Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the Free South Africa Movement's protest of government racial policies in South Africa, and regardless of how one may feel about the effectiveness of local civil disobedience in attacking a foreign evil, there is no question that this group has made a difference.
Let's put aside for a moment the tangible results, like the Botha government's release of 11 labor leaders, the ban on the sale of krugerrands and the nationwide move toward divestment of holdings in companies that do business with South Africa.
Take an ordinary person -- myself, for example -- and what you get is someone who has moved from being rather uninvolved in the issues of South Africa to one willing to take a stand.
At first, South Africa just seemed too far away for any real consideration. Then, it seemed like the problems were too complicated. Then it seemed like there was nothing anybody here could do about them anyway. Then came the Free South Africa Movement, and I ran out of excuses.
Like a child going swimming in an unfamiliar water hole, I waded in into the murky waters timidly, suggesting that maybe it was okay for white South Africans to visit D.C. schools to find out how to teach black children. We all have to start someplace, and after that naive beginning it became clear that the main reason the South Africans wanted to come here was to give the appearance of a welcome reception in the United States.
Indeed, few pictures would look better in a South African newspaper than for a white government official to be surrounded by happy, smiling black children in the U.S. capital.
Suppose the South Africans were truly serious about reforms, I continued to wonder. But the continuing protest made me take note of people like Bishop Desmond Tutu, a man I am not sure I had even heard of, let alone paid attention to.
The bottom line was this: If Desmond Tutu, Allan Boesak and Oliver Tambo all said that South Africa is not about to budge on its own, while Ronald Reagan, Pieter W. Botha and Jerry Falwell say they are moving along just fine, whom do you believe?
No matter how complicated the issues may be, when the proposition is set up like that, it does give one a way to start out on the right foot.
Listen to Tutu's response to one of the most complex arguments in the South African equation, that while divestment may not have much material effect on blacks, it could create something of a financial windfall for Afrikaners.
"I am not an economist and have no pretensions of being one," he says. "I am looking for the most viable means to bring about change in an unjust and unviable policy. I have a vision of a liberated South Africa, but the nuts and bolts are not so clear . . . . When you hit people where it hurts they will sit up and take notice. The government [of South Africa] is not touched by moral arguments. There is hardly any instance of people giving up power voluntarily. Let us look for viable nonviolent strategies."
This is my kind of guy.
And there are others, like TransAfrica's Randall Robinson, Dr. Mary Berry and D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy, who were the first of more than 3,000 persons arrested during the 365 days of protests. There are Silvia Hill, Roger Wilkins and Bill Lucy. And Jake Wells, Conwell Jones and Mark Sharp, among the many others.
I now believe that it is at least partly because of their demonstrations that South Africa is beginning to change its ways, whereas until then, all that was happening was some sophisticated window dressing. I hope that the people of the Free South Africa Movement will take this first anniversary as an opportunity to recommit themselves to this worthy struggle and broaden the fight, as Jesse Jackson recommended a few months ago, by targeting corporations that do business with South Africa.
I congratulate the movement for sustaining this history-making protest, and for opening my own eyes to political facts of life that should have been learned during the 1960s.