Many commentators in the press and some officials in the Reagan administration have looked at the demonstrations mounted by the Free South Africa Movement at the South African Embassy in Washington and at consulates around the country and have made observations that are at once strange and dead wrong.
Some black officials in the Reagan administration have made the odd -- considering whom they work for -- criticism that we should be demonstrating at federal agencies against the new round of proposed budget cuts that will once again hurt America's most vulnerable citizens. Other commentators have concluded that we initiated this movement because the president drubbed blacks in the November election, and in our impotence, we could think of nothing better to do. Finally, there have been those who have viewed these activities as simple extensions of the civil rights movement and as its sole current mode of expression. All of those views reveal an appalling ignorance about black people and their white allies and the movements they spawn and sustain.
The Free South Africa Movement is an expression of a black American interest in and concern about Africa that is as old as our presence on this continent. Twenty years ago, when the leaders of the civil rights movement would take a week a year to transform themselves into the Leadership Conference on Africa and engage in a round of conferences with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and his assistants, the observation of our contemporary commentators might have had some merit, although not much. But now, though the new movement has been joined by labor, religious and civil rights activists, elected officials and unaffiliated people who abhor apartheid, it was initiated and is being led by black foreign policy experts from TransAfrica and long-term volunteers in the Southern Africa Support Project.
Trans organization, which was organized by blacks to express their historical foreign policy interests in a sustained and professional way. The Southern Africa Support Project is composed of individuals who, because of the depth of their interest, have, over the years, worked in their spare time to give assistance to blacks who live in Southern Africa.
These people did not begin these protests because they had nothing better to do, but rather because the government of South Africa promulgated a constitution that it advertised as a human rights advance, but that, in fact, continued the total political disenfranchisement of blacks and actually heralded the government's intention to press on relentlessly with its program of denying all political rights to blacks, stripping them of their South African citizenship and shipping many of them off to "homelands." Black leaders who protested this new constitutional enshrinement of racism were immediately slapped into jail and held incommunicado without specified charges being brought against them.
The leaders of TransAfrica and the Southern Africa Support Project could not stand by silently during those occurrences while their own government, under the fig leaf of "constructive engagement," supported apartheid with increased aid, trade and hardware that had military and police, as well as civilian, uses.
The idea that somehow this movement is the new embodiment of the civil rights struggle reflects the media's normal inattention to black organizational life. The NAACP, the Legal Defense Fund, the National Urban League and other organizations that do work for the poor in our society -- like the Children's Defense Fund and National Urban Coalition -- have neither terminated nor suspended their broad array of programs designed to improve the lives of our most helpless citizens. Many of the leaders and members of these organizations have given their support -- and in some cases their bodies -- to our movement. But, contrary to popular misconception, they are able to hold many thoughts in their heads at the same time and to invest their energies in several projects during the course of a single day.
Finally, the purpose of these demonstrations must be kept clearly in focus. Its goals are, by no stretch of the imagination, radical. Many of us have been to South Africa, and our conclusions are similar to those of thousands of other observers who have traveled to that troubled land. The apartheid regime cannot stand. It will be changed either by bloody revolution or by peaceful political prochat the true leaders of the black, "colored" and Asian communities be released from jail and invited by the government to join in a political process designed to achieve change without bloodshed.
And our demand that our government abandon its policy of "constructive engagement" is designed to put our country on the right side of history. There is no question that a government dominated by blacks will someday rule South Africa. A major issue for Americans is how that government will view the United States. As the hostile reception accorded Sen. Edward Kennedy by a small but significant minority of activist blacks indicated, "constructive engagement" is engendering a substantial amount of hostility toward this country among people who yearn to be free. We simply want our government to abandon the cause of the oppressors and to join the moral struggle for freedom.