Aurora Forum panelists examine campus, global legacy of anti-apartheid struggle
During her first year at Stanford, Amanda Kemp was struck by something then-President Donald Kennedy said during a speech to the freshman class: "Question authority."
That advice was among the things that inspired her to join with hundreds of other students in sit-ins outside of Kennedy's office in the spring of 1985, as part of a campaign to pressure the university to divest itself of stock in companies doing business with the apartheid regime in South Africa, Kemp said on Saturday afternoon. She appeared with Kennedy as part of a panel that discussed the legacy of the anti-apartheid movement on the Stanford campus and elsewhere.
The discussion was part of "Celebrating South African Freedom: A Symposium on the International Campaign to End Apartheid," organized by the Aurora Forum. Along with Kemp, a founding member of the Stanford organization Students Out of South Africa (SOSA) and now a visiting professor of American studies at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Penn., other alumni panelists included lawyer Steve Phillips, a student activist and SOSA and Black Student Union leader at the time of the 1985 sit-ins, who now works as a political organizer, and Jory Steele, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California in San Francisco. After her graduation from Stanford in 1993, Steele traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship and later worked for political organizations there.
Also taking part in Saturday's panel was South African activist and lawyer Albie Sachs, a longtime member of the African National Congress who lost an arm and the sight in one eye in 1988 in a car bomb attack by South African agents. Sachs, appointed in 1994 to the South African Constitutional Court by Nelson Mandela, was the author of a case decided in December that declared a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in South Africa.
The symposium also included the premiere of a segment of the film series Have You Heard from Johannesburg?, produced by Connie Field of Clarity Films. The segment documented the growth of the anti-apartheid movement in the United States in Washington, D.C., and on campuses, including Stanford, against the backdrop of violence in South Africa. After a projector failed in Kresge Auditorium during the last minutes of the 90-minute film, Field spoke with the audience about making and funding the film series, which is still in production.
'A tiny acorn grew into a huge tree'The campus movement in support of the Free South Africa campaign was the largest student movement in Stanford's history, involving hundreds of students over a period of years, panelists said. The international anti-apartheid movement is notable for the fact that it mobilized people in every major country in the world to act, said Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute.
"I saw a tiny little acorn grow into a huge tree," said Sachs, who was arrested and imprisoned for his political activities in South Africa before going into exile in the 1960s. In exile, Sachs worked internationally to mobilize resistance to the South African government. In the early years, "the anti-apartheid movement was just another issue," he said. "But, eventually it became a clear moral question that caused all sorts of people to stand up and ask themselves, 'What does it mean to be a human being?'"
For Phillips, who after leaving Stanford served on the San Francisco Board of Education as the youngest person elected to office in that city, a visit to the Stanford campus by Bishop Desmond Tutu showed him the power of what he called "morality plus organization."
From Tutu, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his role in the liberation struggle in South Africa, Phillips saw "the explosive power of making a stand on social justice," he said. "Rooting yourself in the struggle of disenfranchised people working for justice is a force unto itself."
Though South Africa today still faces many problems, including a high rate of HIV infection and land reform issues, the country has regular elections and a free and open press, Sachs said. "We have a constitution based on the best the world has to offer," he said. "Who would have thought that the most authoritarian, punitive, narrow-minded country in the world would become one of the most open-minded?" he said, referring to the decision on same-sex marriage.
Part of the legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle is that it brought forces together that continued to confront on many other issues, including the state of the environment and worldwide human rights violations, Sachs said. At Stanford, students went from fighting for South Africa to fighting for cultural diversity in the curriculum, Phillips said.
Some panelists on Saturday said the sense of the interrelationship of all humanity—encapsulated in the South African expression ubuntu—was among the chief lessons to be learned from the anti-apartheid struggle. From "Question authority" she's moved to "Question individuality," Kemp said. "What I think is important is interconnectedness." Kemp said that, as a student activist, she was supported and nurtured by the generation who engaged in the civil rights struggles in the 1960s and regaled her with stories of their transformative experiences. "They taught me to think critically and engage," she said.
After the symposium, junior Mark Liu asked Kemp for her advice in strengthening current student organizing efforts. First, she would see about getting Liu an invitation to dinner with herself and other panelists, Kemp said. "Don't get discouraged," Kemp added. "Nurture yourself. Bring in people who can sustain you."