No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century, 1950-2000

Edited by William Minter,
Gail Hovey, and Charles Cobb Jr.
Published by Africa World Press.
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More Interviews

1. Bill Sutherland
2. George Houser
3. E. S. Reddy
4. Charlene Mitchell
5. Mary Jane Patterson
6. Ben Magubane
7. Robert Van Lierop
8. Prexy Nesbitt
9. Jennifer Davis
10. Geri Augusto
11. Sylvia Hill, 2003
12. Edgar Lockwood
13. Cherri Waters
14. Dumisani Kumalo
15. Frank Beeman
16. Sylvia Hill, 2004

interviews list page

Interviews for No Easy Victories

The following text is the transcript of one of the interviews that was part of the reseearch for the book No Easy Victories. With the assistance of Aluka (aluka.org), sixteen of the interviews were transcribed and prepared for presentation on the web. Each transcript was reviewed by the interviewee, and a short introduction prepared by one of the No Easy Victories editors.

Update July 11,2020: For a YouTube video of a powerful memorial service for Jennifer Davis, who died in October 2019, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vAWRAEPI-4

Jennifer Davis

"I came from a very left group in South Africa. The idea that the churches were major players in the anti-apartheid movement was something I had to learn. ... About the relationship between the struggles in Africa and those in the United States— other people use the word 'partnership.' Partnership implies a separation, these people in Africa and those in the United States, this organization here, that one over there. That's not how it was. It was solidarity with exchanges between the two continents, the learning back and forth, the common struggle." Jennifer Davis [1]

"Here was this Jewish woman, and she is the one who made it possible for the Religious Action Network to do its work, this coalition of primarily black, male clergy and their churches. The public Jennifer, cold to some, aloof, hard to connect to, yes, but so reliable as the one to look more deeply, to insist on principle, to keep focused even in the face of terrible opposition." Canon Fred Williams, Board Member, American Committee on Africa; Co-Founder with Wyatt T. Walker of the Religious Action Network.[2]


For two decades, beginning in 1981, Jennifer Davis served as executive director of the American Committee on Africa and of its non-profit educational affiliate The Africa Fund (ACOA/AF). Under her leadership, the organizations played a central role in the national divestment movement supplying universities, trade unions, churches, and state and city governments with human and informational resources to carry out successful divestment campaigns. ACOA/AF were involved in a multiplicity of relationships including support for projects in the newly independent states of Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe. But the central focus of work was to expose and break the economic support given to the apartheid regime by American financial institutions and corporations. The imposition of economic sanctions against South Africa by the U.S. Congress in 1986 was a direct result of the nationwide, grassroots organizing and coalition building in which ACOA and The Africa Fund were so deeply engaged.

Before becoming executive director, Davis served as ACOA/AF's research director. She organized and supervised her successors and innumerable student interns in maintaining, extensive research files on the countries of Africa, especially Southern Africa, and on the U.S.relationship to and involvement in these countries. Based primarily on press clippings from African, European and American publications, and long before the advent of digital data bases, these research files were widely used by students, activists, legislators, and journalists. It was from these files that ACOA/AF produced the resources to support organizing against South Africa. Principled and rigorous, Davis insisted that publications be of practical use to activists and organizers and that everything that went out under ACOA/AF's name be fully vetted and referenced.

In exile from South Africa since 1966, Davis made her home on New York's Upper West Side a temporary dwelling place for countless people—Africans, Europeans and Americans—who were recently expelled from their country of origin, at the UN for temporary assignments, or in New York to make use of ACOA's resources. Over more than three decades, she played host to delegations and individuals from liberation, protest, human rights, and trade union movements throughout Southern Africa, providing the opportunity for them to inform and update activist Americans on the progress of their work.

