Color Bar laws after the establishment of the Union of South Africa, gave rise to a new kind of organized struggle by blacks on both fronts. There are parallels in the organization of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), which correspond to the developments outlined above. The year 1912 was the founding year of the SANNC, which later changed its name to the African National Congress (ANC). The NAACP had been formed just two and a half years earlier, providing a model for the SANNC. The strategies of the early SANNC and NAACP were nearly identical. Both operated on the assumption that racist attitudes of whites could be changed by their exposure to the superlative achievements of blacks, and that the support of whites could be


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won through the display by blacks of hard work and patience. There were similar debates in both organizations over the issue of whether or not blacks should volunteer to fight in World War I. This was in the face of resistance, even outrage by whites at the prospect of the participation of blacks. Both the NAACP and the SANNC endorsed involvement by blacks in war, feeling this to be the ultimate show of commitment to the greater good of the nation. The main policy thrust of both organizations was on pressing, lobbying and in various ways making appeals for constitutional reforms.

Ironically, in light of the significantly different outcomes of wars fought for the unification of the United States and South Africa, the very fact that this early phase of struggle in South Africa followed so closely the American model is problematic. That the era of a new kind of struggle for national liberation and democratic rights had begun was undeniable. What had precip- itated the new struggle for black Africans, however, was not related to the transition from a period of legal servitude to that of full citizenship as in the U.S. Rather, the SANNC emerged as the inheritors of struggle after the Bambata rebellion of 1906 had marked the end of the period of what was called "tribal resistance." This resistance had proven futile in the face of the superior organization and technology of the South African government, whose aim was to fully divest Africans of their land and sovereignty.4 Blacks in South Africa were moving from an era when African societies had dealt with Europeans as equals to one where their own status was being systemati- cally undermined.

The direct relationship between increased social change and increased legal vulnerability for blacks in South Africa (in the U.S. this relationship tended to be inverse) is repeated with respect to their cultural vulnerability. The new elite, which was well represented in the leadership of the SANNC, was facing a cultural dilemma which, though not unlike that of black leaders in the NAACP, was much greater in magnitude. In the U.S., though the cultural status of blacks as Americans (read: the cultural cousins of Europe) was unresolved, their Africanity was not immediately at issue. For blacks in South Africa, African and European cultural identities came directly into conflict. Black leaders were of course Europeanized: The new dispensation all but required that this be the case. This Europeanization, however, was effectively in its infancy, and was still being measured against an ancient sense of ethnic identity, relationship to the land and a strong warrior tradition. By com- parison, the approach of these leaders tended to be viewed as timid and apologetic.5

Furthermore, to the extent that SANNC leaders had accepted European standards of civilization, they risked compromising their ability to represent the majority of their constituency, whose standards of civilization were Afri- can. The language of their early campaigns betrays this ambivalence, as with

4 Peter Dreyer, Martyrs & Fanatics: South Africa and Human Destiny (New York, 1980), p. 120. 5 Mokgethi Motlhabi, Black Resistance to Apartheid (Johannesburg, 1984), p. 39.

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the call for "equal rights for every civilized man south of Zambesi."6 Most members of the elite viewed themselves as citizens of the British Crown, a status that was at best difficult to document, and at worst, categorically denied by the government which ruled them and which was becoming increasingly obstinate in the face of British demands for the modification of its policies. By 1922, the SANNC (by then the ANC) had passed a motion of no confidence in both the British and South African governments, and was moving toward a posture which would strive to bring together the legal and cultural aspects of the struggle.

