First Published in City Press in August 2014. In memory of my hero, William Lynch Jr
Years before President Obama became the first person of colour to be elected to the highest office in the USA, the city of New York had its own Obama-Moment in the form of David Dinkins, the first and only black man to become Mayor. This was way back in 1990, around the time that Mandela was being unveiled to the world.
Dinkins and his deputy, Bill Lynch, also a black man, were huge supporters of the Anti-Apartheid movement and responsible for the huge ticker-tape parade that New York City held in Madiba’s honour when he started his 8-city tour of the US there in June of that year. Over 700,000 people came out that day.
Several months later, this mayoral pair would again show just how much the South African cause meant to them. Both politicians had years previously picketed and lead Boycott and Sanctions campaigns across New York, at a time when US President Reagan’s administration opposed Sanctions against South Africa. Now that Mandela had been freed, there was renewd pressure from the very top to drop Sanctions. Then President Bush said “I’d like to show Mr. de Klerk that we, the United States, are grateful for this new approach…(negotiations)”
Mandela, however, had specifically come to the US to ask that sanctions not be lifted, so as to keep pressure on the Apartheid state. And Dinkins and Lynch went a step further in support of this by barring the city of New York from issuing any contract to any organisation found to be busting sanctions and buying or selling anything whether diamonds or soft drinks from South Africa. The Big Apple then had a R 400 billion budget.
One day Dinkins was paid a visit by David Rockefeller, grandson of the famous industrialist John D. Rockefeller who was once the richest man in America. Rockefeller Jr informed the Mayor that he represented an association of New York based businesses, and that he also had strong links with South Africa. He had it on good authority that Mandela actually wanted the US to drop sanctions, but just couldn’t say so publicly. On this basis, he argued, the City should drop its tyrannical approach to shutting out business people who did business with South Africans.
Dinkins immediately dispatched Lynch who got onto a flight to Johannesburg. Here he met with my grandfather, Walter, who gave him a written undertaking that – the ANC was not budging on sanctions – they were to remain in force until the country became a democracy.
On relaying this message to Rockefeller and his associates in their next meeting, Dinkins was offered a chance to reconsider, or risk facing the financial might of these businessmen in the upcoming Mayoral election.
It had been an uphill battle for Dinkins to get into office. Lynch, his seasoned campaign manager, who would manage State-wide campaigns for both Bill and Hilary Clinton, John Kerry, Jesse Jackson and even a Kennedy knew they didn’t stand a prayer’s chance against so much money. US polls are notoriously expensive affairs.
And yet they remained steadfast, knowing they would likely not return to office. They kept the ban in place, and lost to Giuliani. The South African Cause was too great to sell out.
I was reminded of this story by current developments in the Middle-East and in America itself. Despite taking a breather this week, the Israeli government’s smashing of Gaza following years of an economic blockade represents the worst form of Apartheid repression we have seen in recent years. There are many of us, who don’t yet appreciate that solidarity is about more than talk and slogans, it is about taking principled stand just as Dinkins, Lynch and countless other foreigners did for us. In this case it means we must pressurize Israel both diplomatically and economically until Israel, like racist South Africa, sits down to resolve the middle Eastern crisis politically.
Finally, though the US this week rolled out the red carpets for the US-Africa Summit in Washington, many American media stories carried a tone deeply contemptuous of the African. It is well deserved. The African leader must not rush to clasp the investment promise that is less than our entire GDP. They should remain steadfast in pursuing shared continental interests – one of which is that a united AU be arbiter for any trans-continental engagement. This technically means that no US summit takes place without it being driven by the AU. In this instance, however, it was reduced to a side-show as the US invited African states one by one (to avoid undesirables like Mugabe), and one by one they broke African ranks to fawn before the African-American President. The African leaders compromised themselves yet again in pursuit of narrower interests.
United we stand, divided we fall. The African Cause has always been too great to sell out.