When South African Apartheid Was Overthrown: Lessons for the Movement for Black Lives Today

The struggle against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa was a global rebellion that included many Black people in the United States. African Americans saw the parallels between the system of white supremacy in South Africa and the one in the United States. This struggle holds many lessons for the movement for Black lives today.

Gerald Lenoir, a veteran organizer of the anti-apartheid movement in the United States and an organizer for racial justice today, will share lessons from the movement that helped bring down apartheid to help us better understand how to teach — and participate in — the ongoing Black Freedom Struggle.

Here are a few reactions from the participants:

I loved the way that Mr. Lenoir emphasized the role of students, doing the steady work of showing up every week, in their own city, and how groups of students and other regular people all around the country and the world were able to accomplish their goal!

People fought so hard for Black Studies in schools.

Honestly, just hearing testimony was critical. Mr. Lenoir’s stories made me remember where I was during all the fights of the 70s. I wonder what stories my students will recall in 40 years.

I so appreciated all aspects of today’s event. Thank you to everyone who facilitated, emceed, and contributed. Thank you to Mr. Lenoir. This was the first time I attended one of these events, and to hear from people whose works I have followed and read for years was very inspiring and humbling. Thank you.

Find highlights of the session, a video recording of the class (except breakout room segment), recommended resources, and more participant feedback.

Highlights

Here are some main points of the session from the tweet thread by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca, high school teacher and Zinn Education Project team member.

Video

Additional Resources

Here are many of the resources recommended by the presenters and also by participants.

Lessons and Curricula

Witness to Apartheid: A Teaching Guide by Bill Bigelow

Sun City – A Teaching Guide by Bill Bigelow

How to Make Amends: A Lesson on Reparations by Ursula Wolfe-Rocca

Strangers In Their Own Country: A Curriculum Guide on South Africa by Bill Bigelow

Related Books and Article



Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid by Alan Wielder

Chain of Fire by Beverley Naidoo

Journey to Jo’burg: A South African Story by Beverly Naidoo

Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela by Danny Schechter

Nelson Mandela: The Authorized Comic Book by Umlando Wezithombe

No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century, 1950-2000 edited by William Minter,
Gail Hovey, and Charles Cobb Jr.

Fists of Freedom: An Olympic Story Not Taught in School” by Dave Zirin

Films

Cry Freedom

Have You Heard From Johannesburg

This Day In History

Steve Biko | Zinn Education Project

Steve Biko

June 16, 1976: Soweto Uprising

Aug. 18, 1977: Steve Biko Arrested

Feb. 11, 1990: Mandela Released from Prison

Music


Biko” by Sweet Honey in the Rock

Free Nelson Mandela” by Soweto Singer


Participant Reflections

Here are some of the responses by participants from the session evaluation.

What was the most important thing (story, idea) you learned today?

I didn’t know that the rebellion in Soweto in 1976 was connected to language in schools. I also found the point about the longshoremen not unloading the ships to be inspiring.

I loved the way that Mr. Lenoir emphasized the role of students, doing the steady work of showing up every week, in their own city, and how groups of students and other regular people all around the country and the world were able to accomplish their goal!

People fought so hard for Black Studies in schools.

Personal stories are history in the moment. Tell your stories. It inspires others. Don’t lose your history.

The expansiveness of the anti-apartheid struggle in the United States.

Freedom struggles are all tied together. Apartheid, Palestine, white supremacy are all dimensions of the same issue!

Reinforced the importance of making connections between the different freedom struggles throughout the world.

I think the most interesting that I learned was connecting the South African apartheid laws to what is actively going on between Israel and Palestine. I never thought about doing this, but it would be perfect since I teach both of these topics back to back.

The power of transnational student activism, and the framing of Black liberation as an international struggle against white supremacy around the world.

The actions taken on the ground in the U.S. to support the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

It was great to be reminded of these years and events, to get an intimate first-hand perspective, and to connect that struggle and those tactics with today’s world and current social justice issues.

Honestly, just hearing testimony was critical. Mr. Lenoir’s stories made me remember where I was during all the fights of the 70s. I wonder what stories my students will recall in 40 years.

Reminder to interconnect the struggles across the world for students. We can learn how to address egregious issues in our own country from these international lessons.

The parallels between BLM, the anti-apartheid movement, and the uprisings for Palestinian liberation.

Existence of Black Alliance for Just Immigration, because I’m looking it up to support such work.

