|English | Español||July 24, 2017 | Issue #67|
Mkhuseli “Khusta” Jack and the Art of the Boycott
27 Years Later, a South African Organizer Looks Back at a Tactic that Hastened the End of Apartheid
By Leehee Rothschild
Mkhuseli “Khusta” Jack, at the age of 27, organized the consumer boycott that helped end Apartheid in South Africa. DR 2013 Rodrigo Jardon.
As a student at the age of 27, Jack served as the leader and spokesperson of the consumer boycott campaign, which played a significant role in destabilizing the apartheid regime in his land.
“The boycott succeeded because of broad mass participation, because of international solidarity, and the fact that the regime’s violence against our people backfired, and the resilience of our people,” says Jack.
Another key to the boycott campaign’s success was that it did not limit itself to mobilizing only black people. The organizers of the boycott also mobilized white allies and included them in the movement.
In the mid-1980s, apartheid laws restricted black South Africans to living in the townships that surrounded South Africa’s major metropolitan area, Johannesburg. However, they had to do their shopping in a predominantly white part of the city. But white business owners were either oblivious or apathetic to the ongoing repression of their customers who were township dwellers.
This segregation created the leverage needed to launch a consumer boycott campaign, one that aimed to draw the attention of all of South African society to the ongoing repression against black South Africans living in isolated townships.
“What triggered the boycott was a group of ordinary women, who had been observing the conflict escalating in the country… We were burying children every weekend,” says Jack.
The women tried to come up with an alternative form of struggle, but the outlook was not optimistic, as the antiapartheid movement seemed to have exhausted all of its resources. The armed struggle of the military branch of the African National Congress had failed, and its leaders at the time had been imprisoned, killed, or exiled. The state was brutally suppressing resistance, and black protestors were frequently killed.
Meanwhile, the United Democratic Front (UDF), an umbrella organization formed by Jack and his companions in Port Elizabeth, brought together student and women’s organizations as well as trade unions. The UDF had been mobilizing people for years, with a focus on local issues, such as rent problems and school closures. Its members encouraged people to get involved in struggles that were tangible to their own lives. According to Jack, their attitude was, “We’ll support you in what concerns you, and you can support us in what concerns us.”
As the UDF made small gains, mobilizations became bigger and bigger. By 1985, the UDF had gained the faith and trust of the people, and this served as the basis for mobilizing for the boycott.
The boycott was a form of resistance in which everybody could participate with little personal risk, and from the very beginning the movement tried to make use of this fact and focused its initial efforts on mass mobilization. “We started having meetings in the streets,” says Jack, “and made sure that everybody was informed about what was going to happen, and sought their support.” They also worked hard to minimize the costs of the boycott for participants by recruiting local business owners and standardizing prices in the townships.
“D-Day” for the boycott came on July 15, 1985. The entirety of the black population in Port Elizabeth complied. The effect was immediate. White-owned shops, usually full of black customers, stood empty. After five days, in an attempt to extinguish the boycott, the government declared a state of emergency in the black townships.
The initial demands of the movement were modest and simple, including the opening of public facilities to all races, the removal of troops from the townships and an end to workplace discrimination. The demands were also specific to the place and context of the people, enticing people to join a struggle focused on their own unique causes and interests.
As a professor at the 2013 School of Authentic Journalism, Khusta Jack participated in the Viral Video Workgroup, where in addition to coaching scholars on theme and message for their videos, he learned about using a camera and editing. DR 2013 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky.
The success of the boycott led by Jack and his comrades can teach us all about the power of civil non-cooperation as a means of bringing down forces that seem too powerful to overthrow. Jack explains that positive outcomes happen only when the masses start taking matters into their hands: “Once you cut the ground under their feet, the government starts to panic.”
Today Khusta Jack is retired from organizing. He works as a businessman and is raising a family. But Jack still shows the passion that turned him into the spokesperson of a movement, and the story of his struggle has not lost its relevance. In 2006 a coalition of more than 70 Palestinian civil society organizations launched a call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against the Israeli state, known as the BDS campaign.
The BDS campaign calls on the international community to boycott Israel-made products until its government complies with international law and respects three things. First is the right of return of Palestinian refugees, who were displaced in the process of establishing the state of Israel in 1948. Second is equality for Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel. Last is freedom for the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian boycott campaign can learn from Jack’s story, by emphasizing not only international support but also internal mobilization, promoting the boycott in both the Palestinian and the Israeli streets. However, there is another lesson for the BDS movement from South Africa: the message of hope.
Even when the UDF’s boycott was reaping one success after the other, Jack was not always optimistic.
“There were times when I thought we would never be free, that we would never defeat the apartheid government in our time. Although for some reason the events turned in our favor,” says Jack.
Nowadays, though, Jack is much more hopeful. When asked whether he believes that the Palestinian boycott campaign can bring down another apartheid the same way it did in South Africa, he responded: “It’s a long road, but the movement will get there eventually.”
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism