Danger: mind-broadening ahead
19 December 2014 14:42 (South Africa)
South Africa

Randall Robinson and the legacy of TransAfrica

  • J Brooks Spector
  • South Africa
randal r

Robinson established TransAfrica in 1977 and received one of the country’s highest decorations on Freedom Day. Robinson and TransAfrica were at the forefront of citizen efforts in the US to end apartheid, but also persisted against authoritarian regimes like Ethiopia and in support of the pro-democracy movement for Haiti. J Brooks Spector spoke to Robinson about his life’s work after his arrival in South Africa.

Talking to Randall Robinson the day before he was to receive the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo, I encounter a trim, 70-year-old man who is “at rest”. Following a lifetime of activism and social engagement, Robinson now seems to exude a nearly Zen-like calmness. He seems at peace with his place in the order of things nowadays, almost serenely so.

Perhaps this has something to do with having lived for the past decade on the small Caribbean island of St Kitts rather than in the 24/7 cut and thrust of Washington or New York City. Living where everywhere is just a short walk to the beach could certainly do that for one.

Robinson is not the only person who received recognition this year, of course. There have been a bevy of posthumous awards to earlier heads of the ANC, in recognition of that organisation’s centenary: one for the late Cape Town radical trade unionist, John Gomas, a man who rose to fame in the garment workers’ union in the 1930s and 1940s; awards to others for conspicuous personal bravery; awards to journalist Joe Thloloe (now the nation’s press ombudsman); rugby star Cheeky Watson (a pioneer of integrating his sport); musicians Johnny Clegg and Julian Bahula (one of the co-founders of the original Malombo Jazzmen, way back in 1964); and one to Gladys Agulhas, the choreographic innovator who mainstreams physically handicapped dancers.

Besides Robinson, two other foreigners – the highly regarded Russian student of South African economic history, Apollon Davidson, as well as the late Massachusetts senator, Edward “Ted” Kennedy – were also honoured at Freedom Day celebrations.

Robinson, however, may stand alone as an American who invested more than a full decade of his life in an intense, concentrated effort, first, to draw Americans’ attention to the evils of South Africa’s apartheid regime and America’s collusion with it, and then to generate popular and governmental support for measures that might actually help bring about an end to the apartheid political order.

But what makes someone decide that a challenge like confronting apartheid – rather than becoming a rich Wall Street attorney or a novelist and travel writer – is where life’s most consequential efforts will be located.

Thinking back over his early life, he explains that he grew up in a profoundly segregated Richmond, Virginia. He adds that he had never had a sustained exchange with a white American until he had graduated from his historically black university, Virginia State University. After a stint in the army and following a Harvard law degree, Robinson says he first did some poverty law and then began to work as an aide to Michigan Democratic congressman Charles Diggs.

While Diggs was not one of Congress’ grandees, because of Congress’ seniority system, Diggs became chairman of the House of Representatives’ International Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa. In this position, Diggs (and his staffers) came to have a growing influence on American policy towards Africa generally, and on South Africa specifically. It also gave Robinson a superb vantage point so that he could see where something else might be done outside government that would have even more influence still.

By the latter part of the 1970s, the major energies in the big push of the American civil rights struggle had all but ended, and national protests against the war in Vietnam had come to an end with the end of the war itself. But the knowledge and techniques for social mobilisation remained as activists looked for a place, a cause, and a way to put them to work again.

Looking around Washington, Robinson could see all the policy studies and advocacy groups, all those think tanks, all those lobbying groups. But he also noticed there wasn’t one group purpose-built and specifically designed to advance a comprehensive agenda on human rights in Africa, as well as promote African-Americans’ ties to the continent.

For Robinson, the solution to this challenge became the creation of an entirely new policy advocacy institution: TransAfrica, then, later, TransAfrica Forum. In fact, while he was still a student at Harvard, he had already been interested in the still-ongoing wars of liberation in the Portuguese colonies and Gulf Oil’s involvement there and, with other students, he had raised money for the ANC’s liberation committee based in Tanzania.

After graduation he earned a fellowship to travel to Africa for research – he spent time with the exile community in Tanzania and carried a $5,000 cheque to liberation groups there, funds he and his friends had raised while he was at Harvard.

Timing is everything. TransAfrica came into being just as the theme of human rights was being injected into the broader American foreign policy agenda during the Jimmy Carter administration. Activists – many on college campuses – were beginning to become more attentive to South Africa under apartheid. This, in turn, fed energy into agitation for disinvestment and sanctions as part of broader international efforts. In some essential ways, for Robinson and TransAfrica, “South Africa and America’s similarities resonated with people” in the US, he explains.

