NOTE: This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.
On what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday the world will revisit his extraordinary leadership after his 1990 release from twenty-seven years in prison. Yet, Mandela’s influence was far-ranging long before the 1990s when he pulled together the South Africa that we know today, negotiated a rainbow nation, and became its first black president. I want to honor Mandela’s early impact and emphasize the global involvement in South Africa’s apartheid government and in its demise. The role of international financial institutions in the Mandela story is key for me both historical and personal. Lobbying the banks to divest in South Africa was the catalyst for my involvement not only in the anti-apartheid movement, but in the advocacy of civil rights over a life time.
l was a high school junior living in Great Neck, Long Island in 1962 when Nelson Mandela was sentenced to five years for leaving South Africa without a passport and incitement. In 1964, Mandela was convicted of sabotage with Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi, Denis Goldberg and Andrew Mlangeni and all are sentenced to life imprisonment. It didn’t strike me as a coincidence that the one white man in the group was a South African Jew. In the idealistic sixties, there was an empathic connection between many U.S Jews and African Americans concerning civil rights. In Great Neck, which was about 90% Jewish, it seemed natural that the civil rights movement commanded Jewish participation, and apartheid in South Africa was a natural extension of that empathy.
I was not entirely surprised to get a call from one of the seniors at Great Neck North High School to join a picket line protesting apartheid in South Africa and supporting civil rights in America. The location was a bank in downtown Great Neck. I remember it being Chemical Bank, a friend remembers it as a suburban branch of Chase Manhattan. Both were among many of the banks involved. Their involvement was a catalyst for my picking a spot on the sidewalk in front of the bank holding an anti-apartheid sign calling for Justice & Equality.
An anti-colonialism movement focusing on the African continent was not new, but had been targeted by the anti-communism fervor of the McCarthy era. The American Committee on Africa (ACOA) and its associated nonprofit, The Africa Fund founded in 1953 were fueled by a small group of activists supporting economic disengagement from South Africa. This “divestment” affected churches, universities, cities, and states, and the sanctions eventually imposed on South Africa by the U.S. Congress. The ACOA/Africa Fund eventually became a catalyst for anti-apartheid groups during the 1970s and 1980s.
As the movement grew, divestment was seen as a threat to our economic growth by many, particularly those in the financial services industry. The pros and cons were fiercely fought and the term “terrorism” was thrown around fairly freely. I doubt that I was fully conscious of the historic quality of the fight represented on that picket line, but I did have the presence of mine not to mention my involvement to my parents. I discounted hints of shadowy, long-ago connections to communism, but was truly wary of going up against the current national policies, political trends, and internationalization of what was termed, the military-industrial complex.
Multinational companies were invested in South Africa in large numbers including hundreds of major corporations from the United States such as oil companies and car manufacturers. Few were as key to the support and survival of the apartheid South Africa as the banks. In part, their influence was due to their willingness to grant loans to the South African government and private industries. But their influence was also tied to the prominence of South Africa as a gold-mining center. Keep in mind that the United States use of the gold standard did not end until President Nixon’s decree in 1971. Not surprisingly, the huge growth of anti-apartheid groups in the US coincided with the gold standard’s demise and the resulting decrease in the strategic importance of South Africa. Of course, phasing out of the Gold Standard was only just on the horizon in 1965, and endangering relations with gold-producing South Africa verged on being a national security issue.
I had never had a conversation with my parents about their views, and hoped my silence about picketing would avoid any potential ugliness. My miscalculation was brought home to me early the next morning at breakfast with my father reading the local newspaper as usual. It featured a photo the rally on the front page in glorious technicolor with a large headline that read, PIMPLE POLITICS. I held my breath for his response; Dad did not look happy. “How dare they insult you like this when you’re just trying to do the right thing,” he yelled. I breathed a sigh of relief, smiled a grin of complicity, and nodded in agreement.
Thus began my life-long dedication to righting wrongs as well as learning how much time something like “divestment” actually takes.
It took a decade of pressure to get divestment in South Africa underway and another decade to complete the task. The New York Times reported in1985 on the movement’s progress, “The Westchester County Legislature made its own move against apartheid, calling on the county government ”not to do business” with banking institutions that make loans to the Pretoria Government or to banks that make new loans to private banks in South Africa.”
Much to my amusement, the article also quotes Ken Herz, an assistant vice president of Chemical Bank, who proudly asserts that in 1974 ”we became the first of the major banks to say we strongly opposed apartheid.” He said Chemical Bank’s policy was ”against making loans or other credit accommodations” to the South African Government.” However, Herz goes on to say that, ”In the private sector,” he said, ”we do have short-term trade-related transactions involving nonstrategic goods…” The reporter notes that, “When asked if that meant Chemical Bank made loans to private banks in South Africa, Mr. Herz said he would not comment ”beyond saying we have short-term trade-related transactions.”
The reluctance to divest was legendary. We students saw its impact as lowering the market value of stock, and ultimately, the company’s net worth and ability to expand. Others saw divestment as counterproductive, a White Guilt Fantasy that actually hurt poor, black South Africans. For them, our actions probably reinforced negative stereotypes of “terrorist” and “communist” which are heard even today, in response to Mandela’s death. Yet, it’s striking that only when divestment became a reality, was Mandela freed from prison and able to transform the black and white of apartheid into a rainbow nation.
I honor Nelson Mandela’s memory even as I agree with him that he was not a saint, but just one man doing what a real man should do. I am no Mandela. Who is? But I can say that I was one teen-age girl, doing what a teen-age girl should do. All of us are capable of making a difference, and none of us will think of ourselves as saints. Yet, every now and then, something we do might play a miniscule but meaningful part in historic, monumental events. So, whoever and wherever you are, stake out your place and moment on a sidewalk near you, and create your own rainbow.