BERKELEY -- The City Council took an hour away from everyday business Dec. 17 to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela.

But the time dedicated to the man who fought apartheid and became South Africa's first black president after 27 years in jail was more than Vukani Mawethu's freedom songs vibrating through the council chambers, and more than a walk down memory lane for former anti-apartheid activists.

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner said the gathering was a time to reaffirm a continuing fight to right today's wrongs.

Former Mayor Gus Newport speaks at the City Council’s celebration of the late Nelson Mandela.
Former Mayor Gus Newport speaks at the City Council's celebration of the late Nelson Mandela.

"We have many apartheid-like circumstances in our life today," said Skinner, a city council member from 1984 to 1992. "They are to me, sadly, more insidious. Apartheid was very blatant. Unfortunately, things like how we apply our stand our ground laws, who our school system fails, the lack of diversity in our higher education, the demographics of our prison population -- all these are indicators of apartheid-like conditions. We have to eliminate them."

The sit-ins and civil disobedience of the mid-1980s that led to UC Berkeley's $3 billion 1986 divestment of its holdings of companies doing business with South Africa, are well documented.

But less well known is that Berkeley's role in divestment started more than a decade earlier. In 1972, Rep. Ron Dellums, a former Berkeley City Council member, took divestment to the floor of Congress. His bill -- overriding President Ronald Reagan's veto -- would finally become law in 1986.

The Vukani Mawethu chorus performs at the memorial gathering.
The Vukani Mawethu chorus performs at the memorial gathering.

State Sen. Loni Hancock, a City Council member from 1971 to 1979, told the gathering that Dellums' early fight against apartheid inspired her, in 1973, to push the city to divest. The council wouldn't consider it then and continued to refuse to take up the issue, which, in the following years, City Councilwoman Ying Lee, also a speaker at the event, tried unsuccessfully a number of times to get through the council.

So the community joined with the burgeoning campus anti-apartheid movement in taking a divestment initiative directly to the people.

Skinner worked on the campaign. "I was one of the students," she said, "You know, you always use the cheap labor."

State Sen Loni Hancock and former City Councilwoman Ying Lee were among the officials speaking at the celebration.
State Sen Loni Hancock and former City Councilwoman Ying Lee were among the officials speaking at the celebration.

On April 17, 1979, the Responsible Investment Ordinance garnered 65 percent of the vote, becoming the first law to require a major American city to withdraw its public funds -- $4.5 million at the time -- from financial institutions doing business with South Africa.

Former Mayor Gus Newport's name was on the ballot at the same time as the divestment initiative. "The success of my election was due to the divestment movement because the opposition did not support the divestment movement," said Newport, well-known for his international activism.

The hard part came next, Newport said. "After we passed the divestment ordinance, then we had to implement it."

He recalled his finance director telling him that it would be hard to find financial institutions that satisfied the ordinance, and advising him, "'You're going to have to put on a suit and take off that dashiki .'"

The city did, however, find banks that met the conditions of the law.

Another Berkeley link to the anti-apartheid movement was Mayor Tom Bates, an assembly member in 1986 when Assemblywoman Maxine Waters brought divestment to the state Legislature.

At the time, George Deukmejian "was a very conservative governor," Bates recalled.

"We thought, 'This is a great dream, but it's never going to happen. He'll never sign this.'" But it turned out Deukmejian's Armenian family had experienced genocide, Bates said, and that helped him understand the situation in South Africa. As a result, California would divest $11 billion.

Councilman Max Anderson, who also worked for the downfall of South African apartheid, said that fight is an example for today. "We need to redouble our efforts. And rededicate ourselves," he said, calling on the community to fight back "when apartheid-like disparities and discrepancies begin to rule the day here."