As the civil rights movements matured in the U.S. and in South Africa, much activity would for a time center around one dynamic individual. In this way, the parallel histories make Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela kindred spirits. In both places, the civil rights movement entered a relatively radical phase of civil disobedience. In 1949, Mandela, then a member of the Youth League of the ANC, put pressure on that organization to launch what was called the Programme of Action. This began a decade of organized direct action. Civil disobedience in the form of sit-ins, boycotts, stay-at-homes and strikes were the order of the day. In South Africa during what was called the Defiance Campaign of 1952 over 8,000 people took part in the various resis- tance postures of noncooperation. Jails were filled to overflowing because people refused to pay bail and insisted on serving time. These are the same strategies that Dr. King would employ a few years later. Through his associa- tion with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), he would be instrumental in ushering in a new phase of civil rights activism that departed from the scope of previous NAACP strategies.7

As their careers matured, differences developed in the ways these two leaders responded to the pressures of the system. Dr. King remained faithful to his philosophy of nonviolent/noncooperation until he died in 1968, and this in the face of a growing call to militancy in the U.S. The following, an excerpt from one of Dr. King's speeches during a voter registration campaign, gives an illustration of this philosophy.

We must work the courts, through legislation, through the ballot…. I've tried to talk in militant terms for the past few minutes. But in the midst of this militancy let us always realize that we don't have to hate as we try to straighten this situation out…. If we will but try this way, we will be able to change these conditions and yet at the same time, we win the hearts and souls of those who have kept these conditions alive.

I know the temptation which comes to all of us…. So many doors are closed in our faces, and there is a temptation for us to end up with bitterness, and I understand these people who have ended up in despair…. No, we need not hate. We need not use violence. There is another way…. A way as old as Jesus saying, "Turn the other cheek." When he said that he realized that turning the other cheek might bring suffering sometime….

6 Thomas Karis and Gwendolen M. Carter, eds., From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa 1882-1964 (4 volumes Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1972, 3, 7) I1:8, p. 8.

7 For detailed information on Dr. King's relationship with the NAACP and other Civil Rights organizations, see Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (New York, 1984).


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There is a power in that way, and if we will follow this way, we will be the participants in a great building process that will make America a new nation…. Let us have faith in the future.8

Several aspects of Dr. King's philosophy are brought to light here. Dr. King preserved the legacy of the early days of the NAACP in his attitude that whites could be won over by good example. He also recognized the need not only for direct political action, but also for civil disobedience, which is consis- tent with SCLC tactics. Though very much aware of the more militant pos- tures growing in popularity around him, Dr. King held firm to the kind of moral leadership that will remain his trademark for all time.

What had been for Dr. King a radical shift from direct political action to civil disobedience gave new energy to the civil rights movement in America. Ironically, as the 1960s drew to a close, Dr. King's strategies were considered by many to be too conservative for the needs of Afro-Americans. It is tempt- ing to speculate whether or not Dr. King's attitudes towards nonviolence would have changed had he lived longer, or about the effects on his popu- larity had he lived and remained true to his philosophy of nonviolence. With Nelson Mandela, speculation is unnecessary. From hiding, in June of 1961 he published an article which clearly stated his position on this question.

Though the article was published one month after a major social crisis, its tone is surprisingly nonreactionary. White South Africa had voted on a refer- endum declaring itself a Nationalist Republic. The ANC, which had been banned but was still operational, called an extremely successful nonviolent general strike for that day which provoked the largest mobilization by South African police and military forces since the war. This crisis occurred only a few months after the close of the Treason Trial, an ordeal that had lasted four and a half years and during which Mandela and 155 other leaders had been charged with being involved in an international communist plot to overthrow the South African State by violence. Though all were acquitted, it was largely because of this ordeal that Mandela had chosen to go into hiding. The govern- ment was clearly out to get him and he felt it preferable to go into hiding, continuing to write and organize from underground, rather than allow him- self to be jailed again and potentially silenced. It is astounding that the follow- ing quote issues from such a context.

Even up to the present day the question that is being asked with monotonous regularity up and down the country is this: Is it politically correct to continue preaching peace and non-violence when dealing with a Government whose barbaric practices have brought so much suffering and misery to Africans? …. The strike at the end of May was only the beginning of our campaign. We are now launching a full-scale, country-wide campaign of non-cooperation with the Verwoerd Government….

8 This segment of Dr. King's speech was transcribed from a taped production of excerpts of his speeches: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Danger of Black Supremacy," We Shall Overcome, Vol. III, Phoenix Entertainment and Talent, PHX-357-C, 1984.

