This Week in History provides brief synopses of important historical events whose anniversaries fall this week.
25 years ago: Protests, capital flight, rock South Africa
Massive protests continued against South Africa’s apartheid regime this week in 1985. Demonstrations took place throughout the country in spite of the government’s July 21 imposition of a state of emergency.
Police riding in armored cars fired shotguns, rubber bullets, and tear gas against young protesters in the suburbs of Cape Town on August 29. Sixteen were killed, all of them black or mixed race. White protesters at the University of Cape Town were also teargassed. The eruption came after police blocked a march that sought the release of imprisoned African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela, and after the Botha government’s decision to ban the largest association of high school students.
In one month of demonstrations, nearly 150 had been killed. Thousands more were arrested—the majority of them under 18 years old—and placed in prisons where solitary confinement and abuse were typical.
The steadfastness of the protesters and the threat of a strike by gold and coal miners organized in the National Mineworkers Union sent shock waves through international financial circles, which began to lose confidence that Pretoria could maintain political control. Amidst capital flight and with the rand falling to its lowest-ever level versus the US dollar, on August 27 South Africa was forced to suspend all trading in currencies and stocks. South African central bank head Gerhard de Kock flew to New York City for emergency meetings with US Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker and leading Wall Street banks to negotiate terms to pay off $11.5 billion in short-term debts.
A growing chorus of prominent figures and organizations, including four national business federations, demanded that President Botha seek an accommodation with the black elite.
50 years ago: Congo crisis deepens
The civil war in the Congo deepened this week in 1960, as the US, the United Nations (UN), and the former colonial power, Belgium, sought to destabilize and topple the democratically-elected government of nationalist Patrice Lumumba.
Soldiers loyal to Lumumba’s government prepared to engage troops of the secessionist Katanga province in the southeast, home to much of the nation’s mineral wealth. Belgian and UN soldiers assisted the renegade province, which was led by Moise Tshombe, dispersing pro-Lumumba protesters. Lumumba also dispatched soldiers to the capital of Kasai province, Luluabourg, in an attempt to snuff out a secessionist movement there. Albert Kalonji, formerly an ally of Lumumba, declared a mineral-rich region of Kasai independent, naming it “Mining State.”
The UN refused to assist Lumumba by allowing the government to use its airplanes to transport soldiers, effectively allying itself with the breakaway regions. About 15,000 UN troops from 11 countries had arrived and spread out across the nearly one million square miles of the country. Lumumba turned for aid from the USSR, receiving Soviet defense minister Georgi Zhukov in Leopoldville on August 26.
Lumumba’s government had no answer for Belgium’s effort to strangle the country economically. Capital flight and the new government’s ban on most imports had brought mass unemployment in the capital and largest city Leopoldville. Government police responded to striking Leopoldville workers’ demands for wage increases with beatings and imprisonment.
In Washington, on August 24 CIA head Allen Dulles cabled station chief Larry Devlin, authorizing the “removal” of Lumumba, up to and including his assassination.
75 years ago: Silent film actor Mack Swain dies
Silent film actor Mack Swain died August 25, 1935 at the age of 59. A veteran of more than 160 films, Swain was one of Charlie Chaplin's frequent collaborators during the 1910s and 1920s.
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1876, Swain got his start on the vaudeville circuit before beginning his film career in the early years of Hollywood. Swain was recruited to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, synonymous at that time with slapstick comedy, and made his debut in the 1913 Mabel Normand vehicle A Muddy Romance.
A tall, robust man, Swain became a key player in Sennett’s troupe of actors and was often cast as the angry boss, husband or father. Swain made several films as part of a comedy duo with actor Chester Conklin, in which they appeared as the characters Ambrose and Walrus. Among their more notable films was Love, Speed and Thrills (1915).
Swain first met and worked with Charlie Chaplin during his time at Keystone Studios and would go on to appear in a number of Chaplin’s films during the 1920s. In Chaplin’s classic work The Gold Rush (1925), Swain played prospector Big Jim McKay who finds himself stranded in a cabin with Chaplin’s Little Tramp during a blizzard. With no food in the cabin, the two starving prospectors eat one of the Little Tramp’s shoes in what has become one of the most famous scenes in film history. Swain also appeared in such Chaplin short films as the remarkable Pay Day (1922), The Idle Class (1921) and The Pilgrim (1923). Swain continued acting until his death in 1935.
100 years ago: US loyalist installed as president of Nicaragua
General Juan José Estrada, who had led US-backed military operations against the Nicaragua government of José Santos Zelaya, was installed as president in Managua on August 29, 1910.
Washington targeted Zelaya (president 1893-1909) for removal due to his nationalist reforms and independent diplomatic efforts. Zelaya had forced the British out of the Mosquito Coast and had intervened militarily against the pro-American regime in Honduras. He had also broached the re-establishment of the United States of Central America, and had discussed with Germany and Japan the construction of a canal connecting the Caribbean to the Pacific Ocean via Lake Managua, to rival the American-controlled Panama Canal.
Marines landed in Bluefields, Nicaragua, in December 1909, and US corporate interests, including the United Fruit Company, helped to fund Estrada’s operation. Zelaya fled to Spain days later, and by August the nationalist government was toppled. US Marines remained in Nicaragua almost continuously until 1932, thereafter leaving the country in the clutches of the Anastasio Somoza dictatorship.