Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom. Kim Ludbrook/EPA

Black Lives Matter: four lessons in white allyship from the South African anti-apartheid movement

As Black Lives Matter protests, triggered by the killing of George Floyd, spread across the world in response to systemic racism and police brutality, questions are being asked about how white people can lend their support. Our previous and ongoing research into the South African anti-apartheid movement provides four key lessons we can draw on today in the fight against racism.

1. Use privilege to support the oppressed

The first lesson is that privilege, conferred to some by the system, can be used to support the oppressed.

The African National Congress (ANC) launched its Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign in 1952. Although the campaign did not succeed in overturning repressive legislation, it boosted the membership of the ANC, cemented the leadership of people such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, and created close cooperation between different racial groups against apartheid.

Black activists called on white activists for support, ranging from using their telephones, hosting meetings, to providing financial resources. In 1961, activist Harold Wolpe, using a front company, helped the South African Communist Party buy Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Activist Arthur Goldreich then moved with his family to Liliesleaf, which became the secret headquarters of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s armed-wing, where the banned leadership would secretly meet. Disguised in a white suburb, there was initially little suspicion that the farm was used for anti-apartheid activities.

A further tangible act of opposition to the regime was the refusal to serve in the armed forces. By the 1980s, more than 23,000 young men had refused to be conscripted into the South African Defence Force, which was increasingly deployed to suppress uprisings in townships. As a constructive alternative to military service, the End Conscription Campaign proposed a range of community development programmes, such as painting a hospital ward or clearing a plot of land, in support of and in consultation with township civic groups.

In drawing on their privilege to support the struggle, white anti-apartheid activists were frequently ostracised by other white people. Bram Fischer is a prime example. Born into a prominent Afrikaner family, Fischer rejected Afrikaner nationalism. He later defended Mandela at the Rivonia Trial in 1963, where Mandela was convicted to life imprisonment, narrowly avoiding a death sentence. Fischer was later sentenced to life imprisonment for his anti-apartheid activities.

2. Educate others

The second lesson is that those with privilege have a responsibility to educate others who hold that same privilege.

While white allies did offer benefits to the movement, some black activists felt white activists were shirking the more difficult task of confronting racial attitudes in their own neighbourhoods. They preferred the excitement of travelling to the townships, where they were welcomed with “big cheers from the people”.

Steve Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, rejected this perception that white people were allies. In 1971, he argued that it was “impossible” for white liberals to totally identify with oppressed black people “in a system that forces one group to enjoy privilege and to live on the sweat of another”. Instead, he said: “The liberal must fight on his own and for himself.”

Leonie Fleischmann

Dr Fleischmann's research explores social movements, civil resistance campaigns and human rights activism.

Matthew Graham

Senior Lecturer in History, University of Dundee

Alfonce Mbizwo

Alfonce is a Financial Journalist and Managing Editor for African Thinker Online and Magazine