Randall Robinson, a leader of the anti-South Africa protest movement that has captured the nation's attention, fears that the movement's very success could obscure its point and purpose. The media focus, he says, has been on the number and celebrity of those arrested during the daily demonstrations at the South African Embassy and on the positive, though modest, response of the U.S. and South African governments.
"That's all very interesting," the 43-year-old director of TransAfrica said in a recent interview at his home, "but it misses the point. The point is: What's so terrible about South Africa that caused us to take this dramatic action? What is so wrong about our own policy that caused us to take this dramatic action?" The two questions are directly related, he believes.
The Reagan administration's soft treatment of the South African government has made things worse, not better, he argues. "More people have been killed by the military and the police in South Africa during these last four years than died during the preceding 20. South Africa has, during the Reagan administration, conducted more invasions of neighboring states than ever before. It has tightened its grip on Namibia, spending a million dollars a day to illegally occupy it. It has moved to the right at home; it has continued its denationalization of its black population, with some 9 million blacks having lost their citizenship.
"They have become more repressive under Reagan beause they know full well that they can do anything they want to do with impunity. There's a cause and effect here."
Meanwhile, says Robinson, America's embrace of South Africa, under the rubric of "constructive engagement," has allowed South Africa to sell the West on the notion that apartheid is changing, when in fact the only changes are on the surface -- so- called petty apartheid. At bottom, however, blacks remain without political rights in the land of their birth, he said.
Unless that changes -- and soon -- Robinson believes a racial conflagration is inevitable. And he thinks the white South Africans know it.
So why haven't they changed?
This, says Robinson, is the point that the Reagan administration has failed utterly to grasp: that South Africa cannot be nudged into changing because it cannot change without being forced to do so.
"out a demand. It never has, and it never will.' What Frederick Douglass said many year ago is true of relations between the powerful and the powerless everywhere. To expect the South Africans to surrender power without feeling that there is simply no other choice is absurd. They may know that their refusal to change is dangerous for them, but it's hard for nations and ethnic groups to change course without prodding, because they build up around themselves certain dogmas of self-deceit, and they can't find a way unless they are pushed along a path they otherwise would not travel.
"That's human nature, and the underlying assumption in all I say is that white South Africans are human and, like all human beings, they must have doubts about the course they have chosen. But societies sometimes need help in changing their course, even when thoughtful elements within the society want to change course." The Free South Africa movement is calculated to provide that help, he said.
Does Robinson worry that the success of the movement could conceivably leave black South Africans worse off than they are now?
"No, no, no. First, it simply isn't true that blacks in South Africa are that well off, even in comparison with other Africans. But that's beside the point. Why is it that Americans, of all people, can't understand that self-determination and a feeling of political freedom within one's own country, and the exercise of what one feels to be one's birthright -- the almost sacred relationship people have with the land they occupy -- is a kind of thirst for freedom for which people are prepared to die."