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A Piece of the Continent

Richard V. Knight II '74 has built on his youthful passion for justice throughout a lifetime of activism on behalf of Africa.

Knight in Soweto, Africa, in 1986 when people in the area were on a rent boycott. The graffiti say "Long Live the ANC" and "No Rent." The ANC—African National Congress—operated underground at the time, but became the governing party when apartheid fell in 1994.

In the early 1970s Ithaca was known as a hotbed of student activism. Indeed, Richard V. Knight II ’74 chose to attend Ithaca College precisely because of the town’s reputation for involvement in civil rights and antiwar struggles. “Nixon was president, and the Vietnam war was at its height,” Knight recalls. “It’s hard to express how angry we were at the war, including its expansion into Cambodia in 1970 and the Christmas bombings in 1972.”


Some of his first experiences of activism in Ithaca took place in what Knight describes as a “dingy little office” on State Street. Students from IC and Cornell University joined local residents to form the makeshift headquarters for a progressive radio program they called The Rest of the News. In addition to the war, they reported on the deadly uprising in New York’s Attica prison, the American Indian movement’s confrontation with federal agents at Wounded Knee, African independence struggles, and the U.S. movement to divest (withhold investment) from companies that did business in apartheid South Africa.

Knight in 1997 with Gugile Nkwinti (top), the speaker of South Africa's Eastern Cape Provincial Legislature at the National Consultation on U.S. Policy toward Africa, which Knight helped organize. Knight in 1989 (bottom), testifying at the United Nations on the role of U.S. companies, including sales to apartheid police and military, at the hearings on the oil embargo against South Africa.

The ability to connect with so many other concerned citizens across both campus and the community was valuable to Knight. “I would not have done so well if I had chosen a large university over Ithaca College,” he says. “The small classes made me feel my voice mattered.” He especially loved Linda Findlay’s philosophy classes and Garry Thomas’s course on Sub-Saharan Peoples and Cultures, which sparked his lifelong interest in Africa.

“It’s difficult for younger people, who weren’t around at that time, to understand, for example, just how evil apartheid was,” Knight says. “It was a system of white wealth and black poverty. Everyone was classified according to race. Blacks were denied economic, political, and social rights. They couldn’t vote or get an education or a decent job. Millions were forcibly removed from their homes. Marriage and even sex between the races was illegal. The repression to maintain this system was extensive, with thousands arrested every year. People went to jail over things like having a coffee cup with the ANC (African National Congress) logo on it!

Back in the United States the civil rights movement was exploding, especially on college campuses. “Its convergence with the international black liberation movement was dramatic, interesting, and important,” Knight says.

Knight’s own motivation was pure and simple: “inspired anger.” He became recognized on the IC campus, handing out leaflets. He and other IC and CU students launched a boycott of Portuguese wine, protesting Portugal’s extensive colonies in Africa. The boycott succeeded in persuading many Ithaca liquor stores to stop selling the wine.

One summer between college terms, Knight accompanied his cousin on a tour of east Africa. “We rented a Land Rover and drove all over Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda,” Knight says, “but not as your average tourists.” They ventured to remote areas and camped out most nights. Africa came alive to Knight on this trip, especially, as he puts it, “the striking disparity between the spectacular beauty and splendor of the continent and the extreme poverty in which the vast majority of the people lived.” He returned to Ithaca more motivated than ever to support Africa’s struggle for liberation.

During Knight’s senior year a catalytic event occurred. A coup managed to overthrow the scattered remains of the Portuguese colonial regime over a large portion of Africa (primarily today’s Cape Verde Islands, Guinea-Bissau, and Angola in the west and Mozambique in the east). Knight and other activists found renewed hope in the success of the nationalist movements that followed. “This clash with Portuguese colonialism,” Knight says, “demonstrated to people on the ground in South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe that repressive white governments could be politically and militarily defeated by African liberation movements.”

After graduation Knight moved to New York City, where he’d made contacts with the American Committee on Africa through the Portuguese wine boycott. “ACOA needed somebody part-time,” he says. “That’s how I started. Who would have thought it would last 26 years?”

In 1979, on behalf of ACOA, Knight returned to Africa, this time to the northwestern corner of the continent. A political movement, Polisario, was (and still is) struggling for independence in Western Sahara from Moroccan occupation. (Its Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is today considered the last colony on the continent.) More than 100,000 refugees had fled to neighboring Algeria. Knight visitedrefugee camps and traveled inside Western Sahara with Polisario guerrillas. At one site in the wake of a battle he photographed empty munitions cases with U.S. markings, indicating that Morocco was illegally using U.S.–supplied arms and materials in violation of the conditions of sale. He presented his photos to the U.S. Congress, but didn’t get any immediate or direct results.

