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George M. Fredrickson
 Continents Apart
Black Liberation in South Africa and the United States

See, Stanford Today Edition: March/April, 1996 

The victory of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress in the 1994 elections was the culmination of a remarkable series of events, beginning with Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, that has brought an end to legalized white domination in South Africa. After this enormous breakthrough, what useful comparisons can be made between the current situation and future prospects of blacks in the two societies?

One possible assessment would celebrate the victory over apartheid in the 1990s as roughly equivalent to the triumph of the American civil rights movement over legalized segregation and de facto disfranchisement 30 years earlier, the operative assumption being that the American precedent was similarly successful. The result in both cases, according to this optimistic evaluation, was an end to official racism and the removal of the principal barriers to the achievement of a color-blind democratic society. From this vantage point, the essential struggles are over, and white racism is, if not quite dead, at least deprived of most of its power.

It would be difficult, however, to sell this triumphalist analogy to some of the most acute observers of black-white relations in the United States in the 1990s. A pessimistic view of black progress since the ’50s has taken hold, not only among black intellectuals, but also among some of the most respected white students of American race relations. The eminent sociologist Andrew Hacker concluded his bleak portrayal of the condition of African-Americans in 1992 by noting that “legal slavery may be in the past, but segregation and subordination have been allowed to persist.” He concludes his horrendous account of black deprivation and disillusionment without offering even a glimmer of hope that the situation will improve: “A huge racial chasm remains, and there are few signs that the coming century will see it closed.”

In the light of this growing pessimism about the prospects for racial equality in the United States, a quite different comparative analysis suggests itself. South African blacks, it could be argued, have achieved something that has eluded African-Americans and will probably continue to elude them. Despite the problems that remain, black South Africans have thrown off the shackles of white domination and have achieved genuine self-determination, while African-Americans remain at the mercy of a white majority that remains racist - not in the old-fashioned sense of openly advocating the legal subordination of blacks, but in the new sense of denying the palpable fact that blacks as a group suffer from disadvantages in American society and will continue to do so unless radical action is taken.

When Nelson Mandela celebrated his electoral victory, he consciously echoed Martin Luther King Jr. by exclaiming “Free at last!” But King never used this cry, as Mandela did, to celebrate a victory already won. On the contrary, it was what he hoped blacks would be able to shout when, at some time in the near or distant future, they actually realized their dream of freedom and equality. If in fact this dream has permanently faded, a contrast between black South African winners and African-American losers can be made that would justify the disillusionment of many blacks with their prospects for equality in American society and encourage racial separatism and polarization.

This reversal of the comparative perspective of a few years ago - when it was possible to argue that African-Americans’ progress might be a model for black South Africans, but one that would be very difficult for them to emulate - may turn out to be valid. Yet there is a third way of making the comparison that, like the first, stresses similitude more than stark contrast while acknowledging that racism is not dead. Perhaps the two liberation struggles are at a similar stage - significant progress has been made but major challenges still remain. Consequently, they can learn important lessons from each other about how to proceed in the future.

There are a number of similarities between post-Jim Crow black America and post-apartheid black South Africa. Legalized segregation has been abolished for all time, just as racial slavery was in the previous century. The right of blacks to vote and hold office has been assured. But in both cases whites retain sufficient power to prevent either society from moving decisively and quickly beyond legal and political rights for all to the achievement of social and economic equality.

This lack of substantive equality is most obvious in the case of the United States, where whites dominate the electorate, as well as the economy, and “the politics of race” is a fact of life pushing government social policy in a conservative direction. But it is also true in South Africa, despite the black-majority electorate. The negotiated settlement that led to the end of apartheid and the white monopoly on political power has left Europeans in control of the economy and has deprived the government of the constitutional authority to redistribute wealth in a radical or thoroughgoing way. “Growing the economy” through free-market mechanisms and the attraction of international investment may improve the average living standards of blacks to some extent, but it is unlikely to lead to a significant closing of the gap between an affluent white minority and a relatively impoverished African majority.

