Africa Today 47.2 (2000) 184-186
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Culverson's Contesting Apartheid joins a growing literature on the antiapartheid movement and its influence on US policy toward South Africa during the thirty years preceeding Nelson Mandela's ascendancy to power in 1994. Culverson's is the first to exhaust the organizational records of the American Committee on Africa (ACOA) and the Washington Office on Africa (WOA), as well as the private papers of Prexy Nesbitt, a leading activist in the antiapartheid movement. Researchers will benefit from Culverson's descriptive narrative of how the ACOA's organizational growth coincided with the fall of apartheid. Those hoping for a comprehensive analysis of the antiapartheid movement, however, may be disappointed.
Culverson's manuscript suffers from a number of inadequacies, starting with the title. The jacket cover and title promise a study of antiapartheid activism, but close to two-thirds of the book consists of a description of political events transpiring inside the governments of the United States and South Africa during the time period under question, and of a summary of theoretical perspectives on social movements in general.
A second shortcoming results from the old maxim that one's research is only as strong as one's sources. In his study, Culverson has failed to include an analysis of any of the local, grassroots organizations that came to play an integral role in the antiapartheid movement. As a result, one [End Page 184] might conclude that the ACOA and the WOA were dominant players in the antiapartheid movement. Such a conclusion is countered in previous studies by David Hauck et. al., Janice Love, and Les de Villiers. These studies offer more extensive documentation on the localized organizations that set the agenda of the antiapartheid movement during the time period studied by Culverson.
Culverson does, in fact, acknowledge the general weakness of the ACOA within the larger context of the antiapartheid movement. He notes that the ACOA "remained primarily New York-based, with very weak links to established political institutions outside the city" (p. 49). He adds that ACOA consistently "proved incapable of cultivating two potentially mobilizable populations: black communities and college students" (p. 50). While Culverson argues that many in the black community viewed the ACOA with suspicion (p. 66), he offers no analysis to explain why the ACOA earned this reputation.
Culverson notes that as a result of the ACOA's inability to think or act beyond its Manhattan office, "a new generation of leadership emerged among religious, academic, legal, and public interest constituencies" (p. 64). In hindsight, the absence of leadership of, and by, the ACOA did not sidetrack the antiapartheid movement. As Culverson correctly explains, "movement confidence grew as smaller, sometimes symbolic victories achieved at the state and local level indirectly forced major financial, educational, and governmental institutions to alter their routine, uncritical ways of dealing with South Africa" (p. 158).
Culverson accurately attributes the overall success of the antiapartheid movement to the local grassroots organizations that sprung forth from students, union organizers, religious congregations, and black activists across the country. Still, he offers only scant attention to these groups. A major case in point concerns the divestment strategies that met with great success after 1977. Culverson acknowledges that "divestment enabled opponents of apartheid to go beyond expression of moral outrage and furnished practical solutions that transcended specific crisis situations" (p. 103). Yet he never discusses how this strategy emerged; how African American leaders in Gary, Indiana, projected this strategy onto the national scene; how the Madison (WI) Area Committee on Southern Africa (MACSA) launched the first successful selective purchasing policy; how the success of MACSA was replicated in Michigan and California; how the ACOA and TransAfrica transformed the divestment movement from one where citizens could prohibit commercial transactions between governments and companies operating in South Africa to an elitist strategy restricted to shareholders reducing their equity participation in these same corporate friends of apartheid; or any other residual aspect of the divestment movement.