Perkins recounts ‘making a statement’ in South Africa

Edward Perkins, former U.S. ambassador to South Africa, spoke Tuesday on American foreign policy and his memories of the demise of apartheid in South Africa.

When the United States “could no longer sit on the sidelines of the disintegration of the apartheid system…President Reagan sent a black man to South Africa to make a statement,” Perkins said. Reagan appointed Perkins as ambassador to South Africa in 1986.

Former U.S. ambassador to South Africa Edward Perkins spoke on Tuesday about his overseas service during the Reagan administration. “Foreign policy is your responsibility,” Perkins told students. (JIN ZHU/Staff Photographer)

His appointment was met with controversy from all camps. President Reagan advised him to acquire the backing of prominent African American leaders who saw Perkins’ appointment as simply a symbolic gesture by the administration. In South Africa, too, he was met with opposition from the United Democratic Front.

Upon arriving in South Africa, Perkins found a “totally segregated society.”

“Our embassy must be a giant change agent,” he said.

To announce the change in American foreign policy toward South Africa, Perkins attended the Delmas treason trial; he was the first American ambassador to appear in a South African courtroom.

The defendants “decided what they wanted me to do,” Perkins said.

“They wanted someone from the American embassy in the courtroom every day” so that “South Africa would know that the outside [world] was watching,” he said.

Exactly 11 anti-apartheid activists were eventually convicted of treason; their sentences were later overturned.

The U.S. Senate gave Perkins a mandate to get Nelson Mandela out of jail. “I don’t know how they thought I’d do that, but I set about it,” Perkins said.

Every month, Perkins attempted to meet with Mandela in jail but was denied permission by authorities. Through a system of people acting as “carrier pigeons,” Perkins received messages from Mandela, he said.

“‘I know you’re trying to get in to see me,’” wrote Mandela, according to Perkins. “‘It doesn’t make any difference to me whether you do or not, just keep asking. The more you ask, the more powerful it makes me.’”

Today, Perkins says, “the most important thing is that we recognize that we — all the citizens across the world — were all prisoners along with Mandela.”

“Foreign policy is your responsibility,” Perkins said. “Every time you walk the streets, oil is there, food is there, water is there and an aspect of conflict is there. Whatever the conflict is, it will affect us.”

For South Africa today, Perkins cited crime, land distribution and health-related issues as the country’s most pertinent internal conflicts.

Perkins also called diplomacy with African countries one of the United States’ most significant challenges, citing a need for diplomacy that does not treat Africa as one entity.

Galen McNeil ’12 attended for information for her PWR class on global leadership.

“I loved Perkins’ statement that America has to stop seeing Africa as a unit and has to start seeing it has many different countries because that’s something most people don’t realize,” McNeil said.

“We live in a multilevel world,” Perkins said. “Management of foreign policy is not only the responsibility of someone like me sitting in Washington; it is your responsibility and mine.”