This was reinforcement of his belief that significant social change comes only as the culmination of large and small actions on the part of many, over a long period of time. For example, the public generally associates the fall of apartheid with Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, but millions of people around the world had been working for decades to isolate South Africa in support of the democratic movement inside the country. “The liberation movement, including the ANC, called for sanctions,” says Knight, “and in response we organized campaigns in the U.S. against bank loans to and investment in South Africa.” At ACOA Knight was at the center of this effort, organizing campaigns with hundreds of local groups in cities and churches and on college campuses across the United States. They demanded the divestment (selling of stock) of companies doing business in South Africa. “The 1976 Soweto uprising [by students inside South Africa] sparked a massive increase in anti-apartheid activity in the United States,” explains Knight, “especially by students who demanded that their colleges divest."

Knight with South African abassador to the United Nations Dumisani S. Kumalo at an April 2006 reception marking 12 years since the end of apartheid and the first democratic election in South Africa. Knight works closely with Kumalo, who was longtime project director of the American Committee on Africa and its sister organization the Africa Fund and who was forced in exile in 1977 because of his anti-apartheid activities.

For many of those years building the nationwide sanctions-and-divestment campaign, Knight was the primary assistant to Dumisani Kumalo, ACOA’s projects director and now the South African ambassador to the United Nations. ACOA’s small staff functioned on a shoestring budget, weaving broad networks among unions, churches, students, civil rights coalitions, grassroots groups, and state and city legislators across the United States. “We organized conferences, sent out mailings, called people,” Knight says. “Momentum developed.” Knight helped write and produce newsletters, action alerts, press releases, and other publications distributed nationally. He maintained ACOA’s mailing list, provided information and advice, and was often quoted in the press. He also conducted extensive research and with a partner, Roger Walke of the Pacific Northwest Research Center, compiled a comprehensive directory of American companies doing business in South Africa—which proved essential to the campaign.

Knight remembers those years as “a time of severe repression in South Africa. There were consumer boycotts, rent strikes, and campaigns to make the townships ungovernable. As a result, in 1985 the government declared a state of emergency, enabling the police to detain thousands of people indefinitely without access to lawyers or even alerting their families. Thousands of white troops were deployed to the black townships in an attempt to quell political unrest.” In 1986 Knight traveled extensively inside South Africa, meeting with leaders of the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front and the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

After decades of struggle, and despite the Reagan administration’s policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa, the divestment movement finally made a significant impact. Some 28 states, 90 cities, and 155 colleges removed their investments from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa and Namibia (then illegally occupied by South Africa). By mid-1985 many U.S. companies had divested, and U.S. banks had stopped making loans to the country. Even Congress succumbed to this massive movement and passed the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 over a presidential veto.

 “The only reason the South African government released Mandela and negotiated the end of apartheid,” Knight says, “was the determined struggle inside the country, supported by the international anti-apartheid movement.”

How You Can Help

Richard V. Knight welcomes inquiries from individuals interested in help- ing with his Africa work. Read more about his career or contact him via www.Richardknight.com. Read more about African initiatives at:

www.africanactivist.msu.edu African Activist Archive project at Michigan State University

www.sharedinterest.org Shared Interest, nonprofit providing guarantees for bank loans

www.africaaction.org Africa Action, based in Washington, D.C., was formed by the 2001 merger of ACOA and other organizations; it is devoted to advocacy in the States, focusing on Darfur and health

www.globalrights.org Global Rights, an international advocacy organization promoting initiatives at local levels

www.unaids.org United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

Today Africa’s biggest challenges include the crippling debt of most of its nations; lack of housing, healthcare and education; the HIV-AIDS epidemic, which now affects more than 25 million people throughout sub-Saharan Africa; the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan; new violence in Somalia and elsewhere; blinding poverty; and neglect by the rest of the world. The continent is resource rich yet cash poor. World Bank loans have often proven disastrous, leaving insurmountable debt, with few remedies offered by government agencies.

 Finding sustainable solutions to Africa’s problems is daunting, but Knight continues to work for the continent and the peoples he loves, now as an independent consultant. He wrote a paper for the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars on the expansion of the continent’s petroleum production, noting that the sales have benefited only a small elite and the oil companies, have not reduced poverty among the people, and have caused extensive environmental damage. He has also written papers on the challenges of resolving Africa’s need for housing and economic development for Shared Interest, a U.S. nonprofit company providing guarantees to bank loans for building houses, creating jobs, and launching small businesses in South Africa. “Perhaps the most hopeful development in Africa in the last 20 years,” Knight says, “is the impressive growth of grassroots organizations dealing with poverty, environmental issues, and human rights.”

Since 2004 Knight has directed the African Activist Archive Project out of Michigan State University. The archive aims to preserve for history the record of activity of U.S. organizations and individuals that supported African struggles against colonialism and apartheid. “There were hundreds of organizations involved going back at least to the 1950s,” Knight points out. “These organizations had an enormous impact on U.S. government and corporate policy, and it is important that the lessons learned be documented for the benefit of ongoing social justice organizing.”

Knight offers the benefit of his long experience when asked for advice to activists today: “E-mail, instant messaging, and cell phone calls are all good, but they are not enough for long-term organizing,” he stresses. “You need to get out there and meet people—find logical allies and approach other groups. And don’t expect instantaneous results; change comes gradually.”

* “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.”
                                                              — John Donne, Devotions, 1624

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