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Speaker Highlights Ties Between
African-Americans and South Africa
November 1, 1999

The struggle to end apartheid in South Africa was profoundly influenced by the civil rights movement in the United States, according to Gregory Pirio, assistant director of the Office of Business Development of the International Broadcasting Organization and an expert on African affairs.

"Libraries and archives ... were rich in the voices of African-Americans and Black South Africans speaking of their common agenda."

Gregory Pirio, International
Broadcasting Organization

Pirio said in 1921 a newspaper published by the South African Chamber of Mines warned its readers that "the American Negro is a force to reckon with - a force which may well affect the destiny of South Africa through its effect upon South Africa's black population."

Pirio, speaking at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center on October 21, was the first speaker in the Comparative Human Rights Lecture Series, part of the partnership between the University of Connecticut and the African National Congress.

The partnership, announced last March, includes an agreement to archive and share with scholars materials from the ANC's struggle for human rights in South Africa, to chronicle the struggle through oral history, and to develop a focus on comparative human rights that will explore similarities in the history of civil rights in the United States and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Pirio's lecture was titled "The African-American as Liberator: A U.S. Contribution to South African History."

The African-Americans Pirio spoke of were members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a Pan-African movement founded by Marcus Garvey immediately following the First World War. The UNIA was the largest mass movement of African- Americans in U.S. history, Pirio said.

"Garvey advocated the social, political and economic advancement of African peoples through the establishment of a republic in Africa, where Africans and the peoples of the African diaspora could rule themselves free of white domination," he said.

Garvey began preaching his doctrine in Harlem during the war, Pirio said, but it was with the end of the war that his movement took off, as tens of thousands of discontented African-American troops returned home.

"Many (African-American soldiers) were embittered by the fact that they were not allowed to fight in the European theater," he said. "The specter of black troops firing on whites (Germans) led to a policy of non-combatant roles for what were segregated black contingents.

"In addition, many African-American soldiers had believed their sacrifices were made in the name of democracy and self-determination," he continued. "They often adhered to the mistaken belief that the civil liberties that white Americans enjoyed would be extended to the African Americans after the war."

UNIA membership exploded in the post-war period, with hundreds of branches established in the U.S., the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa. Garvey also founded a number of common stock companies with the promise of black economic empowerment, Pirio said.

An inspiring orator, the charismatic Garvey founded the Negro World, a weekly newspaper in English, French and Spanish, to spread his message of black hope and advancement.

"Garvey's message electrified much of the black world and inspired a new generation of black political leaders," Pirio said. "But the two countries most profoundly affected by the Harlem-based movement were South Africa and what we now know as Namibia."

In South Africa, the Garvey movement found its first sustained organizational presence in Cape Town - among the African dockworkers, clerks, schoolteachers and veterans of the World War - who had served in Europe as members of the South African Native Labour Contingent.

Garvey sympathizers in Cape Town eventually formed the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union, the ICU, which actively worked to spread Garvey's idea of a black republic throughout South Africa, as well as to the colonies of South West Africa, now Namibia, Mozambique and southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

During the 1920s, both the ICU and the ANC, a political party founded in 1912, led vigorous political campaigns advocating black self-determination and opposed to the growing segregationist practices of the white-dominated South African government. When Garvey was jailed on trumped-up charges, both organizations held a day of protest.

Pirio said when he began his investigation of Garveyism in South Africa, he was "astonished by the wealth of information ... preserved in libraries and archives in South Africa and in the United States. They were rich in the voices of African-Americans and Black South Africans speaking of their common agendas, mutual inspiration and marches toward freedom."

Pirio's recent responsibilities have included coordinating the Voice of America Conflict Resolution Initiative and developing special media projects dealing with issues such as polio eradication and children's health. He previously was head of the VOA Portuguese-to- Africa Service and English-to-Africa Service.

Gary Frank