By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 10, 2017
I spent four weeks in South Africa and Swaziland at the end of June and the beginning of July. These were some of the most educative and inspiring days of my life. I had followed the South African liberation struggle since the late 1950s when Miriam Makeba sang her freedom songs. In the 1960s I read Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country and cried. Later I read Peter Abrahams Tell Freedom. It did not produce the same emotional impact on me.
Given my attachment to PNM, T&T’s nationalist movement, I gravitated to the African Nationalist Congress (ANC) when it became more active in the 1960s. I did not know much about Nelson Mandela but I nursed an aversion to the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). I was a budding socialist and cared little for what I considered PAC’s racist ideology. Eventually, I modified my views on the PAC.
I was in New York when Malcolm X was killed February 1965. His assassination led many of us to sympathize with the Nation of Islam, particularly, the faction that was led by Louis Farrakhan. In 1966 Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), fresh from being jailed in Greenwood, Mississippi, announced he was going to advocate the philosophy of “Black Power” in defiance of Martin Luther King’s non-violent strategy.
In the 1960s the Black Panthers took to the streets of US cities and Frantz Fanon’s advocacy of therapeutic nature of violence gained currency in oppressed communities. Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book also gained prominence in the black communities of the US. Those of us who believed in the primacy of the working class in transforming the world looked askance at the leading revolutionary role Mao gave to the peasantry in overthrowing the imperialist system.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s the Communist Party of the United States was led by Gus Hall and Henry Winston, president and secretary respectively. In 1975 some comrades and I took the long journey from Ohio to Chicago to listen to Hall’s brand of communism. Most African Americans rejected communism but a few, such as Angela Davis, accepted it as the way out of the dispossession felt by African Americans.
In 1975-76 I was appointed an associate professor at Ohio University in the Afro-American Studies Department. I met a group of dedicated brothers and sisters (Africans, African Americans and Caribbean people) who were committed to overthrowing South Africa’s apartheid system. There I became familiar with Mandela and ANC’s long struggle to create a non-racist society in his country.
We studied Marxism intently at Ohio as we sought to understand its theoretical efficacy in breaking apartheid’s chains. In prison, Mandela dedicated himself to acquiring as much education as possible. Two South Africans, Barbara Masekela, a graduate student and sister of Hugh Masekela, and Lindiwe Mabuza, my colleague at Ohio University, returned to Africa and joined ANC camps on the continent.
Alfred Nzo, the secretary of ANC, visited our group in Ohio and urged us to continue our propaganda efforts. Based in Zambia, Nzo was fiercely committed to Mandela. His visit coincided with my interview for a faculty position at Harvard University. I accompanied Nzo to Harvard where he implored his audience to work to free Mandela and to aid in the creation of a democratic South Africa.
At that time Mandela and leaders of ANC were imprisoned on Robben Island. They were deemed “terrorists” by the Western governments that supported South African apartheid. The CIA had assisted in capturing Mandela in 1964. It was a different story after he became president of South Africa. When Harvard awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1998, over 20,000 persons attended the ceremony to honor him.
In June 1976 seventy-six students were massacred in Soweto when they protested the teaching of Afrikaans in South African schools. In the following September three of the surviving leaders came to Boston to expose SA’s racism to the world. I was among those who led that rally in Boston, holding the banner of freedom aloft as we marched to Boston Common. On Tuesday last, I visited the site in Soweto where these students were massacred.
In 1979 I addressed Harvard’s faculty and demanded that the university divest its financial holdings from companies that did business with South Africa. It was not a sensible thing for a junior professor to do-Harvard didn’t have much regard for junior professors then-but my revolutionary convictions demanded that I support my South African brothers and sisters.
In June 1990, when Mandela visited Boston to celebrate his release from prison, all the stalwarts from the Massachusetts campaign who had supported freedom for South Africa were on hand to welcome him as Hugh Masekela played “Mandela (Bring Him Back Home)” and Mandela danced upon the stage.
Twenty-seven years after that memorable occasion, I visited Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island. I saw the garden in which he hid the first draft of his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. I also visited his home at 8115 Vilakazi Street in Soweto.
These enchanting moments were the culmination of a long journey. I could only exclaim, as my mother would, “God bless my eyesight.”