The day before he received the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo, a colossus of the anti-apartheid struggle was a 70-year-old man “at rest”, following a lifetime of activism. He exuded a nearly Zen-like calmness. Perhaps this had something to do with having lived for the past decade on the small Caribbean island nation of St. Kitts.
Robinson wasn’t the only one recognised this year. John Gomas, Joe Thloloe, Cheeky Watson, Johnny Clegg and Julian Bahula, Gladys Agulhas and Zane Wilson. Apollon Davidson, and Edward “Ted” Kennedy were also honoured.
Robinson may stand alone as an American who invested more than a decade of his life in an intense effort to draw Americans’ attention to apartheid and America’s collusion, and then generate support for its end.
Robinson grew up in deeply segregated Richmond, Virginia. He never had a sustained exchange with a white American until he graduated from Virginia State University. After a stint in the army and a Harvard law degree, Robinson first did poverty law and then began to work as an aide to Michigan Democratic congressman Charles Diggs.
Diggs became chairman of the house of representatives’ international affairs committee’s subcommittee on Africa. This gave Robinson a vantage point from which see where things needed doing and, by the latter 1970s, the big push of the American civil rights struggle had all but ended. But the knowledge and techniques for social mobilisation remained. Looking around Washington, Robinson could see all the policy studies and advocacy groups, think tanks and lobbying groups. He saw no one group advancing a comprehensive agenda on human rights in Africa.
For Robinson, the solution became TransAfrica. While still at Harvard, Robinson had already been interested in the wars of liberation in the Portuguese colonies and Gulf Oil’s involvement, and together with other students, raised money for the ANC’s liberation committee based in Tanzania. After graduating he earned a fellowship for research in Africa. He spent time with the exile community in Tanzania.
TransAfrica came into being just as human rights was being injected into broader American foreign policy during the Carter administration. Activists were beginning to focus on South Africa and apartheid, and this, in turn, fed into disinvestment and sanctions. In some essential ways, for Robinson and TransAfrica, “South Africa and America’s similarities resonated with people” in the US.
From TransAfrica, came the impetus for the Free South Africa Movement and its protests in front of the South African embassy in Washington, DC. And that, in turn, brought political, sports and entertainment celebrities to chain themselves to the White House fence in solidarity. And this came as growing waves of protests, strikes and demonstrations took place inside South Africa itself.
Along the way, TransAfrica and the Free South Africa Movement became media savvy and the attention from one demonstration generated support for the next. And that without e-mail, Facebook, Twitter.
Eventually, public pressure led to the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. The CAAA was neither the toughest nor most comprehensive international measures, but it had real and symbolic impact on SA’s government.
Robinson was also arrested numerous times at Nigerian and Ethiopian embassies when protesting against the iniquities of Sani Abacha and Mengistu Haile Miriam. TransAfrica’s mission was much more than its trademark anti-apartheid activism. Robinson rose to the defence of Haiti, dumping bananas on the steps of the US trade representative’s offices in protest against banana import tariffs, as well as vociferously opposing his own government’s efforts under George W Bush when Jean Bertrand Aristide was frog-marched out of power and sent into exile. From his involvement in Haiti comes one of Robinson’s many books, An Unbroken Agony. Robinson is careful that the people of a society who should have the right to make their own choices about who would lead them.
Robinson also began to look inward into his own soul and the spirit of his country. He wrote The Debt to examine the nature of his country’s debts to its African-American community, joining with a long-simmering discussion about the rightness of reparations for past slavery.
Along the way, Robinson probed how his country had developed a kind of amnesia about slavery and the lingering effects of this, despite the Obama presidency. The effect on African-Americans is also in what happens from a people’s collective loss of memory and he wrote Makeda.
But the effect of his exertions began showing and Robinson resigned from TransAfrica. Married now to a woman from St. Kitts, and as part of a family with a small child. Of course, moving to an entirely different nation is very taxing. And from this personal journey there came another book – this an exploration of his internal journey to undertake the actual one, as well as a consideration of the very nature of expatriation. “I was going to a new place as much as I was leaving another one,” he said of Quitting America: the departure of a black man from his native land.
For Robinson this change gave him more time to think carefully about the things he cares about most after saying he “had been totally exhausted by the US”. Robinson now teaches human rights law via a video-conferencing link with Pennsylvania State University and has worked on a television show, World on Trial, exploring human rights violations and dilemmas by nations around the world. This shift in his life was crucial for him to gain control of life’s pace and give his daughter a safe, nurturing environment.
The historically forthright activist declined to say what he thought of SA today – this was not the occasion to criticise his hosts openly. But he added, “Social change can lag seriously behind formal political change”. Obviously unemployment and land reform remain major challenges.
I never expected to see it (South Africa today) in my lifetime. Even what we did in 1984, we had no expectation, no reason to have one, that what (has) happened would happen. You have to drill a lot of wells to strike oil.”
Robinson recognises he was only one of many thousands of players in bringing about the collapse of apartheid. 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
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Photo: Transafrica Association President Randall Robinson speaks to reporters after he met with Juan Miguel Gonzalez, father of Cuban shipwreck boy Elian Gonzalez, at the Cuban Intrests Section in Washington April 13, 2000. (Reuters)