How Africa Saved South Africa

The purpose of this article is to inform readers on the initiatives that other African nations and people took to finally help South Africans escape the grip of the apartheid regime. The following events are in of no particular order. It’s a bit the tip of the iceberg since volumes of books would have to be written to properly assess how Africa has aided South Africa during these dreadful years.

OAU Flag. Photo by Wiki Commons

Nigeria: The Catalyst

Nigeria was evidently not the only African country that assisted South Africans. However, by far, it was the country that provided the most economic, diplomatic, and military support to the African National Congress (ANC) and similar liberation parties and organizations. The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) estimated that by 1994, Nigeria had spent $61 billion in the anti-apartheid struggle.

The Guardian (Lagos) newspaper revealed in an article published in 1986 that Nigeria has forfeited about $45 billion dollars by refusing to export oil to South Africa (Olayiwola Abegunrin, 2003). Extrapolate this amount to 1994 — the year that the apartheid government fell — and you can estimate the colossal amount of Nigeria’s forgone oil revenues in efforts to eject the apartheid regime.

Despite the Biafra crisis and other internal challenges that Nigeria faced, successive governments were generally not divisive on the issue of South Africa: they spearheaded many initiatives and created organizations for the sole purpose of assisting South Africans. The struggle also became ideological. University students mobilized secondary school students to go from house-to-house to educate Nigerians on the evil of the apartheid regime and the same was done at all levels of the education system (Gani Yoroms, 2007).

Besides the many back-channels that Nigerian military leaders used to support anti-apartheid organizations in South Africa, other Nigerian leaders were quite explicit. In a noticeable example, following the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960, Ahmadu Bello the Sardauna of Sokoto, bared white South Africans from working in Northern Nigeria which was under his rule and he called on Commonwealth nations to impose sanctions on the South African government (Patrick Wilmot, 1989).

Nigeria was also greatly involved in the struggle for independence of neighboring South African countries such as Botswana, Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). It even provided a significant number of weapons, financial assistance, and military intelligence to the MPLA in Angola after South African troops entered the country to support UNITA of Jonas Savimbi. The country understood then that a liberated South Africa was still vulnerable if colonial powers still controlled other countries in the region.

It’s important to recall that prior to Nigeria’s intensification of its support to the anti-apartheid struggle, most former colonial powers supported the South African government. But Nigeria’s growing influence in world affairs contributed to the shifting of global powers’ stance on the apartheid regime.

The Organization of African Unity (OAU): The Diplomats

Africa Heads of State. May 1963. Courtesy: Thisisafrica.me

The first continental union established in 1963, achieved some success in its anti-apartheid efforts. The OAU being mainly a political alliance, utilized diplomatic campaigns to pressure Pretoria into ceding power to native South Africans. This was a challenging mission for the OAU at the time due to the geopolitical factors that determined much of the foreign policies of member countries. Newly independent countries were torn in internal conflicts increasing military coups in the region. From 1956 to 2001, there were 80 successful coups and 108 failed coup attempts in Africa. Furthermore, Western and former colonial powers all had their proxies in Africa.

In spite of this, the OAU achieved some success. For example, following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the organization was successful in petitioning Middle East countries to extend their oil embargo to South Africa, Portugal and Rhodesia. The OAU also intensified its diplomatic campaigns against global powers such as the U.S., Japan, and Britain which continued to trade with the apartheid regime. It achieved a partial success in 1965 when the UN General Assembly officially recognized that apartheid was a threat and crime against humanity and that member states should cooperate with the OAU (Moamed A. El-Khawas, 1978).

Even if the success of the OAU against the apartheid regime was mitigated, it didn’t fail to maintain the subject of South Africa high on its agenda by consistently informing world leaders about the atrocities in the country.

The Africans: The Grassroots

Fela Kuti, 1989 | Photo by Patrick ROUCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Perhaps a key point that’s often forgotten is that even before the rest of the world caught on the anti-apartheid movement, the African population was one with South Africans in their struggle for freedom. Africans started the movement, led it, and eventually succeeded with the help of the rest of the world. It’s interesting that social media was not yet present during those decades, but Africans were in tune with the events in South Africa and people were very active in grassroots movements to mobilize funds and conscientise their communities about the apartheid regime.

African entertainers were particularly influential in exposing the regime in South Africa. While African politicians were active with their diplomatic channels, African entertainers brought the South African issue to the general public. Brenda Fassie, Hugh Masekela…they were many.

But, Fela Kuti, the Nigerian superstar singer-activist was unique. He was not in any way diplomatic when he sang about the issues that troubled his home country Nigeria and the rest of Africa. Notably, he released the song Beasts of No Nation in 1978 and took a shot at Margaret Thatcher and PW Botha, the then Prime Minister of South Africa. Here are some snippets of the lyrics:

Botha na friend to Thatcher & Reagan (Botha is a friend of Thatcher and Reagan)

Botha na friend to some other leaders too (Botha is also friend with other leaders)

And together dem wan dash us human rights (They all want to offer us human rights)

Animal wan dash us human rights (Animals want to give us human rights)

Animal can't dash me human rights (Animals can’t give me human rights)

Clearly, other African entertainers were a lot more subtle than Fela in their fight against apartheid, but it was his signature. He released the Beasts of No Nation album in 1989 and perhaps the cover was intended to reiterate the points he made in the 1978 song.

Beasts of No Nation Album Cover 1989. Courtesy: Felakuti.bandcamp.com

Perhaps Africans’ profound empathy for South Africans during the apartheid regime was driven by a shared struggle at the time. After centuries of the same tricks by a common oppressor, the oppressed became quite skilled at identifying the oppressed from the oppressor and maybe, it was the only thing that mattered to them at the time. Also, let us recall that while the ANC and other South African organizations fought against the apartheid government in their country, they were also consistent in their support to other African countries which faced oppression — the unity was reciprocal.

Hopefully, this article achieved the goal of providing a few insights into how Africa as a continent and Africans as a people, came to the rescue of South Africa for nearly five decades (1948–1994).

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Jeff Megayo

I write about anything that moves this world forward…ahead is better.