Ashes defining moment in his career of anti-racism and anti-discrimination came in response to the refusal of the South African government to grant him a visa in order to compete in the prestigious South Africa Open. According to Ashe himself, he expected that his visa application would be rejected on the basis of his race, but he applied anyway. Upon the blatant racist rejection of the South African government of his visa application Ashe seized the opportunity to denounce the government system of apartheid as a whole, and to call for the expulsion of South Africa from the Davis Cup, and for the removal of the South Africa Open from the international tennis tour.
This cry was taken up by many renowned leaders, both in the political world and in the sports community, and forced South Africa leaders to seriously consider their policies, as Ashe had succeeded in casting their system under the scrutiny of the whole world. Ashe came under fire from more radical anti-apartheid reformers for even recognizing South Africa. However, Ashe believed that if he could receive a visa, it would be a small but important step towards reform, and would lead to further, more drastic reforms in the future.
In 1973, Ashe finally received the permission to play, a remarkable concession from the organizers and government of South Africa, but it was still not enough for the reform-minded radicals of South Africa, who wanted Ashe to completely ostracize South Africa until apartheid was toppled. In Johannesburg, Ashe was confronted by a group of activists who were upset with his seeming acceptance of the South African government. As chronicled in his sportsman of the year article in the December, 1992 issue of Sports Illustrated, Ashe attempted to convince the crowd that reform would only come one small step at a time, quoting such activists as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass. However, none of the fiery reformers were convinced by Ashes pleas of temerity and restraint. Nevertheless, Ashe would continue to be a crusader for anti-apartheid efforts, and was arrested numerous times for protests both in South Africa and in the United States.
In 1992, with the collapse of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as the first black president of South Africa, Ashe paid a visit to the country that had denied him the opportunity to participate in its tennis competition so many years earlier. He met Mandela, and was thanked for his efforts towards the fall of apartheid, and saw for himself the fruits of his campaigning throughout the years: a race liberated.