Anti-Apartheid Politics: Anticommunism, Corporate Campaigns, and the Long Civil Rights Movement

Solicited by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA)

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Labor and Working-Class; Nationalism and Transnationalism; Postwar


This session highlights new research on the transnational nature of three aspects of apartheid and  anti-apartheid politics, 1960s-1990s.  It includes discussion of Cold War anti-communism as a key component of the South African Government’s defense of apartheid; the anti-apartheid movement’s innovative use of economic data, subsequently to be harnessed to many anti-corporate campaigns; and consideration of the campaign for sanctions as the effective culmination of an extended Africa -centered foreign policy of the civil rights movement.

Papers Presented

Selling Apartheid: White Supremacy and the Politics of Anticommunism

This paper will examine how the apartheid state harnessed the politics of anticommunism to stifle the nascent global anti-apartheid movement. As scholars such as William Minter and Thomas Borstelmann have shown, the Western powers viewed the South African National party as a staunch ally and a key “bulwark against communism” in Southern Africa during the early Cold War. However, historians have often overlooked the extent to which South African policymakers engaged with anticommunist politics to legitimize apartheid and establish white settler rule. The framing of the National party’s domestic and foreign policies in the 1940s and 1950s make clear the extent to which anticommunism was bound up with white supremacy at this historical moment. Anticommunism was used as a political facade to secure investment and trade, and to deflect international criticism of the apartheid system. In addition to this, the South African government drew on anticommunist ideologies and repressive practices overseasmost notably in the United Statesengaging in transnational networks of state repression to intimidate, harass and imprison anti-apartheid activists. This paper will address how anticommunism functioned as both a language and method of repression that worked to stifle international criticism of the apartheid state during the early Cold War.

Presented By
Nicholas Grant, University of East Anglia

From Shareholder Activism to Trade Union Corporate Campaigns: How the International Anti-Apartheid Movement Reshaped the American Left

In the wake of the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, a network of activists came together to investigate U.S. businesses and banks supporting apartheid and colonialism in Southern Africa. George Houser, Tim Smith, Bob Hall, Prexy Nesbitt, and New Left campus radicals with ties to Union Theological Seminary and the National Council of Churches joined in this effort. At the same time, the idea of “power structure analysis” was stretched accommodate the research activities of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Saul Alinsky, black power activists, radicals opposed to American foreign policy toward Latin America, and the anti-war activists and liberal Protestant denominations who pioneered the use of shareholder activism to target Dow Chemicals and other firms over weapons production. In dialogue with South African exiles, but also in response to wide-ranging domestic debate about racism, poverty, and the environment, the international anti-apartheid movement’s search for politically useful financial data helped reorient the American Left over the next three decades toward the thorny question of corporate power. Drawing on church and union archives, as well as interviews, this paper argues the American antiapartheid movement propelled the production and circulation of important and enduring ideas about business and its social obligations. We see this impact especially clearly in trade union corporate campaigns. While some scholars have described these campaigns as the creation of a few of New Left masterminds, my research shows they have complex transnational origins.

Presented By
Grace Davie, Queens College, City University of New York

"Radicals in a Broader Sense": Anti-Apartheid Politics and the Long Arm of the Civil Rights Movement

The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, passed over President Ronald Reagan’s veto, may well be the high-water mark of postwar liberal influence on the nation’s foreign policy. That this victory was spearheaded by an African American–led coalition steeped in several decades of domestic civil rights struggle as well as deep engagement with Africa since the beginning of decolonization points to a key paradox in the fortunes of U.S. progressive politics. On the one hand, nothing in the political firmament proved more of a stimulant than the quest for racial justice and equal rights; on the other hand, the leaders of progressive coalitions such as the Free South Africa Movement and its Washington D.C.–based spearhead, TransAfrica, proved less adept at fulfilling their own more radical visions of social change. In this paper, I examine this dilemma through the contemporary record as well the retrospective commentary of several TransAfrica activists.

Presented By
Leon Fink, University of Illinois at Chicago

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Alex Lichtenstein, Indiana University
Alex Lichtenstein is the Editor for the American Historical Review and Professor of History at Indiana University, where he teaches US and South African history. His research focuses on the intersection of labor history and the struggle for racial justice in societies shaped by white supremacy. His first book, Twice the Work of Free Labor, examined the role of convict leasing and chain gangs in the remaking of the American South in the half century after the Civil War. His articles on prison history, US labor and civil rights activism, and South African trade unions have appeared in Labor, Journal of American History, Journal of African History, Journal of Southern African Studies, South African Historical Journal, Journal of Peasant Studies, International Review of Social History, and the LA Review of Books. His most recent publications are Margaret Bourke-White and the Dawn of Apartheid (with Rick Halpern), a study of the photojournalist's 1950 trip to South Africa, and Marked, Unmarked, Remembered: A Geography of American Memory, with his brother, photographer Andrew Lichtenstein

Presenter: Grace Davie, Queens College, City University of New York
Grace Davie is Associate Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies at Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY).  She is the author of Poverty Knowledge in South Africa: A Social History of Human Science, 1855-2005 (Cambridge University Press, 2015).  Her work has also appeared in the Journal of Southern African Studies and Politique Africaine.  Grace’s current book project explores the impact of the international anti-apartheid movement on the American Left, shareholder activism, and the rise of trade union “corporate campaigns.”  She is also developing an edited collection of essays on postcolonial poverty knowledge and the history of economic indicators globally since 1945.

Presenter: Leon Fink, University of Illinois at Chicago
Leon Fink is Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Editor of Labor: Studies in Working Class History.  He is the author or editor of a dozen works, including, most recently,  Labor Justice Across the Americas [Co-edited with Juan Manuel Palacio] (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018) and The Long Gilded Age: American Capitalism and the Lessons of a New World Order, 1880-1920  (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).  He is currently studying a series of liberal interventions in U.S. postwar foreign policy.   

Presenter: Nicholas Grant, University of East Anglia
Dr. Nicholas Grant is a lecturer in American Studies at the University of East Anglia in the UK. His research engages with the fields of African American and black international history by examining how transnational political and cultural forces have shaped race relations in the United States. His work has appeared in the Radical History Review and Palimpsest: A Journal of Women, Gender and the Black International, and the Journal of American Studies. His first book, Winning Our Freedoms Together: African Americans and Apartheid, 1945-1960 was published in 2017 with UNC press, and won the British Association for American Studies’ Arthur Miller First Book Prize. He currently serves as the co-editor of the new open-access Radical Americas journal published through UCL Press.