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We are the people of this country. We produce the wealth of the gold mines, of the farms, and of industry. Non-collaboration is the weapon we must use to bring down the Government. We have decided to use it fully and without reservation.9

Less than one year later, however, Mandela's stance would change dramati- cally. He had left South Africa illegally to participate with an ANC delegation to a conference for the Pan-African Freedom Movement of Eastern and

Southern Africa. Here is a quote from the speech he gave there.

During the last ten years the African people in South Africa have fought many freedom battles, involving civil disobedience, strikes, protest marches, boycotts and demonstrations of all kinds. In all these campaigns we repeatedly stressed the importance of discipline, peaceful and non-violent struggle…. But the situation has not radically altered. South Africa is now ruled by the gun…. All opportunities for peaceful agitation and struggle have been closed…. Hence it is understandable why today many of our people are turning their faces away from the path of peace and non-violence…. Certainly, the days of civil disobedience, or strikes, and mass demonstrations are not over and we will resort to them over and over again.

But a leadership commits a crime against its own people if it hesitates to sharpen its political weapons which have become less effective [my emphasis]…. [O]n the night of 16 December last year the whole of South Africa vibrated under the heavy blows of UMKONTO WE SIZWE (The Spear of the Nation). Government buildings were blasted with explosives…. Planned acts of sabotage against Government installations introduce a new phase in the political situation and are a demonstration of the people's unshakable determi- nation to win freedom whatever the cost may be.'?

The significance of the comparison between King and Mandela is only tangentially related to the question of non-violence per se, or to that of the presumed inevitability of violent confrontation in liberation struggles, which has been so lengthily debated elsewhere. What is of concern here is that in the first case, the dynamic individual was able to radicalize a civil rights move- ment with an extremely high degree of success and still remain true to those principles laid down in earlier phases of the struggle, while in the second case, that individual felt it necessary to employ tactics which ran contrary to those principles. This indicates a higher degree of appropriateness in the strategies of civil rights efforts in responding to the climate and political direction of the nation in the first case. Mandela's tactical shift should thus be seen as an effort

to better align the posture of his movement by impacting upon the climate and political direction of South Africa. It should not be viewed as a shift from nonviolence to violence per se.

History shows that Mandela's courageous tactical shift was a costly one: Since 1963, he has been serving a life sentence in prison for plotting to overthrow the South African government. Nevertheless, his contribution to the development of civil rights strategies has been immeasurable. He fired the symbolic first shot of a "civil war" where, unlike that which had resulted in the formation of the Union of South Africa, black liberation was definitely at

9 Nelson Mandela, No Easy Walk to Freedom (1965; London, 1986), pp. 105-06. '0 Ibid., pp. 119-21.


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issue. Also, his tactical shift became paradigmatic for leaders in later phases of the struggle.

On another level, a movement toward a more clearly defined cultural stance by blacks in South Africa would follow a few years after Mandela's incarceration. The "Black Consciousness" movement11 was so successful in

establishing a basis for cultural identity in the urban centers that not only blacks but people of Indian extraction and the so-called Coloureds began identifying with the black struggle. This phenomenon has frustrated govern- ment efforts to maintain strict physical and ideological separation of the races."2 When Steve Biko became president of the South African Students' Organization (SASO) in 1969, he began to articulate this platform of Black Consciousness. The thrust was to press for the organization of blacks by blacks, and to do away with dependence on white liberals in the liberation struggle. In this he had been inspired by Malcolm X and Ron Karenga's "US" movement. Black Consciousness also challenged what Biko called the "myth of integration." He asserted that true integration could only ever come about between parties of relatively equal status (cultural, political and economic). Biko also affirmed the ideals of Black Theology, of which the most articulate exponent in the U.S. had been Dr. James H. Cone.13 The concept of black identity in the context of the Black Consciousness movement was at first drawn along strict racial lines, but later expanded to include non-whites of all persuasions. Biko and others realized that unification of all oppressed groups was the more effective way to launch a serious challenge to the South African power structure. Later groups would inherit the legacy of a more unified approach to black liberation. Though they would continue to draw heavily from American models, they would modify or enhance them, or import tactics from other sources according to the demands of a contemporary South Afri- can situation.

