Remarks by U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, Reuben E. Brigety II: The Significance of the partnership between South Africa & The United States – University of Johannesburg: September 20, 2023
Dumelang, and good afternoon. National Heritage Month offers us a great opportunity to reflect on the cultural and historical connections between South Africa and the United States. Thank you for the opportunity to be with you today. I’m passionate about engagements in academic settings and I look forward to hearing your questions and opinions on what I have to say.
As you may know, I am a third-generation educator and have spent several years working at colleges and universities. You are not simply earning a degree here; you are learning to think critically and challenge your deeply held beliefs and ideas. These are crucial skills you will use throughout your careers and lives. So, I encourage you to keep it up, it pays off!
Here’s my thesis up front: South Africa and the United States have relationships with lots of countries, some are very special. But there is something particular, maybe even unique, about the relationship between the United States and South Africa, and it is rooted in the nature of our respective societies and our experiences as governments that were founded on ideas, on principles.
The commitment to human flourishing and dignity pursued through equality and justice. I’m going to share three historical anecdotes that corroborate that position. Then I’ll give you a chance to share your thoughts and ideas, ask questions, and participate in what I hope will be a lively discussion.
I chose to speak to you about this “special relationship” between the United States and South Africa because I do not think it has gotten enough attention. Over the last year, what there has been, is a lot of attention on high-level political issues – some of it positive, some rather contentious. And that makes sense, because we have seen the highest level of engagement between the South African and U.S. governments in more than a decade.
President Biden and President Ramaphosa are talking about how we can work together to achieve national objectives and tackled international problems. Secretary Blinken and Minister Pandor and dozens of other senior officials are engaging on a regular basis with those same goals. And we’re seeing tremendous levels of engagement across government lines into the private sector and civil society on both sides of the Atlantic.
We’re working on everything from how to end the energy crisis through renewable energy to finally ending the HIV epidemic. In a modern world dominated by social media and short attention spans, the extreme voices often get the most attention. But I can tell you, we are talking through the issues on which we agree and disagree, and along the way we are getting things done that improve prosperity, democracy, and health in both our nations.
But today I wanted to focus on something deeper than the headlines and more important even then the work of presidents, ministers, and business leaders. More important because it speaks to who we are as people, as society, and to the principles we cherish.
Let’s go back more than a century to 1898, to the city of Durban. On March 29, a local police officer noticed a well-dressed Black man sitting at the bar in the Inchanga Railway Station. The officer assumed the man was a local and addressed him in isiZulu. The man replied in English, saying that he did not understand the officer. He went on to explain that he was an American citizen and had the right to drink where he saw fit. In turn, the officer roughly arrested him and detained him in the local jail.
The man was, in fact, an American by the name of Richard Collins. As a member of the Virginia Jubilee Singers, he had visited South Africa on a series of tours throughout the 1890s under the leadership of a Black American entrepreneur named Orpheus McAdoo.
A few hours after the arrest, the American Consul in Durban secured Collins’s release; and the charges against him were quickly dropped. Although Collins was Black, his status as an American citizen—and especially as a member of the famous Virginia Jubilee Singers—granted him celebrity status in the eyes of the local government and population. His arrest ultimately caused tremendous embarrassment for the local police.
For our second story, we’re going to move forward almost a century to 1984, and from the city of Durban to the city of Washington, D.C.
On November 21, four Black Americans attended a meeting with the South African ambassador to the United States in Washington, DC. The Americans had requested the meeting to register their concern over the jailing of Black South African labor leaders by the apartheid government.
After the meeting, three of the Americans — Walter Fauntroy, Mary Frances Berry, and Randall Robinson — refused to leave the ambassador’s office until the labor leaders in South Africa were released. At the time, Fauntroy was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and Berry was a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, while Robinson was the head of a group that advocated for the rights of Black people in Africa in the Caribbean. In the end, the police arrested Berry, Fauntroy, and Robinson, who spent the night in jail.
This trio used media coverage generated from their arrest to launch the Free South Africa Movement in America. Over the course of the next two years, the Free South Africa Movement successfully lobbied the Reagan administration to more aggressively pressure the South African Government to end the racist policies of the apartheid government. Many thousands of Americans joined the Free South Africa Movement, participated in protests, and also went to jail in the United States in support of the liberation struggle.
For our third example, we’re going to remain in the United States, but cross the continent to the city of San Francisco, California.
On August 23, 1989, South African anti-apartheid and gay rights activist Simon Nkoli arrived in the U.S. for the first time. Nkoli, who was originally from Soweto, went to the United States to raise funds to develop educational materials to prevent the spread of HIV in South Africa.
But when he arrived in San Francisco, he was met by a delegation of Americans who told him Acting Mayor Richard Hongisto had proclaimed August 24 “Simon Nkoli Day.” Nkoli was one of 22 defendants in the Delmas treason case in South Africa that stretched from 1984 to 1988 and kept him in detention for almost four years.
Americans admired Nkoli, however, because he was a Black gay man who linked the struggle against racial oppression to the struggle against homophobia. Nkoli played a critical role in convincing the ANC to support the fundamental human rights of LGBT people and in enshrining in the South African Constitution the commitment that everyone is deserving of human rights, including members of the gay community.
So we have three examples before us. We have Richard Collins of the Virginia Jubilee Singers, who found one form of oppression in the United States and a very different form in Durban. In Washington, we have the founders of the Free South Africa Movement – Berry, Fauntroy, and Robinson. And we have Simon Nkoli, a South African who found himself a surprised hero in San Francisco. These are all stories about people, Americans and South Africans, who were inspired by foreigners, strangers really, but whose struggles against oppression offered meaning from another continent.
Sometimes we need the perspective of an outsider, an other, to teach us how to face a particular challenge. If we can honestly look at ourselves, our community, and our nations through the eyes of a foreigner, we can tap into fundamental truths about who we are, and, more importantly, how we can improve.
South Africa and the United States are clearly different nations with distinct histories, geographies, and cultural mosaics. At the same time, as the cases we explored today demonstrate, something keeps bringing us together. When we turn on the TV or go to the movies here in Johannesburg, a lot of what we see was made in America.
And Americans dance to DJ Zinhle, wear MaXhosa by of Laduma Ngxokolo, read the books of Zakes Mda. If you ask Americans to identify the most inspiring liberation struggle icon from the 20th century, many will say Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But many Americans will also say Nelson Mandela.
So, what is it? What is this thing that somehow binds South Africans and Americans together? I’ll tell you what I think: Freedom. We are nations that were founded on the principle that every human is worthy of dignity and the opportunity to flourish and achieve their potential. We are nations that have faced, and that continue to face, hateful concepts like racism, ethnic nationalism, and homophobia, among others. And in the face of those struggles, we seek to define ourselves—as Dr. King said—by the content of our character.
Today, I would like to challenge us to remember all the individuals throughout our histories that have made our countries—and our planet—a better place. Let’s emulate leaders like Simon Nkoli, and all the South African and American heroes before and him, as we lead our daily lives and strive to realize justice and equality.
Now, I’m curious to hear what you think about these examples, our shared histories of fighting oppression, and our future as partners that continue to reinforce each other’s efforts to secure greater justice for all. Thank you.