Under Davis' leadership, ACOA/AF responded to the triumphalism that followed Nelson Mandela's release in 1990 from 27 years in prison with increased pressure to keep sanctions against South Africa in place until there was a genuine transfer of power from the white minority to a democratically elected majority government. After the historic 1994 elections which brought the African National Congress to power, Davis worked with ACOA/AF's boards and staffs to redefine the organizations for the 21st century. Following her retirement in 2000, the American Committee on Africa/The Africa Fund merged with the Washington based African Policy Information Center (APIC) to form Africa Action.

Jennifer Davis was born and raised in Johannesburg, her mother having left Germany to marry her South African father in the early 1930s. As a Jew, she grew up knowing of the Holocaust from her parents and her maternal grandmother. For Davis, "Never Again" meant that every Jew should be an activist, resisting religious and racial oppression wherever it occurred. She began her political involvement as a teenager, coming to understand from the inside, through her personal experience, the multiplicity of forces at play in South African society. It was not just apartheid's divisions of African, Coloured, Indian and White. Through her work in the trade union movement and as a member of the Unity Movement, she honed her understanding of the political and economic underpinnings of apartheid and what would be required to end it.

Moving to the United States more out of necessity than desire, Davis brought to the ACOA/AF, with which she quickly connected, a political depth and seriousness and an analytical sophistication that won her a permanent position on the staff. An outsider in the U.S., she learned how to navigate, as a Jew and as a white South African, the American racial, religious and political terrain, and to expand her focus to include the whole of Southern Africa.

One of her key contributions was to continually fight for an anti-imperialist focus for the American anti- apartheid and liberation support movements. While understanding the importance of human rights and political prisoner campaigns, Davis insisted that ACOA/AF concentrate on exposing and weakening the economic and political support that American institutions, both private and public, were rendering in the 1970s to Portuguese colonialism and to the white minority regime in Rhodesia, and continuing into the 1990s to white minority regimes in Namibia and South Africa.

At the same time, ACOA/AF always worked in coalition, reaching out to a broad base of allies and potential activists. One of the most important strengths of ACOA/AF's work was to reach those who were not necessarily like-minded in their political analysis, to find common ground to accomplish a specific goal, such as the passage of divestment legislation in a state legislature or at a university's board of regents.

The American Committee on Africa and The Africa Fund archives, including Jennifer Davis' work—testimony before UN Committees, speeches at a multiplicity of venues, action publications, etc.—are housed at the Amistad Research Center, Tulane University, New Orleans. A selection is being made available on-line to academic institutions through the Aluka project. (www.aluka.org). When Africa Action was created, only a small amount of material was kept outside the archive and most of that is in storage in Virginia. For additional background, see also Richard Knight's African Activist Archives at www.africanactivist.msu.edu. The following transcript is of an interview with Jennifer Davis conducted by William Minter in Washington, DC on December 12, 2004. The transcript was edited and augmented by Davis for clarity and to provide missing information.

Gail Hovey
May 2006

Edited Transcript

Interviewee: Jennifer Davis
Interviewer: William Minter
Location: Washington, DC
Date: December 12, 2004

Note: This transcript was subsequently edited by J. Davis in August 2005 and April 2006.

Q: What I'm going to start out with, Jennifer, is your growing up in South Africa. Where in South Africa did you grow up?

DAVIS: I grew up, went to school and university in Johannesburg.

My father was born in South Africa and went to university there, graduating from the University of Witwatersrand medical school in 1928.  He went on to specialize in pediatrics in Germany where he met my mother while visiting a mutual relative, who I met many years later in South Africa —Auntie Lottie. My mother was herself an independent young woman, practicing as a pharmacist. By the late twenties and early 30's the growing forces of fascism and anti-Semitism were already evident in Germany, as the Nazis increased their hold in a country deeply shaken by the Great Depression, but the story of how my parents met and became engaged to be married within six weeks was described with love and some humor, rather than as a response to the driving forces of history. Soon enough those forces had grim effects on the family left in Germany and as a child those stories too became part of my heritage. But my parents' bonding was a romantic story. They could barely talk to each other at first. He spoke almost no German and she spoke no English. But she returned to South Africa with him when he finished his studies, and they were married there in 1932.

