Nelson Mandela and Nebraska

by Paul A. Olson, NFP President Emeritus

The death of Nelson Mandela should make us all reflect on our histories. I first got into the struggle against apartheid seriously when, in the late 1970s, I worked with my church—the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—to ask that Namibia, which had been illegally absorbed by the South African government, be given its independence from South Africa and its racist policies. Most Namibians are Lutherans as am I. We wrote to Nebraska U.S. Senator Carl Curtis and received a lame excuse, defending South Africa. The whole church finally acted. Eventually Namibia was the first part of South Africa to be freed, in 1990.

In 1983-84, NFP worked with State Senators Ernie Chambers and Nelson Merz to push for divestment of state government funds from corporations doing business in South Africa. The divestment legislation was adopted, making it among the earliest in the nation to be passed. A Fordham University study described the Nebraska action as follows (the Sullivan principles were international principles to apply in divestiture):

In April, 1984, legislation was passed in Nebraska mandating divestment in three stages. First, state funds are to be divested from the stock of any United States corporation or financial institution doing business in South Africa unless the corporation or financial institution has signed and is making progress in implementing the Sullivan principles. Second, the state treasurer must sell the stock of any financial institution which has outstanding loans to the government of South Africa or its instrumentalities. Third, the state cannot make any new investment of state funds in the bonds of (1) any financial institution which has outstanding loans to the South African government; or (2) any corporation that does business in or with South Africa which has not signed and is not making progress in implementing the Sullivan principles. As of August, 1984, Nebraska had sold almost fifteen million dollars in stock, and thirteen million dollars remained to be sold. In 1980, the Nebraska Legislature passed a resolution which asked the Nebraska Investment Council to remove the names of corporations and financial institutions doing business in South Africa from the list of entities approved for the investment of state funds. This resolution, however, was not binding.

Even after this, state functionaries sought all kinds of ways to get around the Legislature’s intent. The state treasurer initially said that responsible investment rules required him to keep South Africa stocks. The University of Nebraska Foundation kept its South Africa stock until an African student started a divestment campaign that ultimately picked up so much steam the foundation trustees voted to divest. Nebraska Republicans in the House and Senate for the most part did little to oppose apartheid. President Reagan, beloved of Nebraskans, supported the apartheid regime, calling for “constructive engagement”—that is, nothing—and pulled back from the mild sanctions that President Carter had imposed.

Nebraska has blood on its hands for all these years of obstruction and delay.

But the U.S. civil rights movement at large can be proud. Mandela was inspired by the U.S. nonviolent movement and Martin Luther King, Jr., and though for a brief period the African National Congress tried to protest severe oppression by blowing up buildings, its killing of people was miniscule in relation to the torture and killing imposed by the apartheid government. When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he worked carefully to quiet the more violent wings of his own party and to give the white minority assurances that, should the ANC gain power, it would respect the human rights and the rule of law of the white minority, its former oppressors. To avoid any suggestion that crimes and torture during the apartheid period were tolerable, Mandela instituted the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” that asked people who had been criminals under the old regime or had been the victims of crime to seek some proper accounting of what had been done and what was owed to each side morally.

The tributes pouring in for Mandela—for his dignity, his wisdom, his respect for law, and his sense of humor—are deserved. But it is important that we not forget our state’s history of complicity in his and his people’s oppression, the courage of a few people that opposed that oppression, and the venality and lack of conscience of those who did nothing.

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