By MIKE MURASE
I have often been asked, “How did you become involved?” or “Why, as a Japanese American and an Asian American, did you take up the struggles of South Africans?”
My simple and rhetorical answer is: “How could we NOT have been involved in the struggle for freedom and equality?” But the question deserves a more thoughtful answer.
I can say for myself that being a product of an immigrant experience and a child of the ’60s in my formative years definitely shaped my views and my identity as a person. I was influenced not only by the unfairness and injustices around me in my own South Central and Crenshaw neighborhoods, but by the history of Japanese Americans over the decades, and by the events of that time. I learned about the Civil Rights Movement, and about Martin and Malcolm. I was moved by the horrors of war in Vietnam. And I was inspired by the student movement and eventually the Asian American Movement.
But in a broader sense, it wasn’t about me personally, but many of us of that generation were impacted by local struggles for social justice and equality as well as the world in upheaval. Many Asian Americans embraced civil rights and human rights issues, and took up support for international concerns. We became involved in many issues, which for some of us included the anti-apartheid movement.
Two local examples are my current co-workers at Little Tokyo Service Center: Evelyn Yoshimura, LTSC’s director of community organizing, was deeply committed to working with South Africans and African Americans in Los Angeles, and Deputy Director Erich Nakano was a leader in campus divestment coalitions.
“And what about lessons learned?” Of course, Nelson Mandela embodied many personal traits and attributes that are so worthy of respect: courage, determination, patience and forgiveness. While I agree wholeheartedly with these assessments about Mandela as a person, he would have been the first to point out the success of the struggle relied on a unified collective leadership and the discipline and resolve of the rank-and-file within the ANC. He believed in the importance of having an organization, not only as a matter of strategy and tactics alone but a fundamental principle of how social change would take place.
He also believed in developing a broad united front. Within South Africa, the united front manifested in the “tripartite alliance” of ANC, COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) and the South African Communist Party. Although Mandela was not a communist, more importantly, he refused to be an anti-communist. He and the ANC determined who were friends and who were enemies of the South African people based on their concrete actions, not on labels and not on empty talk.
The ANC also understood the important role of the rear guard of the movement — international support. While many developing countries in Africa played a key role in the sanctions against the Botha/deKlerk regime, world leaders, including Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat and Muammar Gaddafi, provided material support. On the other hand, there is reliable evidence that the CIA played a role in the capture and arrest of Mandela in the 1960s. The U.S. government under Reagan consistently opposed widely supported sanctions on the apartheid government in the 1980s. And Mandela remained on the U.S. terrorist list until 2008!
Through it all, Mandela never lost sight of the fact that “masses are the makers of history” and the central, leading role that the South African people would play in their own national liberation.
In recent reports, some have asserted that Mandela was an advocate of violence. But the truth is that he and the ANC never supported violence for its own sake. In the face of “many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression on my people by the whites,” Mandela was instrumental in the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, to take up armed struggle in self-defense. He promoted the use of every method of struggle available to the South African people including arming themselves, but he also saw the importance of other forms of struggle, such as taking up mass demonstrations, propaganda campaigns, negotiations, and labor struggles.
Mandela said the policy they adopted was not terrorism nor interracial war, but a matter of survival and self-protection.
Another key insight I developed from my involvement in international support work is about how America sees itself and its role in the community of nations, as contrasted with how the rest of the world views America. Many people in this country embrace “American exceptionalism,” the theory that the U.S. is qualitatively different from other countries. Therefore, America is entitled to special status, and has a special role in the world. This belief — smugly espoused not only by Republicans but Democrats as well, and repeated nightly not just on FOX News but on every major news station — has become the foundation for much of U.S. foreign policy.
In contrast, throughout the rest of the world, no matter what continent or country, from the developed nations in Europe, Australia and Asia to developing countries in Africa and Latin America, there is a more internationalist world view with the awareness that their own country is but one in a family of nations. The assessment that one country makes of another is based on mutual support and cooperation, assistance in time of need, and shared national interests.
Without that context, Americans often find it difficult to fathom why South Africa considered Cuba, Palestine, Libya and other African countries to be their allies, and why their heads of states were so warmly welcomed by the crowds that attended Mandela’s funeral.
* * *
There are many more lessons from their movement that can be applied and adapted to many struggles for social justice in this country, whether they be local or national. But for me personally, I am so appreciative that I had the opportunity to participate in a small way in support of their struggle for national liberation, freedom, equality and democracy. Through it, my consciousness was raised, my understanding of the world was heightened, and I believe that I am a better person for it.
And by thinking about the 27 years Mandela spent in prison and about the decades that South African people fought for their rights, I am inspired to continue to be an activist to make a modest contribution to the cause of social justice.
Rest in peace, Madiba! Long live the legacy of Nelson Mandela!
Mike Murase is a long-time activist in many movements and communities. He has been a lecturer in Asian American studies at UCLA, USC and CSU Long Beach; the campaign manager of a presidential campaign and in local elections; a legal aid attorney; president of the L.A. Building and Safety Commission; district director for a local congresswoman; and is currently the director of service programs at Little Tokyo Service Center. The views expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.