Creating History: Interview with Selby Semela, Part Two

The system of racial oppression in South Africa touched every aspect of life here.  As a result, over time, black South Africans and their allies built the freedom struggle in four arenas of action: mass action, underground organization, armed struggle, and international mobilization.  In this way, each aspect of the system would be met with an appropriate and commensurate strategic response – meeting mass mind-washing with mass action, violence (bodies) with violence (property, albeit officially), and meeting exploitative economic power with collective economic dissolution.  As the fight against apartheid wore on, with the government only growing more resistant, it was this last tactic, coordinated across the world, which finally broke the back of the apartheid regime, and ushered in a negotiated settlement. 


International mobilization included policies of boycotts, divestiture and sanctions (BDS), from the mid-60s up until South Africa’s transition to democracy in the 1990s.  It was created in response to the increasing cruelty of the apartheid regime, and refusal to extend full citizenship rights to the majority of its citizens, and became a highly effective means of influencing despot regimes to uphold basic human and economic rights.  Today’s global BDS strategy as a means of punishing and isolating cruel regimes was borne out of the anti-apartheid movement in the United States from the 1980s well into the mid-1990s. 


Selby’s story begins as an 18-year-old 11th grader at Morris Isaacson School in Soweto in early June 1976.  That story has been told here and here.  Selby Semela left South Africa in August 1976 because his life was in danger – he had been identified as one of the organizers of the Soweto Uprising and StayAway campaign enforcers.  His Soweto story is told here and here. 


After two years based in London, the three who left together in ’76 were deployed internationally – Tsietsi to cover Africa, Barney to Europe, and Selby to the United States. He remained in the US and spent the next 15 years traveling the country speaking out against the apartheid regime, advocating for boycotts, divestiture and sanctions, which is what ultimately crashed the seeming invincibility of apartheid.  Selby was awarded political asylum by the U.S. in the mid-1980s and in 2013, was awarded a special citation of recognition from the New York City Council.    


We interview Mr. Semela, who lived on three front lines of the anti-apartheid movement, from mass mobilizations to armed struggle in Soweto, and for 15 years, as an outspoken advocate of international mobilization.  Selby grew to understand the vital importance of divestiture to end apartheid.  Selby helped persuade hundreds of corporations and churches, local governments and pension funds to withdraw from South Africa, allowing lost profits to buy time for Mandela to negotiate the transition to a democratic South Africa.  Selby is one of the few South Africans who took the Struggle to two continents, and won.

In August 1976, the first three students to escape the South African apartheid regime’s vicious reprisals for organizing the Soweto Uprising just two months earlier, sat in London deciding their new fate.  They were high school classmates – Selby was just 18 and still reeling from being away from home – and just beginning their lives as political exiles.  In the months following, it was agreed that Tsietsi Mashinini, the leader of the Soweto Student Representative Council, would return to Africa to carry on the struggle in Nigeria, Barney Makgatle, would stay in Europe, and Selby Semela, it was decided would head to the United States.  Selby would not return to South Africa again for almost 20 years, returning for the first time since exile in 1995.

When he got to the United States through New York, Selby realized that coverage of the uprising was gaining traction as a symbol of a new generation of protest for racial dignity and human rights.  The powerful images of the South African government shooting its own children was a wake-up call to the international community to find its will.

A natural orator, Selby soon became an able spokesperson, encouraging the international community to apply pressure in any way possible to compromise and ultimately topple the apartheid regime. Assaulted by South African agents, he was re-deployed to the United States where he became an active organizer on behalf of corporate and public divestment.

Less than a year after organizing the Soweto Uprising, Selby was speaking out against the South African government, in the UK and then across the US.

Less than a year after organizing the Soweto Uprising, Selby was speaking out against the South African government, in the UK and then across the US.

His voice on behalf of the people of South Africa had a part in the early divestment efforts, which quickly snowballed.  Selby spoke on the importance of strengthening sanctions, boycotts, and divestiture efforts from 1977 through the early 1990s, partnering with local activists to win new allies and more effectively apply pressure for divestment of investment funds, boycotts at public ports and sanctions on business in South Africa.  In the early 1980s he became one of the first (possibly the first) black South African to win political asylum in the U.S. following the 1976 uprisings, opening the door for others and stabilizing his status while he continued his work on behalf of the struggle.


BD:  how did you hear about divestiture? What made you think it might work?


SS: I heard about divestiture when I was living in California in 1978. The idea had come about from students on college campuses who were frustrated that moral arguments against apartheid were not having any effect, especially as the images on tv reminded them of the US civil rights protests.  Having lived through the work boycott after June 16 [the Stay Away campaigns], I understood the power of economics. It seemed clear that we were never going to have superior fire power – there had to be another way.

“We can’t be responsible for the social affairs of a country. Where there’s commerce and trade, we feel we should be part of it.” Chairman, Chase Manhattan Bank, 1976


BD: as you know, the US government opposed sanctions as they perceived South Africa as an important Cold War ally.  What were some the common arguments you heard against sanctions and how did you respond?


SS:  the most common was that sanctions would hurt the people they were intended to help.  Millions of black South Africans were not part of the formal economy and wouldn’t be directly affected any worse than they already were.  Yes, it might hurt those South Africans with formal jobs at those American companies, but for most people apartheid hurt more people and worse than sanctions did.  There was solidarity – we had foresight to see past struggle to freedom.