What will you do with what you learned?

Today’s class will help me share deeper connections between the colonialism in South Africa and that in Palestine.

Will dive into Bigelow’s teaching resource (it was shared in the chat), and help students see the connections between Jim Crow laws and apartheid in South Africa.

1) I’m sending the picture of Rosa Parks to my students who wrote about her this year. 2) This information continues to build my understanding of how people are working for justice. I stand in awe.

I will try to learn more about the international approach — boycotts, etc.

It will inform my work with pre-service and in-service educators.

I have taught about South African apartheid before, but I really want to focus more of my own study to it so that I can do it more justice. I want to spend more time delving into it and the transnational connections.

This informs my organizing and engagement in groups here in the United States, particularly as it relates to the struggle for Palestinian liberation and the fight against Israeli apartheid.

I didn’t quite realize the direct connections between the movement for Black Studies in universities and the anti-Apartheid movement. I teach in Ithaca, NY, where we had a really powerful black student movement (Willard Straight Hall Takeover at Cornell University). I am excited to look into the anti-Apartheid activism at Cornell, but also at the school where I teach. I bet that we had a student group, and I am thinking maybe we could even do some primary source research into our school’s old yearbooks to find out. These sorts of connections really help to not only bring history to life for my students, but to help them see that they can have a meaningful role in movements for justice today.

I am working on how to teach social justice through French. Someone in my breakout room shared resources that I will look at this summer. In the short term, I’ll tell my students these stories.

I use MANY resources from the Zinn Education Project — and will use even more. We “owe” Howard Zinn, Bill Bigelow, and Mr. Lenoir for their information and inspiration. Thank you.

I will do my work to help my students connect the dots between economics and the global nature of white supremacy. I will also share stories of children and young adults that battled oppression and provide opportunities for students to be organizers in their communities.

What did you think of the format?

It was a beautiful discussion and I felt honored to be in the space. I enjoyed the breakout rooms as a space for a small conversation. It was very well timed-the whole format was well timed. I could have stayed in the main room all afternoon and evening though.

The combination of a large scale webinar and breakout rooms worked.

My breakout group had a Native woman from MN; it was great to get her perspective as well as the contributions of two women who teach incarcerated folks. More time for break-outs in the future.

The breakout room was great. Loved that Jesse could be in dialogue with his father!! Family of organizers and freedom fighters. The connections were strongly lived and felt.

I so appreciated all aspects of today’s event. Thank you to everyone who facilitated, emceed, and contributed. Thank you to Mr. Lenoir. This was the first time I attended one of these events, and to hear from people whose works I have followed and read for years was very inspiring and humbling. Thank you.

I appreciated the sign language interpreter, even though I do not know sign language. Of the many pandemic webinars I have attended, I have never seen that service offered.

All worked well. There is always a desire to spend even more time in a Breakout Room with like-minded educators — sharing, listening, and learning.

I wasn’t able to participate in the breakout room because I was on a call, but I like that the time was organized the way it was.

Miigwetch for the ASL signers. I don’t use the chat much when the speaker is talking. It distracts me from listening. I do check for the links shared from ZEP. Plus the Elders say to listen when someone is talking, especially when they are older.

Additional Comments

Good combination of content and spirit.

Thank you for the additional information on Palestine.

We need to go to the next level — student activism groups, national coordination. We appreciate ZEP leadership. thank you!

Thank you for continuing to have this type of programs on Zoom!

In general, I would love to see ZEP expand into more international issues — I teach global history, particularly of the Atlantic World, and I would love to see (or even collaborate on creating?) some more resources that go beyond the US!

I find these opportunities very valuable — always leads to making additions/changes to my courses. Thank you.

Miigwetch for offering this series.

Presenters

Gerald Lenoir is an analyst at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society with a long history of organizing and activism. Among other roles and accomplishments, he was the Executive Director of the San Francisco Black Coalition on AIDS (1989 – 1995). Lenoir co-founded the HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda County, co-founded Priority Africa Network in 2003, and has served on the board of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights since 2006. He is a former board member of the Interfaith Peace Builders and led its first African Heritage Delegation to Palestine/Israel in 2012. Lenoir is also a writer, his latest book being a collection of poetry about police violence: United States of Struggle: Police Murder in America.

Jesse Hagopian teaches Ethnic Studies and is the co-adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School in Seattle. He is an editor for Rethinking Schools, the co-editor of Teaching for Black Lives, and editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.