Nelson Mandela's legacy is economic, too

PARIS, FRANCE: An iconic image of former South African President Nelson Mandela, as he smiles in Paris during an official visit to France.

South Africa's first black president and anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela, died Thursday at the age of 95. 

Mandela was released from a South African prison in 1990 after 27 years of harsh internment. Four years later, he was elected president of South Africa in that country’s first free, non-racial, democratic elections.

For decades after South Africa’s declaration of Grand Apartheid in 1948, Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC), galvanized a massive international solidarity effort to pursue divestment and economic sanctions. At the movement’s peak in the late 1980s, hundreds of universities, governments and pension funds in the U.S. had pulled billions of dollars out of South Africa, helping to undermine the apartheid regime.

In addition to guerrilla warfare and popular resistance inside the country, a key tactic of the apartheid resistance was to stop the flow of goods and investment from outside, said William Minter, editor of AfricaFocus.org Bulletin.

“The ANC very strategically reached out to the international anti-apartheid movement: including divestment, sanctions, boycotts,” said Minter. He said after the United Kingdom, it was the United States -- through its business and government ties --  that had the most involvement with South Africa internationally, and thus provided it with crucial financial support.

“After World War II, the U.S. became increasingly important, not only in the auto industry, but even in the mining industry as well,” said Minter.

In the foreword to a book Minter edited, “No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century, 1950-2000,” Nelson Mandela wrote that American activism was crucial to the anti-apartheid struggle.

“On occasion the work of our American colleagues was indispensable,” Mandela wrote. “The economic sanctions bill passed by the U.S. Congress in 1986 is a case in point. Without the decades-long divestment campaign undertaken by university students, churches, civil rights organizations, trade unions, and state and local governments to cut economic ties to South Africa, the U.S. Congress would not have acted, even to the extent of overriding a presidential veto. International sanctions were a key factor in the eventual victory of the African National Congress over South Africa’s white minority regime.”

Minter said calls for divestment, and the imposition of economic sanctions by the United States, European, and other governments, added to the costs businesses faced in South Africa.

“We called it an ‘apartheid tax,’” said Minter. “The popular action made it less profitable for companies to invest because they had all the hassle. So even those that stayed in, like Shell Oil, they began to put pressure on the South African government to negotiate with the ANC.”

And many investors did bail out -- including the massive pension funds run by the University of California and New York City, plus JP Morgan and Chase Manhattan Bank. An estimated $20 billion was pulled out of companies doing business in South Africa; the currency collapsed and inflation soared.

The cultural and political impacts of divestment were also profound in the United States, especially for African-Americans and other young activists who had grown up after the civil rights movement. Sarah Willie-LeBreton teaches Black Studies and sociology at Swarthmore College. She was a student at Spelman and Haverford colleges in the 1980s.

“My role was not the same as Nelson Mandela’s role, or Stephen Biko’s role, or the millions of people in South Africa,” said Willie-LeBreton. “But my role was part of being second-wave, a student of color on a predominantly white campus, in an over-developed nation, that could say, ‘what is our complicity in this?’”

University of California, Irvine, sociologist David Meyer said the divestment movement succeeded in localizing a struggle against racial and economic oppression happening 8,000 miles away.

“I think we see the legacies of the anti-apartheid campaign everywhere,” said Meyer. “As the campaigns developed, students took on more aggressive actions, most notably the shantytown protests. It started at Columbia University: they built ramshackle housing on college greens to bring the struggle of South Africa home. And in some ways that’s what we saw with the Occupy movement."

“Because it was successful, activists tried to bottle the tactic,” said Meyer. “In the 1980s, there was a campaign to divest from companies that built nuclear weapons, (with the slogan) ‘General Electric Brings Good Things to Death.’ And right now, Bill McKibben of 350.org is pushing for divestment on campuses from companies that do business in fossil fuels.”

Decades before climate change hit the radar, though, Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement were bringing global economic issues home to Americans -- through divestment.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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