South Africa can learn from the experience of the United States since the 1960s that formal citizenship rights are not enough to overcome the effects of 300 years of white supremacy. Some kind of crash program to compensate for inherited disadvantages is clearly required. Despite built-in constraints, a black-dominated government at least has the capacity to initiate compensatory educational programs and new policies to encourage self-help and entrepreneurship among blacks that might narrow the economic gap. Rather than being a manifestation of state socialism, the substantial land redistribution that would be necessary to give blacks a real stake in the economy would be simply a restoration of the original African property rights that have been flagrantly denied under the Natives’ Land Act of 1913 and subsequent discriminatory legislation. If the African National Congress fails to adopt policies that improve the economic situation of blacks relative to whites within a few years, it will probably be replaced in some future election by another black party with a bolder program.

The lessons that the African-American freedom struggle might learn from recent developments in South Africa are less tangible and clear cut but may be equally compelling. First of all, there is the message of hope. The “miracle” of apartheid’s overthrow could serve as an antidote to the “nihilism” that observers have attributed to some segments of the African-American population. If black South Africans, with all the oppression to which they have been subjected, could keep alive the hope of liberation and finally see it fulfilled to an extent that few detached observers would have thought possible a few years ago, then perhaps a “Third Reconstruction” (to use historian Manning Marable’s phrase) is possible.

Nelson Mandela’s unconquerable spirit during his 27 years of imprisonment shows the value, in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, of faith in ultimate freedom. White anti-racists looking for a role to play might also take inspiration from the career of those Europeans in the ANC who suffered imprisonment, exile and the loss of family members or even their own extremities from letter bombs sent by government assassins, but never gave up the struggle and are now part of the government. What would have to be accomplished by a Third Reconstruction would not be entirely dissimilar from the challenge faced by the new government in South Africa. Some creative combination of affirmative action, government anti-poverty programs and the encouragement of black self-help would be needed if a significant narrowing of the economic gap between whites and blacks is to be achieved in the United States.

The black struggle in the United States might also learn something from the ideological and tactical flexibility that the African National Congress has demonstrated. “All-in” movements that incorporate as many shades of black opinion as possible can involve more people and exert more pressure than divisive, sectarian movements. But, as the experience of the ANC also demonstrates, there is a difficult choice that sometimes has to be made between accommodating the full range of black opinion and cooperating with anti-racist whites.

Some principled anti-racists have recently accused the NAACP of putting black solidarity ahead of the struggle against all forms of bigotry and discrimination in the United States. Inviting Louis Farrakhan of the black racialist and anti-Semitic Nation of Islam to a summit meeting of black leaders in 1994 was not the same as endorsing his views, but it did give him a measure of legitimacy and was deeply troubling to many of the association’s white and integration-minded supporters.

The invitation to Farrakhan might be contrasted with the decision made during the 1980s by the ANC and its domestic surrogate, the United Democratic Front, to give interracialism or “nonracialism” a higher priority than black unity. Besides welcoming the participation of anti-apartheid whites, the African leadership reached out to the Indian and Colored communities but made no concessions to Pan-Africanist and Black Consciousness hardliners who categorically rejected cooperation and reconciliation with whites. The mainstream liberation movement proclaimed that South Africa was a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society that could be fused into a single nation on the basis of shared democratic values.

Martin Luther King Jr. articulated a similar vision of American nationality as the fulfillment of the democratic ideals expressed in principle by Jefferson and Lincoln but, more often than not, flagrantly denied when African-Americans laid claim to equal rights. King’s dream of a future United States as “a beloved community” from which racism and racial exclusiveness had been banished is in danger of being lost in an era of identity politics when a “go-it-alone” mentality characterizes the thinking of status groups based on race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation - to say nothing of the class-based interest groups that are self-seeking almost by definition.

If the black freedom movement could regain or reemphasize a broadly inclusive and humane vision of a society that is multi-cultural but nonetheless unified in its basic commitment to democracy and human rights - the “nonracist, nonsexist” South African Bill of Rights with its prohibition of discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation as well as race could serve as a guide - it might serve as the catalyst for a new political majority composed of Americans who have been historically disadvantaged along with those from advantaged backgrounds who can be persuaded to sacrifice their own privileged status in order to live in a just and harmonious society. Such a majority could turn the American dream of “liberty and equality for all” into a reality. Then we would all be “free at last.” ST


GEORGE M. FREDRICKSON is Edgar E. Robinson Professor of United States History at Stanford University. He is the author of nine books, including White Supremacy, the jury nominee for the Pulitzer Prize, and Black Liberation (Oxford University Press, 1995), from which this essay is excerpted.

 
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