Randall Robinson (right), founder and now, president emiritus of TransAfrica and Nelson Mandela (Sentinel File Photo)
The world continues to celebrate the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela who died last week at 95-years of age, leaving footprints that will outlast the sands of time. But, would Mandela have ever been freed if not for the TransAfrica movement?
Randall Robinson is the founder and now president emeritus of TransAfrica which mobilized anti-apartheid protests and grassroots campaigns in some 40 cities throughout the United States. The TransAfrica movement began in 1984 and continued until Mandela was released from a South African prison after 27 years.
Known as The Free South Africa Movement or FSAM it was born when Dr. Mary Frances Berry, then commissioner and later chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, D.C. Congressman Walter Fauntroy, and TransAfrica’s Executive Director Robinson were arrested at the South African Embassy for attempting to stage a sit-in to protest against the South African apartheid government.
Eventually more than 4,500 people were arrested nationwide.
With the tone being set by Robinson and others such as the late Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, more than twenty members of the House of Representatives, then California Assembly member Maxine Waters, The Rev. Jesse Jackson, entertainers such as Harry Belafonte, Tony Randall, Stevie Wonder, and sport legend Arthur Ashe along with thousands of others all joined together to form daily demonstrations at the South African Embassy.
Addressing the Democratic National Convention in 1988, The Rev. Jackson spoke of the South African movement stating: “Suffering breeds character. Character breeds faith. In the end faith will not disappoint. We see this clearly in the life of Mandela. Imprisoned in Robben Island for 25 years and eight months, Mandela never lost faith that the South African people would win freedom. Suffering breeds character.”
This week Congresswoman Waters was among a select delegation of officials which included President Barack Obama and former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush who attended a memorial celebrating the giant of human dignity at Johannesburg FNB stadium, where Mandela spoke right after his release from prison.
Prior to leaving for the Washington D.C. to join the delegation for the trip to South Africa, Waters reflected on the enduring struggles that led to Mandela’s freedom, a hero whom she said she was honored to call “a friend”.
“I had worked for years to introduce legislation into law that would force California to divest funds from South Africa,” Waters told the Sentinel.
On one of her many trips to Washington D.C. Waters who was on the board of TransAfrica traveled with her long time friend and then president of The Brotherhood Crusade and current Executive Publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel Danny Bakewell Sr. to lead a demonstration at the South African Consulate. Upon their return home they, along with then the Pastor of Ward AME Church Frank Reid, took over the South African Embassy here in Los Angeles to further demonstrate their opposition to Apartheid. Their consistent and aggressive albeit peaceful protest included the support of then Los Angeles City councilmen Robert Farrell and Nate Holden, The Rev. Cecil ‘Chip’ Murray, Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke and most importantly the then Mayor of Los Angeles the late Tom Bradley.
“Nobody was more active in California than Maxine Waters who was not just the instrument of legislative action against South Africa, but also demonstrated and marched at the South African Embassy,” stated Bakewell.
Meanwhile, Burke told the Sentinel, “I don’t think that there is anyone in California certainly, who doesn’t appreciate the changes he [Mandela] brought about in this world. Burke continued, “certainly for those of us who had an opportunity to visit South Africa and to really find out, and experience what apartheid was and how devastating it was, the humanity of any person, we have to recognize that this was a change that changed the world—it didn’t just change one country.”
Concluding Burke added, “I was also on the board of regents at the time we went through the whole fight in terms of eliminating the investment of funds in South Africa and I really will always believe that the fact that the University of California stopped investing caused many others to follow that lead and realize that each one of us has to do something to support Nelson Mandela.”
Without Robinson a distinguished scholar in residence at The Dickinson School of Law at Penn State at the helm of TransAfrica none of these atrocities would have come to light and none of these changes would have been possible.
“There is no question that Randall Robinson played the most compelling role to defeat apartheid, more than any other Black person in America,” Bakewell added.
Both Waters and Bakewell refused to take the stage with late legendary crooner Frank Sinatra at a prestigious NAACP (Bakewell was being honored as Businessman of the Year and Waters was being honored as legislator of the year) event to honor them because the singer had not completely embraced the struggle to dismantle the racist apartheid regime and performed at a concert in South Africa despite requests not to during the anti-apartheid movement.