I went to an all girls high school, which, like all government run schools, was free but also segregated throughout the apartheid era. I have driven past Parktown High School for Girls since I've been able to go home again—and felt my heart skip a little in joy as I saw the rich mix of girls wandering about, still wearing those bright blue uniforms with white shirts but with a whole new world opened up for them all. Reflecting the deep divisions that existed even within white society, Parktown High School for Girls used only English as a medium of instruction for most subjects, Afrikaans was taught like a foreign language, and we could learn Latin, or French, but not Xhosa or Zulu. Still, I think I learned something about the differences within even apparently quite homogeneous societies at that school—which drew girls from a mix of class, faith and ethnic origins— so that I could at least connect past a Jewish middle- class circle in making friends.

I went to the University of Witwatersrand [Wits] in the early fifties, and studied for a Bachelor of Arts Degree focusing on English literature, economics, and economic history. It was a strange combination.

Q: And were you politically involved by that time?

DAVIS: I was already politically involved when I was in high school.

Q: OK, tell me about it.

DAVIS: I can tell you the story of the ruler, because, thinking back later, that incident seems to mark a moment when I began to feel really passionate about political issues.

That happened at the close of the '48 election, the election which brought a National Party government to power. There had been considerable public debate about this election which even reached into the "current events" discussions at the school. I was two years from graduating and increasingly aware of the injustice and strangeness of the society about me—and of the deep differences in income, opportunity and power between black and white people. By then my friendships began to include some young university students, who were themselves involved in progressive politics. From them I would have heard the startling opinion that it did not matter which white party won the election, because all would exclude any equal black participation in South Africa's political or economic life. These were my first connections to liberation politics— and, more specifically to the Unity Movement, which functioned for several years on the Wits campus through a small organization called the Progressive Forum. Politics was rarely discussed at school, except perhaps indirectly in a weekly current affairs class. But we had an Afrikaans history teacher who was younger and a bit less formal than our usual teachers and perhaps more engaged herself.

Anyway, whatever the reason, on that day we had a very intense discussion between her and me and maybe a couple of other people in that class about what would happen in the election. She was a member of the small Afrikaner Party, led by Havenga, which, in the close election of the moment had the ability to swing the outcome — depending on which way it would make any post- election alliance. I remember trembling slightly as I stood up—you didn't really argue with the teachers. I remember starting to have an argument about how Havenga should not join with the Nationalist Party in forming a government, saying that would be terrible. Not that the United Party was so great, but it would be better. Smuts was better, in my opinion, at that point. I couldn't have known the Unity Movement people very long. [laughter]

There was a big Rembrandt picture on the wall—it's funny how these memories are embedded—and I broke the ruler which I was holding. I remember the sharp snap.

I think perhaps this was the first time I felt so passionate about politics— convinced that it really matters, willing, for a moment then to defy the normal rules of the school and the classroom. I learned very quickly it didn't matter whether the Nats or the United Party won, but I have never lost the feeling that what we as individuals do, and how we allow power to be used, matters. Years later, in America, when I began speaking to Methodist Women's educational forums at the UN, someone would always ask, how did you get involved, when did you get involved? Who knows why or when exactly? And it is interesting that they never asked that question of my organizing partner at the Africa Fund—Dumisani Kumalo [DK]. [3] So I don't know why, but I always date when to that moment because it's such a clear memory.

Q: And at university you were involved?

DAVIS: By the time I got to university, the University of the Witwatersrand in the early fifties, the Communist Party had already been banned. On the Wits campus much of the left debate was carried out in the SLA, the Student Liberal Association, which provided the public home for many who had formerly been open party members. Unity Movement members who were functioning in something called the Progressive Forum were in hot opposition to the Communist Party, and drew their ideological framework from the Trotskyist tradition. There was a lot of debate, mainly about the nature, structure and possible transformation of South African society, but also about international issues, and about broader ideas, the role of art and science, the nature of capitalism and imperialism. Wits was still a somewhat racially open campus at that point.  It was a place where there could be fierce debate between black and white, one of the few such places in that very segregated society.