From TransAfrica came the organisational impetus and backbone for the Free South Africa Movement and their continuing protests in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, DC. That, in turn, brought political, sports and entertainment celebrities to chain themselves to the White House fence in association with these protests over South Africa’s regime. All of this, of course, came as growing waves of protests, strikes and demonstrations were taking place inside South Africa itself.

Along the way, TransAfrica and the Free South Africa Movement gained some serious media savvy – first planning, then staging a protest, then alerting the Washington media to this ongoing event, and then using the resulting media attention from one demonstration to generate yet further support for their next demonstration. It is important to remember that all of this took place without recourse to e-mail, Facebook, Twitter or the rest of an Internet that was still to be invented.

Eventually, public pressure in America from all this public attention over South Africa helped the congressional passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, or CAAA (following an initial veto by then-president Ronald Reagan). While this CAAA was neither the toughest nor the most comprehensive set of international measures against the South African state, it had both a real and symbolic impact, coming as it did from the US. It was part of the external pressure that led the SA government to release its political prisoners and begin negotiations with the liberation movements.

In response to a sometimes-murmured criticism that TransAfrica was mostly attracted to the shiny pebble of anti-apartheid activism rather than other challenges, Robinson gently reminds that he was also arrested numerous times at the Nigerian and Ethiopian embassies in protest against the serious human rights iniquities of the Sani Abacha and Mengistu regimes. TransAfrica’s mission was much more than its trademark anti-apartheid activism.

Robinson recalls rising to the defense of the bedraggled Haitian state, dumping bananas on the steps of the US trade representative’s offices in protest over banana import tariffs, as well as vociferously opposing his government’s efforts under George W Bush when a legitimately elected (albeit flawed) Jean Bertrand Aristide was frog-marched out of power and sent on to his multi-year, multi-country African exile. From his involvement in Haiti comes one of Robinson’s many books, An Unbroken Agony. The net result flowing from Aristide’s overthrow has been, in Robinson’s words, a “faux democracy” in Haiti.

He is careful to explain that, with regard to Haiti, he felt it was not his purpose to impose the specifics of who should lead that nation. Rather, his position has been that it is the people of a society who should have the right to make their own choices about who would lead their nation, without covert or overt interference from outside.

At about this time, Robinson began to look into his own soul and the spirit of his country – and his connections to it. He wrote another book, The Debt, to examine the nature of his country’s debts – and psychic and financial damage – to its African-American community, joining a long-simmering discussion about the rightness of reparations for past slavery, or at least an open conversation about that question.

Shifting gears slightly, Robinson speaks about meeting Jamaican high school students a few years back and asking them what they knew of Haitian liberation heroes from the early 19th century. Heroes like Toussaint L’Overture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. These were men who had led their untrained armies to defeat two French armies that had been sent to recapture that enormously profitable colony from its rebellious slaves. Unfortunately, Robinson says, virtually no students raised their hands to identify those Caribbean heroes. By contrast, all of them seemed to know exactly who Snoop Dogg was. Robinson saw this as an example of something larger that was deeply troubling.

Along the way, he says he was examining how his own country had developed a kind of deliberate amnesia about this original crime of slavery – and the lingering but still-deep effects of this a century and a half later, despite the precedent-shattering Barack Obama presidency. The effect on African-Americans is portrayed in yet another book, this time a novel, Makeda.

By this time in his life, Robinson had also begun to examine his own exertions and resigned from the leadership of the organisation he had willed into being. Married now to a woman from St Kitts, and as part of a family with a small child, perhaps he was subliminally wanting “…to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” as per Henry David Thoreau.

Of course, moving to an entirely different nation is not quite like leaving the intellectual circles of Boston for a rural pond a few miles down the road, even if he had visited there often. And so, from this latest personal journey there was yet another book, this time an exploration of his internal journey to undertake the actual one, as well as a consideration of the very nature of expatriation and his kind of voluntary exile from America. As he says, “I was going to a new place as much as I was leaving another one.” And so the book, Quitting America: the departure of a black man from his native land.

Of course his “exile” is not quite like Henry James’s departure from an America rushing heedlessly into modernity, although Robinson explains that this change has given him more time to think carefully about the things he cares about most after saying he “had been totally exhausted by the US”.

