Is apartheid rousing black America? Black leaders first to enlist in protests, but rank and file slower to join

Black leadership has pushed South African apartheid to the top of the US foreign policy agenda, but grass-roots support from the black community is slower to take hold. Ethel M. Mathews, for example, a welfare-rights organizer in Atlanta, calls current anti-apartheid demonstrations a ``bandwagon'' she's not ready to hop on.

``We've got hunger and poverty here. . . . These should be worked on first,'' Mrs. Mathews says. Poor blacks are often more interested in their own economic survival than political activism, she says.

On the other hand, the anti-apartheid demonstrations have ``been the greatest mass movement since the civil rights movement,'' says Mary Frances Berry, member of the US Civil Rights Commission and one of the first people to be arrested in the demonstrations that began last November at the South African Embassy in Washington.

``This has indeed prompted the first awakening of social consciousness in this decade, a decade barren of social consciousness,'' agrees Eleanor Holmes Norton, former chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She was arrested with Dr. Berry in the first of the demonstrations sponsored by TransAfrica, a lobbying group for third-world issues.

At first, demonstrators wanted to publicize the disappearance of 14 trade unionists in South Africa, Ms. Norton says. But the action snowballed into an anti-apartheid vigil that continues daily in different locations around the country, she explains. It was not intended to be linked to domestic black issues.

But US black leaders say this movement cannot help but galvanize blacks politically.

Congress's consideration this week of sanctions against South Africa -- and South Africa's attention to the movement here -- are giving blacks a feeling of renewed political vigor, says Ron Walters, deputy campaign manager of Jesse Jackson's presidential bid and a professor of political science at Howard University.

``This is a movement not just tailored to the specific issue [of apartheid], but it's making a powerful statement against the Reagan administration,'' he says. The administration says working with the South African government can accomplish more reform than punishing it.

Mr. Walters characterizes the movement as a black one -- though many whites have been involved in the large demonstrations on campuses this spring -- because blacks here have historically been aware of concerns of black Africans.

America's black leaders say today's movement is part of a longstanding anti-apartheid sentiment among US blacks which dates back to the early 1900s. This sentiment was evident in 1962 when the late Martin Luther King Jr. called for sanctions against the South African government, and again seven years ago when black Howard University divested its South African holdings.

American blacks aren't far removed from their own civil rights struggle, so they can readily sympathize with the black African struggle. More recently, Americans have been roused by the recent increase in racial unrest and bloodshed in South Africa, where more than 350 black South Africans lost their lives in the past year.

The movement's interracial and bipartisan support is evident on picket lines as well as in Congress, Berry says. ``The real lesson is . . . that progressive coalitions can be as solid and broad based as this -- and be potent.'' The movement defies the Democratic Party's current political wisdom that the special-interest coalition is not effective, she adds.

Observers suggest the emotionalism of the anti-apartheid issue may summon a greater response in the black community than do typical political issues.

``You'd be amazed at how people respond to something so blatantly racist as apartheid. . . . They're always shocked such conditions still exist when they first hear about apartheid. And they react by saying, `Why didn't you come talk to us earlier?' '' says Tandi Gcabashe, a South African black working in the southeastern US for the American Friends Service Committee.

``Simply stating the facts'' is usually enough to get grass-roots involvement from blacks who might remain silent on other political issues, she says.

American blacks ``can definitely do more, volunteer more time, more money, more expertise'' for the anti-apartheid movement, says Mpho Tutu, daughter of the Nobel Peace Prize winner and South African apartheid critic, Bishop Desmond Tutu. But that can happen only if they are educated about the problem, she adds.

Even Mrs. Mathews, sincere in her desire to help poor black Americas first, readily admits that conditions for South African blacks are deserving of whatever pressure the US can muster against them.

``It's not difficult for people to know or care about apartheid. But how that gets transformed into action is another question. It's not as easy to define ways to act [as in the civil rights movement],'' observes Vincent Harding, professor of religion and social transformation at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. ``One thing that should be clear is that you go into black churches all over this country and you hear people praying. . . . They understand prayer to be an action,'' says Mr. Harding, a co-worker of the late Martin Luther King Jr.

For the Rev. Tim McDonald, in charge of South African issues for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, economic reason is the practical way to further anti-apartheid sentiment among grass-roots blacks.

``We try to show the connection between unemployment [here] and the relation to South Africa, where corporations get cheap labor. The South African issue serves as a catalyst [to black involvement in other issues],'' the Rev. Mr. McDonald says. ``There are 284 US corporations dealing in South Africa, and many who are in Atlanta. And if they are not here in Atlanta, they are taking away possible jobs. And they [blacks] can understand that correlation.'' He says blacks can choose to boycott products, or to demonstrate at these companies.

However, Mrs. Mathews, skeptical of what can be accomplished in the US, sums up her understanding of the boycotts, divestment, and South African problems this way: ``Poor peoples don't buy too much anyway. And poor peoples don't have anything invested in South Africa. . . . This is nothing new over there, and I just want to know why don't things get better? Why?'' -- 30 --

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