Q: Did this debate result in action campaigns and if so, what kind?

DAVIS: There wasn't much real campaigning in the sense of organizing on campus— on the left students rarely got involved with campaigning for white elections, and the campus was overwhelmingly white, though several faculties were open to all students who wanted to come.

Q: More debating ideas and tactics?

DAVIS: Yes, remember that the early fifties were a period of intensifying repression, with the now empowered Nationalist Party moving to implement its apartheid ideas. The ANC [African National Congress] and its allies began building up towards the Defiance Campaign and then the Congress of the People. I remember the deep divisions between Unity Movement and ANC supporters about the Defiance Campaign—we rejected the idea that using passive resistance to defy "unjust" laws could seriously shake the apartheid system. By then there was more than a decade of difference between policies proposed by the African National Congress and the All African Convention/Unity Movement. In 1943 the latter had developed a Ten Point Program outlining their basic demands, which included the full vote, freedom of movement, the right to land and reference to redivision of land. Unity Movement followers were very critical of what they termed the collaboration policies of the Communist Party and the ANC, attacked the system of "special representatives" which allowed a small section of the African population to vote for a tiny number of white representatives, and argued that the task of the Congress of the People which gave birth to the Freedom Charter in 1955 had already been achieved in the creation of the Ten Point Program. This is probably not the place to list the many issues debated—and the campus itself could not be the site for real organizing—that work had to be done in the townships, where people lived, in the mines and factories where they worked, and in the countryside. But it is not irrelevant that the issues were so hotly debated on campus—many of the young men and women, black and white, student and young faculty, who struggled with each other then played very active parts in the struggles that lay ahead.

Also I learned an enormous amount in those years, perhaps mostly outside the classroom, although I had a couple of interesting and progressive lecturers. Mostly I learned in the movement study groups in which we read many banned texts and other books—I read about slavery, I remember the impression Eric Williams' book about the slave trade made on me, I read much about the Russian Revolution, but also about the impact of imperialism on India in R. Palme Dutt's India Today . I read everything I could get my hands on about the South African economy, driven by the importance assigned to understanding the links between economic, land and political dispossession and the migratory labor system by Unity Movement thinkers like I. B. Tabata. The work I did in these years, grappling with understanding the role of foreign capital in South African and colonial development, and the shifting power relationships within the domestic economy, as Afrikaners used political leverage to acquire economic power, all helped lay solid foundations for the work we did many years later seeking to impose sanctions on apartheid .

Q: And then after university?

DAVIS: I went to work on the periphery of the trade union movement as the secretary of a body called an industrial council, actually for the millinery industry. I got the job through someone who was probably a member of the Communist Party and who was leaving the position, a young man I'd become quite friendly with through family connections. The industrial councils functioned within the system of labor legislation, basically providing a negotiating forum for recognized trade unions (frequently almost entirely white) and employers' associations—negotiation would lead to an agreement being reached for the particular industry, which covered wages, hours, benefits, rights etc, and the council then had the responsibility of monitoring the agreement and ensuring that both parties adhered to it. The union for millinery workers was the Garment Workers Union—a union with an interesting, sometimes quite militant anti-racist history, for many years led by Solly Sachs.

The union had built its strength organizing the white dispossessed who had flooded into the cities in the 1930s driven by the collapse of agriculture and the great depression. Later, under pressure, despite his progressive credentials, Sachs had allowed segregation to divide the union. By the time I came into direct contact most union members were probably "coloured" workers although there were growing numbers of African women working in both the clothing and in the millinery industry, and far fewer white workers. But the union was predominantly run by white workers, including several very powerful Afrikaner women who had come into and built the union as themselves dispossessed people. So they were tough and they had a long history of militancy. They just didn't think that it mattered very much that they ran the union and new black members were expected to do what they were told. It was a keen lesson in double standards and failed principles, but it also allowed me to meet many of the workers who came to the office with their complaints, and get to know several organizers of the small non-racial unions which had offices in the same building along with the editor, Ruth First, and staff of the progressive newspaper variously named The Guardian, New Age etc. as it fought to stay alive under a hail of bannings.

