The arc of that District-based movement and its ties to Mandela’s legacy are on the minds of the old heads who started the Free South Africa protest. If young folks would look back, several said in interviews, they might find parables and lessons to guide this week’s protests of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman who fatally shot black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida.
“You think about these things very strategically. What can move the needle and what will likely not,” said Randall Robinson, the founder of TransAfrica, the oldest African American foreign policy organization in the United States. “You can protest. But if you can make the wind move, you have to put a sail up. To make the wind move where there is no sail is useless.”
Back in the mid-1980s at the South African Embassy, they made the wind move. They put up a sail.
Reagan policy targeted
U.S. activists had tried before and failed to bring attention to the situation an ocean away, where 23 million black South Africans were ruled by 4.5 million whites, forced to carry passbooks, and killed, beaten or thrown in jail for bucking apartheid. Mandela, then a leader of the freedom movement, had been in prison for 20 years. He was not a household name in America.
With a little planning and the hope that they could get some attention on a slow news day, Robinson and other Washingtonians — including Mary Frances Berry, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Walter E. Fauntroy — began a protest at the embassy. They told the South African ambassador of their demands: freedom for Mandela and the release of political prisoners.
“Then we told him we weren’t leaving,” Berry recalled.
Berry , then a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, was arrested — along with Fauntroy (then the District’s delegate to Congress) and Robinson — for trespassing and taken to the city jail. Norton, now the District’s delegate, stayed behind to talk to reporters.
The aim, she explained to them, was to pressure the Reagan administration to end its engagement with the South African regime and to institute sanctions. (The Reagan policy of “constructive engagement” acknowledged the abhorrence of the apartheid policy but sought to take a piecemeal approach by improving relations between the countries and urging reforms over a longer period of time.)