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This weekend a statue of former South African President Nelson Mandela will be dedicated outside the South African Embassy in Northwest Washington. It’s the United States’ first statue of the man who inspired people around the world to push for civil rights in South Africa.
That effort was especially pronounced in D.C. African Americans had been staging protests against Apartheid since the turn of the 20th century, decades before Mandela was born. But it wasn't until November 21, 1984 that the movement in Washington, D.C. came to a head.
It was the day before Thanksgiving, and four people walked up Massachusetts Avenue toward the South African Embassy. They knocked on the door, and went inside for a meeting with the ambassador. One of those people was Eleanor Holmes Norton, who now serves as the District's non-voting delegate to Congress.
"Given the cordiality with which we were treated, we had no reason to believe they suspected anything," she recalls.
Norton was Georgetown professor at the time, and one of the four at the meeting. Her predecessor as delegate to Congress, Walter Fauntroy, was there, along with civil rights activist Mary Francis Berry, and Randall Robinson, founder of the newly formed lobbying group Transafrica.
"So, we were there for a good half-hour, 45 minutes, and we asked the kind of questions you'd expect about apartheid, and then I said, 'Excuse me, I have to teach a class at Georgetown, may I excuse myself and leave my three colleagues?", says Norton. She walked outside, where a crowd of people and press had gathered.
"I informed the picketers and the press that the three would not be coming out. That they were going to remain until the sanctions bill was passed. The bill that would cut off trade between the U.S. and Africa," remembers Norton.
Cecily Counts was a lobbyist for Transafrica. "We wanted to ban IMF loans, we wanted to ban arms sales to south Africa. We had nice little pieces of legislation, but it was never going to become law that way. We were lobbying in the traditional way and we were getting nowhere fast. It was time to do something more dramatic," she says.
The South African ambassador called the police, remembers Sylvia Hill, a professor of criminal justice at the University of the District of Columbia.
"We knew that once they announced they weren't going to leave, the press wouldn't be there too long. So we asked about 50 people to show," she says. "We had a picket line chanting 'Free South Africa and Free Nelson Mandela!'"
By the time Fauntroy, Berry and Robinson were escorted out of the embassy in handcuffs, local news cameras were there to see it.
"It was a brilliant approach," says Charles Johnson, an assistant professor of History at Howard University. "The idea of having the protest the day before Thanksgiving, when they would have everyone sitting around the table with their families, not a whole lot going on in the media, it makes them think about, 'Hey, what is going on there?'"
Counts and Hill went home and called everyone they knew. They needed protesters, and they needed a lot of them—and they were determined to stick around until Congress passed a package of sanctions against South Africa.
"People got arrested every day and the picket lines got bigger and bigger and bigger. The AFL-CIO turned out its whole building and brought buses," recalls Counts.
"It was different every day, a different set of people," says Hill.
"Bowlers against apartheid, Sheiks against apartheid, Native Americans against apartheid. The bishop of Washington came down from the National Cathedral," adds Counts.
National social workers, black social workers," remembers Hill.
Five days a week, during the evening rush hour, the protesters were out there marching up and down Massachusetts Avenue in front of the embassy. Horns honked, and people passing by joined in the chants.
"When people came to Washington for the springtime for a tourist trip, the South African Embassy became a place you had to go," says Counts. "A smaller group of people would go up and attempt to deliver the message, and each time the embassy would call the police, [saying] you can't protest within a certain distance of the embassy."
When night fell, Counts and Hill made sure the protesters knew their next move.
"We made sure that each of those regular people lobbied while they were here," says Counts. "The point was to contact your senator and let him or her know that you wanted U.S. support to end."
Byron Charleton drove up from Norfolk, Va. to protest. "When you get those ordinary people involved, that's what makes the change," he recalls. "We slept on the floor in Sylvia's house, maybe 25 people, and it created a sense of solidarity. It was something you never would forget about."
"We knew we had to have demonstrations daily for a week, turned out to be a year! Over the course of 1985, more than 4,000 people were arrested outside the embassy. Protests broke out on college campuses all over the country, state and city governments started pulling their money out of South Africa. And the pressure on Congress to divest federal funds was growing," says Hill.
"When members of Congress started to be embarrassed by their constituents, asking, 'How can you trade with a repressive government like that? How can you allow U.S. military equipment to be allowed to shot down peaceful protesters?' Then, members of Congress who wanted to be reelected said, 'I don't want any part of this. I'm going to vote to impose sanctions on South Africa,'" says Counts.
President Ronald Reagan saw South Africa as an ally against communism, and vowed to veto any sanctions bill. To that, the public responded with even bigger protests. "The NAACP sent buses to march in front of the White House. This was unprecedented," says Hill.
On October 2, 1986 Congress was able to override Reagan's veto. It passed a sanctions bill that ceased trade almost immediately, cancelled flights, and set aside funds to help victims of apartheid.
"South Africa went into a deep recession, and out of that recession, out of that isolation, came the end of apartheid. I count this among the great protest of my life. It helped to trigger similar sanctions bills in Europe and other parts of the world, and ultimately the release of Nelson Mandela from captivity," remembers Norton.
On Saturday, the embassy will dedicate the statue of Mandela, an exact replica of the statue outside the prison where Mandela was released after 27 years in captivity. The 10-foot bronze statue shows Mandela pumping his fist in the air, and will be set in the very spot on the embassy grounds where protesters marched and chanted and demanded he be set free.