Some felt that we should go slow.  In the United States, people were struggling for civil rights.  In South Africa, we were not fighting for access to lunch counters and busses.  We were fighting for our natural rights, and that’s a different thing.  We wanted a complete change in the political structure.  I am reminded of a quote by Stephen Biko when I hear people talk about sanctions hurting black people more than apartheid did: “The basic tenet of black consciousness is that the black man must reject all value systems that seek to make him a foreigner in the country of his birth and reduce his basic dignity.”  The sanctions that were finally put in place until 1991 were the toughest the US and most of Europe had ever taken.

Students began building shacks on college campuses.  Police would tear them down, and they would reappear overnight.

Students began building shacks on college campuses. Police would tear them down, and they would reappear overnight.

BD: What was your strategy and how did you roll it out?  How did you end up with meetings of the boards of these universities? Why were they compelled to meet with you?

SS: I was living in Berkeley when the movement started gaining some steam, and then it spread to other UC campuses. Berkeley coordinated with other campuses and that’s how I got involved with other universities [across the US like Michigan].  I was not in a position to get access – I was so young, and so new to the U.S. But I was able to talk to the people with access and win their support. In those days I was more of a spokesperson than an organizer.
The divestiture movement targeted companies strategically, at least at first.  IBM printed the dreaded passbooks, Polaroid’s logo was imprinted across the photographs inside. Awareness began to build – Polaroid employees stumbled across South African government contracts and began a boycott and divestiture movement from inside the company. Polaroid divested in 1977.

BD:  Divestiture and sanctions appeared to roll out in stages – universities were first, then local governments then corporations.  Why do you think it rolled out that way?


SS: That’s true. Universities, churches, trade unions, public pension funds. By the time I got to the South, I’d learned to leverage local left-wing movements to gain allies. In New Orleans, people on the left supported each other’s causes, and I organized the New Orleans Committee Against Apartheid that got a lot of widespread support.  We worked with the New Orleans Port Authority trade unions, who agreed to boycott the unloading of South African cargo.  Oakland did too.  That was a huge help.

With Mrs King and Maynard Jackson, Atlanta's mayor, at Dr King's memorial, 1990.

With Mrs King and Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s mayor, at Dr King’s memorial, 1990.

BD: What was the biggest turning point in the movement (ie Coca Cola divested in 1986, the first company to cite the moral case, auto makers began to sell their operations to local black owners in the mid-1980s)?  When did the dam break?


SS: When companies started closing down their South African operations. And it was about that time that the U.S. government approved sanctions against the South African government that were the toughest they were ever going to approve.


In 1979, Selby was living in Oakland, California and working with the University of California board of regents, when it divested of its South African holdings, totalling $4 billion through 1986. The state of California quickly followed suit, divesting over $11 billion. By 1988, hundreds of corporations and banks, local and state governments, faith organizations and over 150 universities across the United States had divested upwards of almost $1 trillion dollars from South Africa, destabilizing the South African economy, and forcing the apartheid government to the bargaining table.  As Mandela opened secret negotiations with South African president P. W. Botha, Oliver Tambo wrote: “Don’t manoeuvre yourself into a situation where we have to abandon sanctions.  We are very concerned that we should not get stripped of our weapons of struggle, and the most important of these is sanctions.”

Semela speaks at an anti-apartheid rally with California governor, Jerry Brown, who implemented the United States’ first state government divestment, totalling $11 billion in 1979.

Semela speaks at an anti-apartheid rally with California governor, Jerry Brown, who implemented the United States’ first state government divestment, totalling $11 billion in 1979.


 BD:  There is a survey taken in August 1988 by The Africa Fund which itemizes over $700 billion in divestments from 155 colleges and universities (I’m glad to say both of my universities are on that list).  Where were you when you heard Mandela had been freed?  What was that like for you?


SS:  I was in California when Mandela was freed. I went to the Coliseum in Oakland when Mandela came to the U.S., and I could see that there was no turning back. I was in shock – for the very first time I thought I might be able to go back home – I never thought that would be possible.


BD: What was divestiture’s greatest value to the Struggle? What are you most proud of?


SS: It brought the eyes and conscience of the international community to SA in a very tangible way. I was in awe of all the time and effort that Americans were putting into the effort – it was amazing to me. That I had something to do with motivating that was something to be proud of. I was also proud to have a big role in mobilizing activism on behalf of South Africa in the American South. The people there were hungry for knowledge about what was happening – very different from the California scene. If I hadn’t lived there during that time, they wouldn’t have had access to the story in a way that made it their story. I felt a strong affinity for many people in the South.


BD: Yes, Coretta Scott King was a very outspoken critic and advocate against apartheid.  What do you want South Africans to know about it?  What would you tell people who seem to be facing insurmountable systemic odds?
SS: That if the International community had not played the role that they did, apartheid would not have been dismantled. As long as we were isolated, we were vulnerable. It’s very important to broadcast your issues to the world, rather than suffering in silence. It’s amazing the support you can find when you are open to it.


The forces of economic change for good won out.  Adele Simmons was the president of Hampshire College when in 1977 in the months following the Soweto Uprising, it became the US’s first college to divest of South Africa investments, and wrote in 2013:


When I met F.W. de Klerk, the last president of the apartheid regime, in Chicago two years ago, he was clear: “When the divestment movement began, I knew that apartheid had to end.” And when I met with Mandela in 1990 in New York, he said that divestment was a crucial factor in ending apartheid. The movement against apartheid was led by South Africans, and Mandela was an inspiration throughout the decades, but the actions of U.S. investors gave the movement both visibility and legitimacy and had a decisive economic impact.



Award-winning 7-part series on the global anti-apartheid movement


List of American colleges and universities divested as of August 1988.


Selby speaks at Spence School in Manhattan, NYC, April 2016


Mandela’s comments on sanctions


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