Twenty-three years ago this month, Nelson Mandela came to the East Bay as part of a whirlwind global tour.
Mandela, who had served 27 years in South African prisons for fighting to abolish apartheid, had just been released. Harry Belafonte, the singer and social activist, said it was only fitting that Mandela make the East Bay -- "the birthplace of the U.S. anti-apartheid movement" -- his final stop on an eight-city U.S. tour.
Today, from Oakland and Berkeley to Pretoria, millions are anxiously awaiting word on the 94-year-old Mandela's condition. The iconic leader who played a major role in the dismantling of apartheid and who served as South Africa's first black president, was hospitalized June 8 with a lung condition. South African government officials say that his condition took a turn for the worse over the weekend.
"We are all just sending him every good thought and prayer and wishing for his recovery," said state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley.
Hancock was one of those at the forefront of the local anti-apartheid movement. In 1973, as mayor of Berkeley, Hancock tried to push the City Council to divest city funds from South Africa. The theory behind divestment was that sustained economic pressure would force the white minority-ruled regime to change its evil ways. Public entities all over the country began withdrawing their investments from companies that invested in or had operations in South Africa. The Berkeley City Council repeatedly voted down the ordinance until 1979, when it became one of the first cities in the U.S. to divest its South Africa holdings.
Yet it was UC Berkeley that drove the national divestment movement into high gear. In 1985 and 1986, thousands of Berkeley students boycotted classes, took over Sproul Hall and built shantytowns. After months of pressure, the UC Regents voted in July 1986 to divest $3 billion in holdings in companies doing business in South Africa.
Pedro Noguera, UC Berkeley student body president at the time, was arrested twice.
"I've always felt a lot of pride in the part we played," says Noguera, now a professor of education at New York University. "So many movements only capture a sliver of the population -- the people most affected -- but we had students, faculty, people in labor, media, celebrities and ordinary folks. It started as a small movement but mushroomed quickly."
Meanwhile, then-Rep. Ron Dellums of Berkeley was pushing for U.S. economic sanctions against South Africa. Fourteen years after Dellums first introduced anti-apartheid legislation, Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. The economic noose around South Africa grew ever tighter.
In his U.S. tour, Mandela urged Americans to keep up the pressure on Pretoria and to continue their financial support of the African National Congress.
On June 30, 1990, Mandela addressed a sold-out crowd of 60,000 supporters at the Oakland Coliseum. In his remarks, he was gracious about the role that the East Bay had played in helping to secure his release.
"It is clear beyond any reasonable doubt that the unbanning of our organization (the African National Congress) came as a result of the pressure exerted on the apartheid regime by yourselves," Mandela said.
An umbrella shielded Mandela's view of a giant Coca Cola sign on the scoreboard. The ANC had protested the company's continuing business dealings in South Africa. Mandela openly sipped a Pepsi.
"It was something that you just don't forget," said former Oakland Tribune columnist Brenda Payton of Mandela's visit. At the time, Payton wrote:
"Mandela had come to thank the Bay Area for its support and urge its continued fight against apartheid. But he brought something much larger than thanks. He brought hope and resolve, the possibility of our own power and ability to take our destinies in hand."
Hancock described the feeling of euphoria that day at the Coliseum.
"I was on the stage with other elected leaders and citizens just looking out over these massive numbers of people celebrating what they had been able to do together," Hancock said. "It showed that positive citizen-driven change is possible."
We will grieve when Mandela is no longer with us. But he has left a mark that will remain long after his death.