Q: And from there?

DAVIS: At the level of the Unity Movement, we were doing a variety of organizing— for instance building contacts with mine workers, all of them migratory, reaching out to teachers and urban workers. The group I was directly engaged in functioned mainly in the Johannesburg area, and had close links with others working in both rural and urban Natal. Because the NEUM [Non-European Unity Movement] was not a direct member organization but had a federal structure, it linked many constituent groups, so that we also had contact with groups working all over the country, and would have representatives at the annual conferences.

We engaged through the years until I left South Africa in 1966 in many different forms of organizing. When I first became involved the Johannesburg group was composed of both black and white university students, others who worked at a variety of jobs. At one point we ran a study group for migratory mine workers. I couldn't go into the compounds; others of our group could and did. We had several members who were rooted in Alexandra Township, so one of the campaigns we were involved with was the Alexandra bus boycott of 1957, a local struggle which displayed the strength and determination of the people, the importance and complexity of strong local leadership.

The fifties were years of sharpening conflict—one of apartheid's architects; Hendrik Verwoerd, first as Minister of "Native Affairs" and later as Prime Minister set about building a solid structure for an intentionally and permanently unequal society in which blacks would be taught to know that "There is no place for him (the Bantu) in the European Community above the level of certain forms of labor." In 1953 he introduced the Bantu Education Act, designed to codify a separate and unequal system of education, removing black schools from the control of churches, which had, for many years provided much of the education available to black children at elementary and high school level. The assault on education provoked tremendous resistance. Many Unity Movement members were part of the overall body through their teachers' associations—the Cape African Teachers Association—and they led local struggles which were particularly strong in the Eastern Cape.

At one point, while I was still finishing my undergraduate degree, students at one of the big Soweto high schools went out on strike—or organized a boycott, as they called it then—in support of teachers who had been dismissed. The three dismissed teachers were not all members of the Unity Movement, but they all held progressive positions and were much respected by their students. In the subsequent boycott school, I taught a variety of subjects, including the history of the French Revolution, to big classes of incredibly attentive students cramped in inadequate desks and space; this was the generation before the pioneers of the 1976 uprising but they had the same seriousness of purpose combined with all the intensity, ability to laugh and dismiss sentimentality, and passion for truth that has fired vital student action through a century of struggle.  We were intense and very serious ourselves! We had special public meetings and regular weekly meetings and we sold a weekly paper called The Torch which was produced by the movement in Cape Town. I think now that it was a poor "tool" to explain ideas, events and organizing strategies— I hope I have learned from that and other experiences to do better, write with more clarity and discipline and sound less sectarian.

Q: Who was the audience for The Torch?

DAVIS: We spent every weekend selling that newspaper, in areas called Noordgesig and Coronationville, Albertville and Fordsburg These were mostly on the edge of African townships, where access was more difficult; we had regular "beats" in these working class "coloured" areas. When I left South Africa, I found some of my old record cards. We had the houses numbered, which house bought, which one didn't, and which houses had big dogs! We also continued to meet very steadily in a public meeting once a week, where we would sometimes be planning campaigns, talking about current issues, debating formulations or strategies. The Progressive Forum members were now joined by growing numbers of members of the Society of Young Africa, but here is probably not the time to talk about structural change in the Unity Movement.

Q: Your involvement with the Unity Movement continued into the early '60s?

DAVIS: We continued to meet, into the sixties but after Sharpeville, and the 1960 banning of many liberatory organizations it got harder and harder for people to hold formal, open meetings.

Q: So when was it you came to the States?

DAVIS: 1966.

Q: 1966. What prompted you to come to the States rather than elsewhere? You were already married?

