The Global Anti-Apartheid Movement, 1946-1994

Dr. Nicholas Grant, American Studies, University of East Anglia

Cross-posted from


Last month saw the publication of the Radical History Review’s special issue on ‘The Global Anti-Apartheid Movement’. Appearing on the 20th anniversary of South African democracy, the issue contains articles, roundtables and review pieces that explore a range of transnational connections that shaped political opposition to white supremacy in South Africa. As editors Lisa Brock, Alex Lichtenstein and Van Gosse comment in their introduction, “in seeking contributions to this issue, we made a deliberate effort to give the truly global nature of the movements in solidarity with southern Africa their due.”[1]

Radical History

The Radical History Review Special Issue on ‘The Global Antiapartheid Movement’ No. 119 (Spring, 2014)

Whilst activism in the US and Britain continues to dominate much of the scholarship on the international anti-apartheid movement, this special issue makes an important effort to move beyond this occasionally restricting narrative. The articles within the issue therefore address different forms of activism in a number of diverse geographical contexts. For example, Jerry Dávila examines how black civil rights activists in Brazil were influenced by and drew upon anti-apartheid agitation in South Africa; Alex Lichtenstein’s interview with Sietse Bosgra sheds light on the Dutch anti-apartheid movement and its links to anticolonial liberation movements throughout Africa; whilst Teresa Barnes broadens the definition of the global ‘anti-apartheid’ struggle in her gendered analysis of activist networks forged between American radicals involved in the women’s health movement and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). In addition to this, Scott Laderman adds a fascinating new perspective on the relationship between sport and the anti-apartheid movement by examining the responses of professional surfers from around the world to calls to boycott South African events on the world tour in the 1980s.

The special issue also provides much needed insight into the ways in which the struggle for racial justice in South Africa has been perceived and is now being remembered around the world (see pieces by Sarah Melton, Heike Hartmann and Susann Lewerenz, Lauren Kientz Anderson, and William H. Chafe). On this front, Rob Skinner’s article ‘Struggles on the Page’ provides a particularly fascinating insight into the ways in which activists themselves shaped narratives of the global anti-apartheid movement and, in the process of doing this, helped forge an emergent “transnational language of liberation” that not only influenced the work of activists, but influenced both academic and public understanding of the anti-apartheid activism generally.

My own contribution to the special issue focuses on travel between South Africa and the United States during the early Cold War. Exploring the journeys of four prominent black individuals, the article outlines the restrictions that were placed on international anti-apartheid organizing during the 1950s. By examining the experiences of the black American actors Canada Lee and Sidney Poitier filming Cry, the Beloved Country on location in South Africa, as wells as the work of the black South African activists Frieda and Z.K. Matthews in publicizing the Defiance Campaign in the United States, the article outlines the tension that existed between the development of the global anti-apartheid movement and state power.

The United States’ enjoyed a close diplomatic, economic and military relationship with South Africa during the Cold War. Important in terms of American business interests and especially as a source of strategic raw materials, including uranium, US governments were reluctant criticize white supremacy in South Africa. Eager to transform the global image of American race relations, the last thing the American government wanted were prominent black figures making direct or indirect connections between racism in South Africa and the United States.

I ultimately aim to show what these black activists were up against, as well as the way in which the US and South African governments evoked anticommunism in order to silence the nascent global anti-apartheid movement. At the same time I hope to demonstrate how, by consistently challenging the restrictions that were placed on their mobility, black activists ensured that South Africa’s relations with ‘the West’ had to be constantly worked for and defended.

Lee, Poitier and the Matthews all managed to find spaces though which they could challenge apartheid in the global political arena. Whilst this did not result in the dismantling of apartheid, or bring an end to the US-South African Cold War alliances, their determination to link the respective racial struggles of African Americans and black South Africans African American and black South Africans to support one another in their respective struggles provides and example of how black activists, engaged with, contested, and often successfully subverted transnationally organised state repression during the early Cold War.

I bring together a range of archival material located in the US and South Africa, including records from the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. and the Consul General in New York housed at the South African National Archives in Pretoria. Largely neglected in existing historical studies of the international anti-apartheid movement, I hope that this new material provides a key insight into the National Party’s concern with its international reputation regarding race.

As we mark twenty years of South African democracy and reflect on the international campaign for racial justice that helped dismantle the apartheid regime, I hope that the special issue of the Radical History Review can help frame how we view this incredibly broad movement and spark new debates relating to how we should remember the global response to the apartheid regime. It is important to remember that international opposition to apartheid was not inevitable or guaranteed. The problems anti-apartheid activists faced come out clearly throughout the issue, whilst there is clear evidence that it was more difficult to persuade politicians and the general public that apartheid needed to be eradicated. This is an important reminder today, where political leaders across the spectrum hail Mandela and talk in glowing terms about the rise of a multiracial South Africa. The reality clearly wasn’t as straightforward as they’d have you believe.


[1] Lisa Brock, Van Gosse, and Alex Lichtenstein, “Editors’ Introduction,” Radical History Review 2014, no. 119 (March 20, 2014): 1–5.

Cite this blog post
Fabian Klose (2014, July 25). The Global Anti-Apartheid Movement, 1946-1994. Humanitarianism & Human Rights. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from

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