Time Capsule In Empowering Awareness: Bringing the African National Congress to the University of San Francisco

Under apartheid, non-white South Africans, particularly blacks, were subjected to systemic oppression, denied basic rights, and segregated in all aspects of life, including education, healthcare, and housing. / Picture from Wikimedia

My senior year at the University of San Francisco was a profound chapter in my life, defined by a deep commitment to activism and the pursuit of justice. In 1988, as South Africa’s apartheid regime tightened its grip, unleashing violence and oppression against its Black and colored citizens, I found myself grappling with a sense of urgency to take action.

Apartheid, originating in South Africa in the late 1940s, was a system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination. Resistance against this systemic inequality grew over decades, led by the African National Congress (ANC).

The atrocities committed by the apartheid government weighed heavily on my conscience. I knew that Black History Month would be an excellent time to do something. 

At the time, I had a great relationship with the USF Foghorn Editor-in-Chief John Shanley. He told me that he felt that the best venue for change would be the Society of Black Students, a student group dedicated to promoting Black awareness on campus.

Soon, I was voted in as Vice President. I remember that vote was nearly unanimous.

With guidance from my mentor, Pierre Salinger, a distinguished USF and Foghorn alumnus, who was the former press secretary for U.S. President John F. Kennedy, I embarked on the daunting task of reaching out to the ANC. Despite bureaucratic hurdles, our perseverance paid off, and we secured Tebogo Mafole, Chief Representative to the ANC Observer Mission at the United Nations, as our keynote speaker.

The anticipation surrounding the event reached not only the university, but the wider Bay Area, sparking debates and inquiries from various quarters – including the U.S. State Department. Almost all the faculty departments donated money from their budget. The outpouring of support from faculty, students and alumni underscored the university community’s unwavering commitment to justice and equality.

It was big news that an ANC representative was coming to lecture. It sparked so many debates. The University was questioned about its divestment of assets related to any South African enterprises. I remember being interviewed by KGO (ABC News) and KRON news reporters.

Imagine my shock when I got a phone call from the U.S. State Department regarding the event. They explained that the ANC was not a sanctioned group and that I had to fill out a form about the nature of the lecture, the purpose of the lecture and a list of pre-invite attendees. Reverend John J. Lo Schiavo, S.J. ‘s office helped me complete the form and there was no further contact from the U.S. State Department. 

The struggle against apartheid in South Africa had reached a fevered pitch in the 1980s. The ANC battled tirelessly against the oppressive regime. However, the ANC’s methods, which included the use of violence, sparked a moral quandary among many institutions, particularly for universities like USF.

During this tumultuous period, universities worldwide became battlegrounds for ideological debates surrounding the legitimacy of the ANC’s tactics and more importantly their investments in the apartheid regime. While many sympathized with the ANC’s plight and recognized the severity of apartheid’s injustices, the endorsement of violent methods posed a significant ethical dilemma for those committed to non-violence as a principle.

I had never organized anything remotely similar to this, and I had to do some fast learning. The University Protocol Office gave me a crash course on greeting diplomats, security and event handling. I remember being taught to bow extra low to the Japanese representatives.

I had tons of professors asking me to come speak to their class about the event to help promote it among students.

We arranged a bed and breakfast spot close to the university for Mr. Mafole. The bed and breakfast cleared an entire two floors for Mr. Mafole. We hired a limo to pick him up from the airport, which he confessed was a “bit much.”

The event sold out. Mr. Mafole’s lecture was rather interesting as he spoke about inclusiveness of community, which was not the current government’s interest. He felt that the fight was against colonialism as well as racism, that human hierarchy is part of an antiquated falsely attributed ranking by Darwinism over common humanity. Interestingly, I felt that part of his lecture was to explain why the ANC had shifted from a policy of non-violence to violence in dealing with the South African regime. 

I opened the floor to a short Q&A and mistakenly referred to Mr. Mafole as Mr. Mandela, which made everyone laugh.

Afterward, I got lots of congratulations, but I was so burnt out. I hardly remember the rest of the evening.

The next year in 1990, Nelson Mandela was freed on humanitarian grounds. International pressure and internal strife eventually led to apartheid South Africa’s dismantling in the early 1990s, paving the way for democratic elections and the end of apartheid.

The Foghorn would like to thank Mr. Joseph Greene for sharing his story of student activism on the Hilltop. We hope current students gain inspiration from his experience and further their activism on campus. 

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