by Hank Boerner, Chairman, G&A Institute
Today the world mourns the passing of one of the 20th Century’s most distinguished statesmen – President Nelson Mandela of South Africa. Among his greatest accomplishments was the lifelong struggle to end the system of Apartheid and oppression of the majority black citizenry, which led to establishment of a “rainbow democracy” with all elements of the country’s society included and having a voice and vote.
Apartheid seems so long ago now but the struggle was very present in the United State of America. The issue was debated on college campuses – President Barack Obama said that his very first “political” issue involvement was about Apartheid. Over time as the issue gained greater public visibility, pressure was applied to the U.S. and European companies operating in South Africa. U.S. companies withdrew — among them giants like Eastman Kodak and General Motors, The US Congress in 1986 passed the “Anti-Apartheid Act” which finally banned trade and investment in South Africa — and banned most S.A. exports to the USA. (This was a Republican-controlled Senate, we would note. President Ronald Reagan vetoed the measure but the Senate overrode the veto – imagine that happening today!) Military sales were stopped. I remember SAA — South African Airways — ceasing operations on their busy NY-Johannesburg route when I was in the airline business.
Speaking of GM, one of the largest US industrial powers — a board member, Reverend Leon Sullivan, suggested a process for dealing with the issue and the resulting “Sullivan Principles” were widely adopted by US companies (a shout out to the GM board of that time for their courage).
A familiar force in sustainable & responsible investment and in encouraging good corporate governance began operations around the issue: today’s ICCR (Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility). ICCR members manage US$100 billion AUM and influence the actions of other asset managers and stakeholders with their activism on key ESG issues.
The trade association for the SRI community — US SIF — commented today on President Mandela’s passing: “US SIF honors the life and action of Nelson Mondela. The roots of today’s sustainable investment field can be found in the efforts of investors, often undertaken with civil society partners in South Africa and around the world, to help eradicate Apartheid by putting pressure on companies doing business in S.A. Sustainable and responsible investors have continued effort to support human rights and address inequality in the decades since. The life of Mandela will continue to influence…”
Many of the public and private sector veterans of the 1960s-1980s divestment campaigns targeting U.S. companies doing business in/with South Africa are today recalling their own individual and collective efforts to bring attention to the campaign for equality and fair treatment of South Africa’s majority population.
General Colin Powell today added his remembrances of Mandela and wondered to his CNN interviewer…what might our own country have looked like if President Abraham Lincoln was not assassinated…what in the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War would have been different…avoiding Jim Crow laws, segregation, outright discrimination against our own African-American citizens? Interesting to think about as we remember Nelson Mandela and his struggle a century later…and his comments about President Lincoln’s inspiring example.
Soon after the changes in South Africa I attended a lecture in Washington DC by the former leader (under Apartheid), F.W. DeKlerk, who came to discuss the changes taking place in his country. At one point he said he wished that the system that he ruled would have ended much earlier. Mandela was right. He touched my heart, the former leader of the white majority government said. Mandela in his 95 years touched many hearts.
And that suggests the immense power of an idea whose time has come — concepts of freedom, equality, democracy for all, fairness, protection of human rights, the responsibility to society of large corporations — that armed forces, security thugs, bans, institutional blocks, and other means cannot stop.
We have before us today the example of President Mandela, who was jailed for 27 years in the prime of his life to look to for what can be possible. He forgave his jailors (another powerful idea) and brought his rainbow nation together. We are all in his debt. I will remember these things as I mourn his loss.