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American ambassador in South Africa describes his teenage fight against apartheid

December 9th, 2013
04:23 PM ET

By Mick Krever, CNN

The anti-apartheid movement was not just a South African struggle.

For the U.S. ambassador in South Africa, Patrick Gaspard, the anti-apartheid struggle he was involved in as a teenager felt like “Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Monday.

“It wasn’t clear whether our actions would really make a difference,” he told Amanpour in Johannesburg.

Americans joined activists the world over in pushing their countries to levy sanctions on the apartheid government in South Africa.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan was against those sanctions, even using his veto at one point to block them.

“We you’re a kid, when you’re a teenager, and the president of the United States is saying this is the way we ought to go, it’s hard to be clear that you could be successful,” Gaspard said.

Gaspard said that he himself cut school in order to attend a demonstration – teasing that he hoped his mother wasn’t watching the broadcast lest she find out.

“It taught many of us that collective action mattered, and being an engaged part of our democracy really was impactful as well.”

And that impact, he said, was large indeed.

“Nelson Mandela himself not only said that the sanctions were critical, but even once he was released he asked the United States and other governments to continue to maintain the sanctions because he thought they gave him real leverage in the negotiations.”

The apartheid regime, he said, “understood that they were in a ditch” if they didn’t change their ways.

Thirty years after he attended his first anti-apartheid protest Gaspard is an American ambassador. And the country he now lives in is trying to find its way forward, after nearly two decades of rule by the African National Congress.

“Clearly while the ANC is the dominant party in this country, there are other voices that are asking lots of questions and making alternate proposals about the future of this country.”

“It’s a debate that I’m looking forward to continue to engage in,” he said diplomatically.

On Tuesday, world leaders are set to gather in South Africa to celebrate Nelson Mandela.

“People are out there not in a somber mood but in a celebratory mood,” he said.

“They are out there saying this man did incredible things and together we’re going to continue to carry forth that legacy. You’re going to see hundreds of thousands of people in that spirited exuberance.”

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soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. ashok

    Margaret Thatcher brought necessary change to Britain but, on apartheid, she was on the wrong side of history.

    December 10, 2013 at 6:40 am | Reply
  2. Lester Rainwater

    March 4, 2021 at 10:01 am | Reply

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