Dan Morain

Dan Morain: How 'The Duke' helped Mandela

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

Californians once embarked on a quixotic crusade to help change a nation and succeeded, thanks to a politician who was anything but a dewy-eyed liberal.

Nelson Mandela, who turned 95 in a Pretoria hospital last week, credited California with helping to end apartheid by divesting in the racist South African regime that imprisoned him for 27 years.

Ron Dellums, a Democrat who represented Oakland and Berkeley for 27 years in Congress, raised the issue when he was first elected in 1971. Maxine Waters and Willie Brown used their Assembly offices to advocate for an end to state pension investments in South Africa throughout the early 1980s.

But an uncharismatic Republican who had been a lieutenant to Ronald Reagan gave the final push. Gov. George Deukmejian had built his no-nonsense reputation by being for the death penalty and against most taxes, certainly not for his social justice stands. But after initially opposing divestment, he arrived on the right side of history.

In recent days, activists have been urging boycotts of Florida and other states that have crazy stand-your-ground gun laws. The University of California's newest student regent took up the call to divest from Israel, though evidently not from countries where girls risk being shot for attending school.

Politically correct claptrap aside, there are occasions when one nation's actions become so repugnant that concerted statewide civil disobedience is the only answer. For California, that happened in the mid-1980s.

Now 85 and retired in Long Beach, Deukmejian described his evolution as part of a University of California oral history project. Stories his parents told him about Turkish massacres of Armenians a century ago sensitized him to government-sanctioned discrimination and genocide, and he became increasingly outraged at violence against blacks perpetrated by the white South African regime.

"It was key, frankly," Brown said of Deukmejian's role. "The Republican Party nationally and statewide never had any control over George. George always did what he thought was in the best interest of people."

As Assembly speaker, Brown was an ex-officio member of the UC Board of Regents. In June 1985, he proposed that the regents divest over a five-year period. The board rejected the motion at the urging of then UC President David Gardner, with Deukmejian's agreement.

Students intensified their protests, occupying administrators' offices, getting arrested and chanting such slogans as, "Apartheid kills, while UC counts its dollar bills."

"In the end," Gardner wrote in his memoir, "none of these protests, petitions and threats made very much difference: We were used to dealing with them and had done so for years. What did count, however, was the decision Gov. Deukmejian made in late spring 1986 to change his mind in favor of divestment."

In late May or early June 1986, Deukmejian's chief of staff, Steve Merksamer, phoned Gardner to say that the governor was rethinking his position. Later in June, Deukmejian wrote to his old friend, President Ronald Reagan, calling on him to "turn up the pressure against apartheid South Africa." He signed the letter, "Duke."

On July 16, 1986, Deukmejian wrote to the regents: "We must not turn our backs on black South Africans at this moment of great crisis. As the world's seventh largest economy, California can make a difference. We must stand up for freedom and stand up against violations of human rights wherever they occur."

The regents met two days later, and with Deukmejian in attendance, voted to divest billions in pension fund holdings in companies doing business in South Africa.

Merksamer, now a partner in the political law and lobbying firm of Nielsen, Merksamer, said the regents probably were legally correct in 1985 to reject divestment. They had a fiduciary duty to protect university investments.

"Sometimes, the law is an ass," Merksamer said. "We were clearly going beyond the law, but we did the right thing."

Assemblywoman Waters, meanwhile, had reintroduced legislation seeking to force state pension funds to sell holdings in companies operating in South Africa.

All the heavyweights opposed it: oil companies, the California Manufacturers Association, the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Bankers Association, all of them pillars of Republican support and important in the election year of 1986.

As the legislative session drew to a close in August 1986, the Assembly approved Waters' bill 50-28; five Republicans joined 45 Democrats. The Senate vote was 27-11; three Republicans sided with 24 Democrats. Republicans cast all the no votes – "on the wrong side of history," noted Merksamer, a Republican.

On the day he signed Waters' bill, Deukmejian raised a simple and profound question: "We all ought to ask ourselves the question as I have done: How would we feel if our rights and if our individual freedoms were denied and the rest of the world turned its back on us?"

Deukmejian was busy in 1986. He led the campaign to oust then Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other justices appointed by young Gov. Jerry Brown, and ran for re-election against then Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who had hoped to capitalize on Deukmejian's initial opposition to divestment.

The outcome wasn't close. Deukmejian won with 61 percent of the vote, and Californians dumped Brown's three justices. Deukmejian reshaped the Supreme Court with a Republican majority, served out his second term and retired from politics.

The University of California and California public employee and teacher pension funds held about $7.2 billion in South Africa-related investments. Initially, many companies insisted they would defy the state by remaining in South Africa. As the divestment movement spread, however, most companies pulled out of South Africa.

"I don't think there was anything we did that had more of a worldwide impact," Brown told me the other day. "We brought the key to the jail for Nelson Mandela."

In 1990, after South African authorities freed Mandela from prison, he visited the United States. In a triumphal appearance before 60,000 people at the Oakland Coliseum in June 1990, Mandela praised Dellums and met Brown and others who had fought for divestment early.

Reporters who wrote about the origins of the divestment movement focused on its liberal leaders who had every reason to bask in their success.

Deukmejian, at the end of his tenure, had become a footnote, in keeping with his personality. He was the antithesis of radical and not the least bit flashy. But those who were involved know that he helped force change half a world away, on the right side of history.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @DanielMorain.