If I close my eyes, I can remember 1984. I am among those running from meeting to meeting working to pass Proposition J, the San Francisco ballot initiative that required the city to divest pension funds from companies doing business in South Africa. The ballot initiative had to get two-thirds of the vote because it dealt with money, and even in progressive San Francisco, some thought getting votes out might be challenging. But a cross section of activists committed to divestment worked our tails off, and prevailed. San Francisco became among the first, and one of the largest, of our nation’s cities to divest public pension funds.
I wish I could distill the energy that came from those rallies and community meetings. I can remember, with just one eye shut, the chants and songs, “South Africa will be free, South Africa will be free, Will be free South Africa.” Students were among those to put themselves on the line for divestment, confronting their college and university leaders about the status of investments. The Free South Africa Movement was not a student movement, not a grass roots movement. It was simply a movement for justice that succeeded because many elements of our nation were involved.
Those of us who favored divestment were following the lead of the African National Congress, who asked allies around the world to make South Africa “ungovernable.” If massive divestment could stop the flow of dollars to South Africa (dollars that could be used to step up military action against innocent civilians), that would place pressure on the South African economy to make choices with dwindling resources. Would fighting to maintain apartheid be one of those? Divestment might make apartheid too expensive to maintain, or so we hoped. The divestment efforts contrasted sharply with the Sullivan Principles, crafted by the late Leon Sullivan, who asked US companies to stay in South Africa but only under certain conditions that dealt with fair pay and working conditions. Those American corporations doing business with South Africa were getting lots of flack for choosing oppressors as their business partners.
The death of Nelson Mandela causes these memories to rush back, memories of activism, of social change, of the conviction that change was coming. The Free South Africa Movement wasn’t a Black movement, or a White one; it was a movement for justice. The Free South Africa Movement, in Washington, D.C. and around the United States, had an uncommonly positive energy, even in the cynical Reagan era.
Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 2000, went on to be elected president of South African, to dismantle apartheid, and to begin the social and economic transition of South Africa. The rest of the story is history. When people speak of Mandela they will inevitably speak of his spirit of forgiveness, of the fact that even after having been unjustly jailed for 27 years, he was committed to reconciliation in South Africa.
Nelson Mandela projected a humble and forgiving spirit. His appearance of gentility was reassuring to many who expected someone formerly described as a “terrorist” to have little tolerance for the status quo. Still, a spirit of forgiveness is not a spirit that accepts social and economic inequality. President Mandela’s gentle spirit was a forgiving one, but not a forgetful one. As president, he managed to juggle competing constituencies, but he never retreated from his demand that justice be served.
It is not clear when the economic gap in South Africa will be closed, or even narrowed. In many ways, Black South Africans control the political sphere, while the white business establishments control the money, just as is the case in several cities in the U.S. South. People speak of Mandela’s “forgiveness” much as they speak of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “dream.” Can forgiveness be poured from a can of tinned milk to comfort the hungry child in the shanty? Is forgiveness a simple rhetorical term for those South Africans who are moving’ on up, and a broken promise for those who remain down here on the ground?
Nelson Mandela left us much to celebrate, and also much to ponder. Where does the movement for freedom and justice go from here, both in South Africa and in the rest of the world? Which young people have ideas innovative enough to get us past freedom to equality of opportunity? How does one ameliorate an imposed inequality from the decades-old system of apartheid, and is there a desire to do so?
And two decades ago, the idealists sang, marched, and chanted – “South Africa will be free. South Africa will be free. Will be free, South Africa.”
Ache’ Madiba. Thank you for your ferocious forgiveness and for your persistent perusal of justice.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.