WASHINGTON – When Nelson Mandela delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress on June 26, 1990, I was one of a hundred or more reporters in the House Press Gallery. I had been assigned by peoplesworld.org‘s predecessor, the People’s Daily World, to cover the momentous event.
Mandela was greeted by a standing ovation. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus erupted in cheers to welcome this great freedom fighter.
Rarely is a non-head-of-state invited to speak to a joint session of Congress. In Mandela’s case it was especially improbable since he had just been released from 27 years imprisonment on Robben Island. He was still being denounced by the ultra-right in Washington as a “terrorist” and a “Moscow-line Communist” who deserved to be in jail. I myself had written a full-page article to coincide with Mandela’s visit, exposing the role of the CIA and other such circles in the nation’s capital in helping keep Mandela in prison.
Mandela was escorted to the speaker’s dais by a big delegation of senators and representatives. Standing head and shoulder above them, literally, was Rep. Ron Dellums, D-Calif., who had toiled since 1972 to push through an anti-apartheid sanctions bill. In 1986, the Senate, then controlled by the Republicans, unexpectedly overrode Reagan’s veto of the bill, which banned most trade with South Africa and cleared the way for billions of dollars in divestment from South Africa. It was crucial in bringing down the racist apartheid regime.
Mandela told the lawmakers that day in 1990, “We should take this opportunity to thank you all for the principled struggle you waged which resulted in the adoption of the historic Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act which made a decisive contribution to the process of moving our country forward towards negotiations.”
Mandela added, “The stand you took established the understanding among the millions of our people that here we have friends, here we have fighters against racism who feel the hurt because we are hurt, who seek our success because they too seek the victory of democracy over tyranny.”
He said he was speaking not only about the lawmakers, themselves, “but also of the millions of people throughout this great land who stood up and engaged the apartheid system in struggle, the masses who have given us such strength and joy by the manner in which they have received us since we arrived in this country.”
That welcome included a ticker-tape parade in New York; a huge rally in Detroit where he was greeted by leaders of the United Auto Workers and by civil rights heroine Rosa Parks; a victory celebration in Oakland; a celebration in Los Angeles and similar outpourings in other cities across the nation.
“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity,” Mandela said that day. “To impose on them a wretched life of hunger and deprivation is to dehumanize them. But such has been the fate of all black persons in our country under the system of apartheid … The injury is made that much more intolerable by the opulence of our white compatriots and the deliberate distortion of the economy to feed that opulence.”
The democratic reconstruction of South Africa, he added, requires an economy that “can provide food, houses, education, health care, social security and everything that makes human life human, that makes life joyful and not a protracted encounter with hopelessness and despair.”
The U.S. senators and representatives put in office by transnational banks and corporations nodded as Mandela said the “private sector is an engine of growth and development.” But then Mandela warned, “It should never be that the anger of the poor should be the finger of accusation pointed at all of us because we failed to respond to the cries of the people for food and shelter, for the dignity of the individual.”
The struggle against apartheid had been building for years. There were sit-down protests and hundreds of arrests in front of the South African Embassy in Washington sponsored by Randall Robinson and the TransAfrica organization.
When Reagan vetoed the Dellum’s anti-apartheid bill while spouting cliches about “constructive engagement,” the anti-apartheid movement responded with angry streets demonstrations. April 25 through the April 27 of 1987, more than 100,000 protesters marched in Washington for peace and justice in Central America and in South Africa. On campuses across the nation, the demand for divestment grew so loud it could not be ignored. Many universities withdrew many billions of dollars in investments in South Africa. The labor movement also responded. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union refused to load cargo coming from or heading toward South Africa. I helped report on all these struggles.
Mandela’s speech still rings true 23 years after he delivered it. Huge progress has been won in South Africa in overcoming racist apartheid. Yet the gap between rich and poor yawns wide. Mandela struck a responsive chord when he said working people in South Africa and working people of the U.S. are fighting the same battle against tyranny. The OUR Walmart protesters, the fast food workers across the nation demanding a $15 an hour minimum wage; those who march for immigration reform; those who march for voting rights threatened by Republican vote suppression tactics. They all march in the spirit of Nelson Mandela.
Photo: Statue of Nelson Mandela, in front of the South African Embassy in Washington. Ted Eytan CC 2.0