While a member of the California State Assembly, the effort to end apartheid in South Africa was one of the most important and formative moments of Waters’ political career. Her effort culminated in the 1986 passage of Assembly Bill 134, legislation that allowed California to divest $12 billion in state pension funds tied to the apartheid regime in South Africa.
“Finally we had succeeded and legislation became law. We met every week in Leimert Park to celebrate the success, but our work was far from done,” added Waters.
Waters was among the contingent when Mayor Bradley invited Mandela to Los Angeles upon his release from prison in Feb. 1990, a visit many believe would not have happened if not for the invitation from The Mayor.
Mandela had been a free man for just a few months when the 71 year-old began his stateside tour that began in Detroit and then New York where the city arranged its signature welcome, a ticker-tape parade.
When Mandela arrived in Los Angeles, it was Waters who led the delegation along with celebrities such as Quincy Jones, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte as well as numerous others who greeted him.
Nate Holden was a Los Angeles City Councilman from 1987-2002 and he remembers the head of South Africa’s finance (a white Afrikan) pleading with him to not vote for divestment in South Africa.
“I said to him that eventually he was going to die because of his age at the time he was in his 80s. I told him that God was giving him the power to do good things for the people of South Africa and to go home and think about it,” Holden told the Sentinel.
Subsequently Holden voted for City divestment and eventually met Mandela when he came to Los Angeles and walked him to his car.
“He (Mandela) was the chosen one to become President of South Africa when he was in the belly of the whale. He was born to be remembered for ever,” Holden said.
“When Nelson Mandela was released and came to Los Angeles, I was in absolute awe. Here I was with the man who we had worked to get out of prison. He had this broad smile on his face. He was free,” Waters explained.
Local television stations covered his visit live. Although he was not yet president of South Africa his presence was treated with the highest order of diplomacy.
His first stop was City Hall, where the future first Black president of South Africa met privately with the first (and only) Black Mayor of Los Angeles Tom Bradley.
After first meeting with Mayor Bradley, Mandela attended a rally at First AME Church where he was warmly greeted by Rev. Murray and his congregation who praised in worship and in song.
“Mandela, you 'da man!
You prove the African proverb: "It's not the name you call me, it's the name I answer to. For 27 years you were called prisoner. When the doors were finally opened, the nation called you president. You took the cradle of humankind and rocked it into a new birth. Now seven billion lives can be nurtured at your shrine of understanding that a positive spirit can and will always outlast a negative space. Live forever!” said Rev. Murray
Mandela’s visit to Los Angeles included a concert that was held before tens of thousands at the Coliseum.
“The event was huge. We worked to put together a glamorous event at the Coliseum, the stage was filled, many of our people had spoken and when he walked on that stage the Coliseum exploded!” remembered Waters.
Today the world is calm. Its iconic symbol of humanity is gone, but his freedom fighters are continued to be inspired by what he symbolized.
Waters traveled with the official American delegation to attend the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa in 1994; and in 1998, to welcome President Mandela to the United States once again, this time to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
"When I reflect upon my own career in public service, I am among that generation of protestors who have been inspired by President Mandela’s courage, dedication and wisdom. I also consider myself among those who have had the distinct honor and privilege of knowing him and calling him a friend,” stated Waters.
Robinson has written five non-fiction books: Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America; The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks; The Reckoning: What Blacks Owe to Each Other; Quitting America: The Departure of a Black Man from His Native Land; An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President. He has also written the novel Makeda.
He reflected on the passing of a man, many are simply hailing as the greatest human treasure to live.
“Well, I am deeply, deeply moved. He was an extraordinary human being. Seldom do you find combined in one personality this kind of brilliant thoughtfulness. He was a contemplative man. He was nuanced. He was not a doctrinaire. He was charming, and he was warm. At the same time, he was as strong as steel and highly principled, and a figure around which, of course, so many across the world could easily rally. He was, of course, everything to the anti-apartheid movement, and seldom do you find that. His life was a very rare, a very rare thing,” said Robinson.