DAVIS: Yes, I was married and we had two young children, a daughter born in 1959 and a son born immediately after the Sharpeville massacre, in 1960. I remember being in the hospital when I heard about friends being detained, and going home a couple of days later and hearing every car that passed by at night outside the house where we were living, wondering if it would stop and produce that dreaded midnight hammering on the door.

We hadn't developed a clear plan for leaving South Africa, or for where we might go if we did leave. But by '66, organizing was very difficult, lots of people were in detention, or had been placed under house arrest, most of the major organizations were banned, as were an increasing number of individuals including a growing number of those we worked with closely, at both grassroots and leadership level. So although we did not sit down and make careful plans, I remember various evenings spent with progressive friends where one of the topics of discussion was who had left recently, where had they gone, what were they doing? Leaving was not simple for political people, who had to grapple both with their conscience about "leaving the struggle" and with the authorities, who controlled the issuing of passports very tightly, seeking to use this as another lever of control.

Ultimately we came to the U.S. because I had a brother living in New York, rather than going elsewhere in Africa, which was still difficult to do in the days not long after the ending of colonial rule, or going to the U.K., another frequent destination for politicos who went into exile in the late fifties and sixties.

Leaving South Africa was painful for me, and happened quite suddenly, in a traumatic few weeks which started by my husband Mike leaving to visit my brother, traveling on a valid passport, a move which was followed by several calls from the police indicating that they believed he had left illegally and that I would soon be subjected to some form of house arrest order, as would he, if he returned. He found supportive new friends in New York, several of whom were connected to ACOA [American Committee on Africa]; they helped him use his legal training in South Africa to open the way to a job in the U.S. He had done many political cases in South Africa, including several where he was instructed by the Tambo-Mandela law firm. In the U.S. he could not start a practice without taking various exams, but he could and did work for a U.S. law firm until he was able to qualify again and he eventually built a new career with a firm doing trademark and patent law.

Close friends, including Joel and Jeanette Carlson, encouraged and helped me pack up and leave within a few weeks. I arrived on June 6th with my two kids and two huge suitcases and was plunged into maybe 97 degrees and incredible humidity. Mike had found a sublet apartment on Broadway, on the upper West Side. And so began the next stage of my political life—in America!

Q. What were your reactions to being in New York, to the U.S. and to the connections you found had already been made to Africa?

A. We found the neighborhood in which we lived, the Upper West Side, and much of New York totally different from the glossy, efficient image projected by the American journals and movies that we saw in South Africa. I already knew the ugly side—the politics that led to the war in Vietnam, the subversion used to destroy Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, the Bay of Pigs, also we knew about the courage of the civil rights struggle activists, had read speeches of Martin Luther King, and sang both the civil rights and the labor movement "freedom songs". But up close was much more personal, more intensely flavored by the divisions within America. My children enjoyed the freedom of city life, the running up to the corner to buy hot-dogs, but they missed their friends and their space. It was summer, the kids and I were apartment hunting, but in between we were grateful for the park that ran along the river. The population distribution seemed strange, with very few women and children about in the day. We would see white business men coming home from work in the evening—but where were their families? And the black people we saw in that neighborhood were rarely playing or relaxing in the park—we saw them only at work. It didn't take long to figure out that the middle class moved out of the city if they could, maybe their kids went to camp, all to avoid the heavy humid heat. When we walked just a few blocks away from Riverside Drive or Broadway we would begin to see increasing poverty. We didn't have to go as far as Harlem to see derelict buildings and kids whose summer camp was the street fire hydrant.

An early encounter taught me a keen lesson in the tunnel vision many Americans use to perceive themselves and their society. A few weeks after we arrived we were invited to dinner by friends of my parents, wealthy professionals they had met at international conferences. They lived in a beautiful townhouse with magnificent artwork on the

walls. They were genuinely kind to me, and concerned about how we were settling in. I went alone, Mike was taking care of the kids.

