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Mandela: Remembering It Took a Very Long Time to Do the Obvious

12/10/2013 08:00 am ET | Updated Feb 09, 2014

The reaction to the passing of Nelson Mandela, with funeral memorial services vaster in scale than for any statesman since Winston Churchill, is stunning. President Barack Obama is only one of nearly 100 heads of government flocking to South Africa. Mandela is nothing short of a consensus world icon, celebrated from the most insurgent to the most establishmentarian precincts, as he should be.

But why, then, was his cause so difficult for so many to support when action was needed?

In my college days, I was on the steering committee of Campuses United Against Apartheid (CUAA), an organization based on University of California campuses which built out to include many other colleges. CUAA was, as Wikipedia puts it, "the first organized anti-apartheid organization on university campuses in the United States."

Our goal was straightforward: To use what today are called economic sanctions to force change in South Africa; namely, the ending of the system of racial apartheid and freeing of a number of political prisoners, principally one Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, then locked away in prison for the rest of his life.

We used the leverage of our position within the University of California system, widely recognized as the world's leading public university system and a pillar of liberalism, to force the University to go through its vast investment portfolio and divest itself of holdings in corporations doing business in South Africa.

Today, divestment from South Africa looks like a no-brainer, an easy call. Then, it was an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. It was made all the more difficult by CUAA being a classic popular front organization, an alphabet soup collection of very disparate groups including the Revolutionary Communist Party and the Iranian Students Association, whose Marxist and decidedly non-Islamist members harbored the belief that they would be at the forefront of the imminent revolution against the hated Shah of Iran. I was there as representative of the liberal California Democratic Council and mainstream students who weren't members of organizations.

As much time was spent in internal haggling as anything else, with much paranoia about who might be an agent of the FBI, CIA, or the Shah's Savak secret police. I felt it best not to mention that I was a naval reservist.

But what one would think was more than enough work to convince the board of a liberal university got done to push the anti-apartheid cause, including powerful research on University investment ties with American firms playing a major role in the South African economy, big demonstrations at multiple campuses, endorsements, petition drives, and so on. We ran right into a brick wall.

It certainly wasn't a question of the rightness of Mandela's cause. He was, as all now agree, fighting against an evil system, as pernicious a form of racist social organization since the old slavery-oriented Confederacy in the United States.

Along with many of his comrades, Mandela was derided then as a terrorist, a Communist even, which he evidently did become for a time. One works with those who will work with him. And the reality is that there were far more Communists than capitalists who wanted to help Mandela when he most needed it not long before he was arrested for the beginning of his 27-year prison stint in 1962.

Some 15 years later, more of the Western mainstream had embraced the anti-apartheid cause. But capitalism per se was still not on board.

That was obvious when we lobbied and demonstrated to get the University of California Board of Regents to drop their investments in corporations supporting apartheid by doing business in South Africa. They were, the regents, university administrators, and their financial advisors pointed out, much of the cream of corporate America. And as such, blue-chip stock holdings for the University. There were other, less inconvenient, ways to encourage South Africa's all-white government to end its oppression of its black majority population. Why risk an assured return on investment to pressure the politics of a country thousands of miles away?

Why indeed?

I remember talks with Regent Fred Dutton, one of the fascinating characters of 20th century American politics, who served as chief of staff to Governor Pat Brown, then went on to be a top aide to President John F. Kennedy and later acted as Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign manager. After Kennedy's assassination, Dutton helped come up with the idea for Earth Day. He also became a voracious lobbyist and strategist for Mobil Oil, finally becoming the chief American lawyer for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, causing some of his old liberal friends to dub him "Fred of Arabia."

Pat Brown had made him a UC regent after he left California state government and as a UC Berkeley alum he took a deep and frequently amused interest in UC doings. He was happy to help us in the anti-apartheid cause.

As you can tell from his having become a principal gunslinger for Mobil Oil and the House of Saud, Dutton's life had gone in a different direction, as the saying goes, since his 23-block ambulance ride down LA's Wilshire Blvd. very early on a June 1968 morning from the Ambassador Hotel to Good Samaritan Hospital with the mortally wounded RFK.

Helping us was, well, you can do the psychology. Dutton was quite helpful publicly and privately. And in private, he was corruscatingly accurate in his assessment of why the great liberal University would do nothing, at least in the late 1970s, to help end the screaming injustice whose ending again draws the the world's great and good to honor Mandela.

It was, he said, a great example of what RFK, a strong critic of apartheid, had called "the violence of institutions: indifference and inaction and slow decay." And, noted Dutton, himself then counselor to one of the world's great ruthless fortunes, there was a well-established system of very big money involved, not to mention sets of decision-makers with "their rice bowls" all in place. Having a famous and large university system pull out of the arrangements in a blaze of righteous publicity was boat-rocking of a high order. It wouldn't do.

And so it did not. Then.

I graduated and left Berkeley, going on to a big "hippie grand tour" backpacking from Europe through the Middle East and Central and South Asia -- poking through the peripheries of the Soviet Union and People's Republic of China in the process and becoming the only person ever taken into custody by Soviet security troops, Chinese border troops, and the University of California police in the same year -- then on to grad school, working with the poor, the inevitable politics.

Of course I kept in touch with the anti-apartheid movement. And some years later found myself back on the UC Berkeley campus, in between Gary Hart's presidential campaigns, as an executive with a Silicon Valley PR firm with our client Dr. Robert Noyce, inventor of the integrated circuit and co-founder of microprocessor giant Intel as well as the Valley's arguably seminal company, Fairchild Semiconductor. With my boss Regis McKenna, we were there for another purpose, a meeting of the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy where we heard from, among others, Professor Laura Tyson, who went on to be one of President Bill Clinton's chief economic advisors, about ways to keep high tech manufacturing in America, a ship which has since sailed in a rather opposite direction.

But the student anti-apartheid movement, rolling again, was holding a demonstration in Sproul Plaza and Noyce -- also a Jerry Brown appointee to the University of California Board of Regents -- was intrigued enough that he wanted to check it out, so we walked over there and did just that. A moderate Republican, back when there were more of them than would fit in one of those gag Volkswagens, Noyce had a certain disdain for the event's sloppier radicalisms but was impressed by its passion. He knew apartheid was a horrible system and that the American firms the University invested in helped prop up the regime. But he disliked establishing the precedent that economic decision-making could be regularly influenced by "the shouting of a mob."

In the end, a few years still in the future then, Noyce told his Board of Regents colleagues he was fine with divestment, cast an official vote of abstention on the motion, and noted publicly that apartheid was an extraordinary and egregious system.

And all that reflects just how difficult and time-consuming just one relatively small aspect of the defeat of the apartheid system proved to be.

So as we watch the world honor Nelson Mandela this week, let's remember that it took an appallingly long time to do the obvious, that which was necessary to free the man and end the oppression in the first place.