TAKE NOTE, AMERICANS_Lessons from Across the Sea

By MICHAEL O. ALLEN, Daily News Staff Writer | Sunday, April 3, 1994

Saraan Ajaye did not even know South Africa was a country until she took a human rights course a year ago.

Ajaye, a senior at the Bronx alternative high school Schomburg Satelite Academy, now sees the country’s gallop to democracy after three centuries of oppression as a civics lesson.

Never take your vote for granted, she said, pointing out how low turnout of African-American and Latino voters affected the outcome of the recent mayoral election. “As soon as I turned 18, I registered to vote,” she added.

For others—not just South Africans, or African-Americans, but schoolchildren, community organizers and everyone who believes in social justice and fairness—lessons and meanings abound in the apparent good ending to the world’s longest-running and most intractable struggle against racial oppression.

First-graders at the Manhattan New School learning about apartheid—and exhibiting profound sense of outrage that belie their ages as they playact some of that system’s injustices—the vote later this month teaches them to always fight for what they believe in, to never give up.

Steven McDonald of the African-American Institute said Americans can learn tolerance and reconciliation from South Africans, especially in the example of Nelson Mandela.

“We are in some ways a more divided community than South Africa is,” McDonald said. “We’re all in little regional and ethnic cliques and don’t know each other and don’t much understand each other.”

Mandela, he said, is leading a remarkable reconciliation of blacks and whites and all the other factions in his nation, despite spending almost three decades in prison in the fight against the apartheid system erected by whites.

“Mr. Mandela, more than anybody in this world lives a life that is without prejudice, that is without partisanship. He is an example of love in its truest form,” McDonald said.

He said another quality of the African National Congress that young and adult Americans alike can learn from is Mandela’s persistence of vision. He was always clear in his goals, knew what was right and never shook in his fight for it.

Africa Fund labor specialist Michael Fleshman said South Africans, surprisingly, can teach Americans a thing or two about grass roots community organizing.

“We in the United States, particularly those of us wrestling with some of the terrible social problems that we face—in education, health care, housing, crime, unemployment—have a lot to learn from their experience of challenging the most repressive regime on earth,” Fleshman said, “and fighting it not just for two years, or four years, but for generation after generation, rising up to fight against apartheid, against absolute depravation.”

Under police state conditions, he said, the South Africans developed the most democratic network of civic associations from whose ranks sprang generations of leaders for the fight against apartheid. They had to be democratic so they can continue producing leaders because as soon as one emerged, he is either killed or arrested.

What if New York housing advocates organized and operated like the civic association in Alexandria, a particularly awful township outside Johannesburg,  where blacks often went on rent strikes to force the hand of the white government? The civic association really bankrupt local apartheid administrators who needed revenues from rent for operating funds.

“What finally broke the back of white power in South Africa was that the cops would go in and arrest the leaders and two weeks later the rent boycott would still be going. The civics had the ability to replace their accepted leaders with a new set,” Fleshman said.

Paula Rogovin Bower, who in her 21 years of teaching in the New York public schools has always found a way to teach students about apartheid, developed a special curriculum on the upcoming elections for her first grade class at the Manhattan New School.

“We are going to focus for a month and a week on the elections; it’s really going to be exciting,” she said.

In a recent class, her students were play-acting enforcing and living under apartheid laws, comparing the struggle for liberation in South Africa with the civil rights movement here, and participating in mock votes.

Bower said the lesson she imparts to the kids, who are between 6 and 7 years old, is that they should play their part in the fight for justice, to never give up.

“The conditions there were so horrible,” she said. “Even today the level of violence against people involved in the election campaign, so many people have been killed, yet, there is no let up in the struggle. People just willnot give up.”

But, as Rev. Leon Sullivan said, it all comes down to money. In as much as pressure was exerted on corporations and institutions in the cause of social justice, about 190 eventually withdrawing business and funds from South Africa, so now pressure is being exerted on those same corporations to invest in the newly democratic nation, he said.

New York City, especially under former Mayor David Dinkins, maintained the toughest economic sanctions against not only South Africa, but companies that do business there. It was not until September, when the United Nations lifted sanctions, that the city authorized its investment managers to invest money from its more than $50-billion in public employees pension reserve into buying the securities of companies such as UpJohn, Pfizer, and Texaco.

“Boy, have we come a distance; the world is getting smaller and the people care,” Dinkins said. “You cannot with a straight face justify apartheid. You just can’t.”