Keeping his hand in still, Robinson now teaches human rights law via a video-conferencing link with Pennsylvania State University and he has worked on a television show, World on Trial, for public television, exploring human rights violations and dilemmas by nations around the world. And yet, he explains that this shift in his life a decade ago was crucial for him to gain control of life’s pace and give his daughter a safe, nurturing environment. He is also able to walk down to the beach and the warm Caribbean Sea – only a few minutes from home. Not too shabby, that.

Asked about his views on contemporary South Africa and America, Robinson demurs: this trip is not the occasion to criticise his hosts openly, and besides, he says he has been away from a close engagement with South African developments for some years. But he does add that “social change can lag seriously behind formal political change” and that obviously unemployment and land reform remain major challenges.

Nevertheless, he admits: “I never expected to see (political transformation) in my lifetime. Even what we did in 1984 (that eventually led to about 5,000 arrests), we had no expectation, no reason to have one, that what happened would happen. You have to be relentless and you have to drill a lot of wells to strike oil.” For 14 months, not a day went by without someone getting arrested. “We chose the day before Thanksgiving (to begin), perhaps because it was a slow news day.”

As far as the specifics of American foreign policy were concerned, at a public forum later the same day, Robinson says he was only prepared to chastise Reagan and Chester Crocker (Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs) for their 1980s policy of constructive engagement, arguing that embracing a bad regime in the hopes of getting it to change its essential nature went against human nature itself. That certainly seems a safe judgment now. It is also a safe bet Robinson’s place in South African – and modern American – history and intellectual life will remain secure. To have been a central figure in the fundamental redirection of America’s foreign policy towards South Africa is no small feat.

But this was no solo journey. In that sense, Robinson, in receiving the plaque, the medal and the applause, is representing all those others – students, union organisers, politicians, church figures, social activists and disinvestment champions, cultural figures as varied as “Little” Steve van Zant and Leontyne Price – who also did what they thought would help overturn an odious regime.

But in all this recognition, one man and his role seems to have been virtually left out of the equation publicly: Willard Butcher. Recalling Butcher’s role, Anthony Sampson, the early editor of Drum, wrote in his book Black and Gold, that the chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City “was an unlikely choice to be the arch-enemy of apartheid in July 1985”. But concerned about the high visibility of his bank’s loans to South Africa and the unending trouble he was getting in the media and at stockholders’ meetings, he determined those loans were simply not worth the flack Chase Manhattan was taking over them.

Following the international dismay in the aftermath of PW Botha’s “Rubicon” speech, Butcher and the bank’s CEO decided to stop rolling over the SA government and SA business loans and to insist upon repayment in full as they came due, and about 85% of the bank’s loans to South Africa would come due within a year. Butcher’s decision initiated a huge run on South Africa’s finances and international credit and that, in turn, put enormous pressure on the flailing but still powerful regime.

Sampson added, “It was not the simple calculations of profit or loss, risk and reward, which had finally warned off the banks. It was the careful intervention of churches, foundations and shareholders’ pressure groups (allied with groups like Robinson’s TransAfrica) which insisted, not that apartheid was unprofitable, but that it was morally intolerable.” Or as Butcher himself explained years later, “The forces in the world to isolate South Africa were making it less and less credit worthy. The country was becoming unbankable and I wanted out!”

Butcher wasn’t all that good at banking (he was eventually pushed out of his job because of some very bad decisions over some big Latin American loans gone sour) and he wasn’t much of a social philosopher. But his decision to clean up the balance sheet and avoid the constant wounding by brickbats from all those troublesome priests and activists also had a tremendous impact on SA’s freedom struggle.

Along with all the well-known heroes and their sagas, perhaps Willard Butcher, because of his decision to call in the loans, also deserves a modest plaque somewhere on the landscaped grounds of Pretoria’s Freedom Park. Heroism can sometimes come from some unexpected places and persons – as well as from those like Randall Robinson who walked with brave personal steps across history’s pages. DM



Read more:

  • SA to honour heroes on Freedom Day at the national official website.
  • Randall Robinson's own website.
  • Randall Robinson Interview in The Progressive.
  • World on Trial at the Penn State University website (the Robinson-organised human rights TV show).
  • Randall Robinson at The Huffington Post.
  • NYRAG's Documentary Film Series: Have You Heard from Johannesburg? (description of an episode in the documentary film series by Connie Field, referring to and quoting Willard Butcher’s role.)
  • J Brooks Spector
  • South Africa


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