Inspired in part by the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, a decades-long movement to withdraw U.S. investments in apartheid South Africa attracted millions of supporters — including a young student at California’s Occidental College, Barack Obama.
During a visit to Senegal this past June, President Obama said his “first act of political activism” was an event for “the Anti-Apartheid Movement back in 1979, 1980, because I was inspired by what was taking place in South Africa.”
The global divestment movement that began in the 1950s and 1960s, grew in the 1970s and hit critical mass in the 1980s helped hasten the end of Mandela’s imprisonment and apartheid itself in the 1990s.
It affected events from college campuses to the Oval Office — and helped form the worldview of a future president.
“I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life,” Obama said shortly after the announcement on Mandela’s death.
The movement against apartheid grew out of anti-colonial attitudes spurred at the end of World War II.
It gradually won supporters in the United Nations, Great Britain, Europe, and the United States throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Colleges provided support for the movement during the 1970s, as students aimed calls for disinvestment from South Africa at both governments and businesses.
Lawmakers in Washington initially resisted the ideas of divestment and sanctions, but the movement picked up steam in the 1980s.
One reason: a new South Africa constitution that maintained apartheid, triggering renewed protests by the nation’s majority black population.
In the White House, President Ronald Reagan — opposing sanctions — proposed what aides called “constructive engagement,” a program of economic and political incentives designed to wean the white majority government away from apartheid. At the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, Reagan and aides feared that a sudden collapse of the government in South Africa would send the nation into the communist orbit.
Congress, however, responded with the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which banned new U.S. investments in South Africa, sales to the police and the military, and certain types of bank loans. It prohibited the import of South African agricultural goods, textiles, shellfish, steel, iron, uranium and products of state-owned corporations, according to the African Activist Archive.
Reagan vetoed the bill, but Congress overrode him. Congress also passed a series of sanctions against South Africa. The next year, Congress ended the ability of American businesses to claim tax credits in the United States for taxes paid in South Africa.
Attempts by the United States and other nations to economically isolate South Africa put intense pressure on the government in Pretoria and contributed to historic changes.
“It was a combination,” said Richard Knight, project director of the African Activist Archive, an online collection of documents, photographs and testimonies. “The internal movement in South Africa was supported by the international anti-apartheid movement.”
Eventually, companies stopped doing business in South Africa, and banks stopped making loans — and South African citizens were demonstrating for their rights all the while.
“In South Africa, there was a free Nelson Mandela campaign,” Knight said.
Mandela, sentenced in 1964 to life in prison without parole, was freed on Feb. 11, 1990. He won election as South Africa’s first black president in 1994.
As Mandela walked out of prison, young Obama was attending Harvard Law School.
“It gave me a sense of what is possible in the world when righteous people, when people of goodwill work together on behalf of a larger cause,” Obama said during his June 27 news conference in Senegal,
Speaking three days later at the University of Cape Town in South Africa itself, the American president said: “Nelson Mandela showed us that one man’s courage can move the world.”