Black South Africans continue to resort to such tactics over and over again. Leaders like Bishop Desmond Tutu who represent the tradition of non- violent/noncooperation with apartheid enjoy an enormous following. In fact, one could easily draw a set of parallels between M. L. King and Bishop Tutu. Both men of the cloth, wedded to a similar philosophy of social activism, were Nobel Prize winners. The histories of black churches in the two countries are

linked: There were breakaway black churches in the 19th and early 20th centuries in both places for similar reasons; a phenomenon called "Ethiopian- ism" linked several black South African churches, and they actually joined up with the Afro-American AME (African Methodist Episcopal) church. Bishop Tutu's speeches display the same kind of marriage between religion and politics that Dr. King so eloquently embodied. Significantly though, Bishop Tutu recently has been moving away from a strictly nonviolent position. Like

1See Steve Biko, I Write What I Like, ed. Aelred Stubbs, C. R. (New York, 1978), pp. 87-119. 12 This information taken from an interview by the author with a South African professor of Indian extraction now teaching in the U.S.: Dr. Neville Choonou, Assistant Professor of Afro-American Studies, State Univer- sity College at Oneonta, N.Y.

13 See James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (New York, 1969).

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many black South African leaders since Mandela, he seems to be responding to a compulsion to make the tactical shifts necessary to keep the struggle aligned with the social and political realities which are making that struggle necessary.

It has been asserted that Africans and other non-Europeans were enslaved initially "not so much because of their color and physical type as because of their legal and cultural vulnerability."'4 The legacies of slavery for Afro- Americans and similar domination for black South Africans bear witness to

the continued importance of keeping these two factors in focus in efforts to establish truly egalitarian societies. The success of civil rights and other move- ments in the U.S. and South Africa in reducing these vulnerabilities can be used as a standard by which one measures their ability to effectively move black people toward fuller participation in national affairs. Ultimate success depends in some measure upon solution-finding strategies that display a high degree of consistency with dominant ideologies. Clearly, when this consis- tency does not or cannot exist, tactics must be employed which would align them by altering either strategies, ideologies, or both. Finally, it is true that black organizations in the U.S. have consistently provided models which black South Africans have used with varying degrees of success. Of the many models to be abstracted from the South African situation for the benefit of Afro-Americans, one stands out as particularly relevant here: The decrease in legal and cultural vulnerability is not bound to any chronological historical sequence. Where these vulnerabilities become or remain acute, subservience is the likely outcome. It is hoped that this very powerful argument against complacency will be heeded.

14 Frederickson, White Supremacy, p. 70.


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  • Contents
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  • Issue Table of Contents
    • Phylon (1960), Vol. 47, No. 4, 4th Qtr., 1986
      • Volume Information [pp. 331 – 332]
      • Front Matter [pp. i – iv]
      • The Black Middle Class in America: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives [pp. 253 – 263]
      • Sitting Location as an Indicator of Status of Older Blacks in the Church: A Comparative Analysis of Protestants and Catholics in the Rural South [pp. 264 – 275]
      • The Origins of Forced Labor in the Witwatersrand [pp. 276 – 284]
      • The United States and South Africa: History, Civil Rights and the Legal and Cultural Vulnerability of Blacks [pp. 285 – 293]
      • Kunta Kinte's Struggle to be African [pp. 294 – 302]
      • Black American Doctorates in Sociology: A Follow-Up Study of Their Social and Educational Origins [pp. 303 – 317]
      • Racial Definition: Background for Divergence [pp. 318 – 326]
      • Literature of Race and Culture
        • New Light on the Caribbean [pp. 327 – 328]
        • The Black Middle Class: Another Look [pp. 328 – 329]
      • Back Matter [p. 330]

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