25 years ago Harry Belafonte financed a group of lobbyists who were determined to change the world. A celebration at the South African Embassy acknowledges their work to end apartheid.
By Adoria Doucette
TransAfrica Forum, is an organization financed at its inception by Harry Belafonte to seek and support Human Rights, Democracy and Equality for the impoverished and under represented people of Africa and other countries where people of African descent reside. TransAfrica was the first to initiate efforts and strategies to draw attention to apartheid in South Africa and force the US government and US corporations to stand up against apartheid.
On the eve of Thanksgiving in 1984, TransAfrica’s President Randall Robinson, civil rights leaders Mary Frances Berry, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and DC Congressional Delegate Walter Fauntroy requested a meeting with the South African Ambassador Bernardus Gerhardus Fourie. At the meeting, the visitors demanded the release of South African political prisoners, which included Nelson Mandela. Their request was refused and they were asked to leave; when they didn’t leave the embassy they were arrested. The Free South Africa Movement (FSAM) was born. Rosa Parks was one of the first high profile figures to protest in support of this newly founded movement; she was arrested in front of the South African Embassy on the anniversary of her arrest in Montgomery Alabama 29 years earlier. That set off a wave of movie stars, musicians, and Members of Congress joining the ranks of protesters for the cause. The name “designer arrests” was coined for the consistent stream of stars that came to support TransAfrica’s protests; Tony Randall, Paul Newman, Coretta Scott King and Stevie Wonder also had an unprecedented influence that led to more support and more arrests. Ultimately 4,000 people were arrested.
This ongoing protest in Washington DC and at South African embassies in the United States and around the world helped to keep the brutality of apartheid on the front pages. From this pressure, universities began the slow move toward divestiture. They were followed by pension funds and corporations. The momentum continued with the passage of anti-apartheid legislation in the US Congress which put the United States on the correct side of history.
On December 15th 2009 TransAfrica Board Chairman Danny Glover and initial financial sponsor Harry Belafonte led a celebration of the successful Free South Africa Movement. The day began by Ambassador Welile Nlapho representing the Government of South Africa, welcoming back into the embassy the initial group that was arrested 25 years ago. The keynote speech was delivered by US Assistant Secretary of State Ambassador Johnnie Carson. UN Expert Gay McDougall (who dutifully secured the release of many arrested protesters 25 years ago) and Smithsonian Museum of African Art Director Johnetta Cole gave special guests presentations.
South Africa’s recognition of TransAfrica’s successful work was the last event to take place in the storied Massachusetts Avenue South African Embassy. The building is going to be entirely renovated while Ambassador Nlapho resides in Potomac. As the most powerful nation on a continent important to global prosperity in the next century, South Africa is literally rebuilding its diplomatic presence in DC for the myriad of opportunities and challenges of the 21st century.
Power Source has declared our time as a renaissance of our city’s culture and historical importance led by collectives of informed and inspired citizens. Let us all learn and emulate what happened when a small group of concerned DC citizens secured funds from a culturally driven, socially active movie star to change the world; it worked. Over the past three decades, TransAfrica Forum has served as a major research, educational, and organizing institution for the African-American community and the U.S. public in general, offering constructive analyses of issues concerning Africa and the Diaspora.
As they mark the 25th anniversary of the Free South Africa Movement the Power Source recognizes the power and forces of the moral high ground even when the odds are against you.