After dinner one of the guests said to me "You must see great differences between South Africa and here." Well of course I did, but I also saw great similarities. So I said, "Yes, but I also see a tremendous number of very poor black people, and wealthy people seem mostly white." Slightly disconcerted, she pulled herself up to her elegant height and said "There are no poor people in America." I've told that story often to the groups of people concerned about apartheid and poverty in Africa who kept asking me why many whites in South Africa seemed blind to the destruction inflicted on black society by apartheid. This was a useful learning experience for subsequent political organizing.

Q: How did you go about finding your work?

DAVIS: Mike and I both had introductions to people like Elizabeth Landis, Peter Weiss and George Houser, all closely connected to ACOA; very soon I found my way to the ACOA office on 43rd St, near the UN, both in search of advice about how to find work where I could continue to exercise my skills and my concern and, once I had met and talked with them, a willingness to get engaged with the work they were doing.

In the fall of 1966 ACOA, working in support of the sports boycott, arranged some meetings for South African activist and poet, Dennis Brutus, who had recently been released from Robben Island, where he had served 18 months for his relentless, and ultimately very successful, attempt to get South Africa's all-white team thrown out of the International Olympics. He had founded the organization SANROC [South African Non- Racial Olympic Committee] in 1962, and was arrested in 1963 but the movement grew and by 1964 South Africa was banned from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and not re- admitted until 1992. Dennis left South Africa in July 1966; he had a very bad time in police hands, and when he first came to the U.S. was still suffering from the trauma, but threw himself into broadening the building of the sports boycott. I worked with ACOA writing background and publicity materials for a tour Mary Louise Hooper organized. We had lots of space in our apartment, though very little furniture, and Dennis stayed with us for a while, sometimes wandering around late at night as he worked on his poetry. The children were fascinated, and I still read the volume he sent us later.

Q: Can you remember other campaigns ACOA was involved in then?

DAVIS: I turned to ACOA for assistance in response to an urgent call from my friend, the attorney Joel Carlson, in South Africa, who was acting on behalf of 37 Namibians, all members of the South West African Peoples' Organization [SWAPO], the liberation movement struggling for independence from South Africa. They were the first people to be charged under the South African Terrorism Act.  The day after the law was enacted the Namibians were brought out of many months of solitary confinement, during which many had been horribly tortured, and charged with terrorism. They all faced a possible death sentence.

Initially, as Joel and the lawyers he had briefed began to prepare their defense case they needed many UN documents dealing with the issues of the [League of Nations] mandate, the legality of S.A. [South African] control etc, and I spent many hours at the UN seeking these out and then making copies at ACOA, which in those days worked with a rather ancient machine. I made lasting friends with some people at the UN at that time including Enuga Reddy, the key permanent staff person for the Special Committee Against Apartheid. His office was always piled high with documents, and in later years one had to navigate cautiously down the narrow pathways between the piles, but in the over 30 years I have know him I think there was never a document he could not find, mostly immediately.

I began to know the ACOA staff very well—most particularly George Houser, then the executive director, Blyden Jackson, who was writing the second report that ACOA published on the role of U.S. investment in supporting apartheid, and Janet McLaughlin  (now Hooper), who could work harder and longer than almost anyone I have ever met and has stayed my friend and a member of the woman's group I have been part of since 1972.

Joel came to the U.S. to help generate awareness of the urgency of the issue, and as he stayed with us I came to know well the core group of people in New York who cared passionately about Namibia, including Bill Johnston and Elizabeth Landis. I hope as this history of the solidarity movement in the U.S. unfolds the stories of remarkable people like these who stayed engaged for many decades will emerge. In December 1967 ACOA helped organize a statement by 200 lawyers on the case. Ultimately, although most accused were convicted, the international campaign and a Security Council resolution helped avert any death sentences, and men like Toivo Ya Toivo lived to serve as cabinet members in the first government of an independent Namibia in 1990.

The other people I met soon after I arrived and with whom I continued to interact closely for many years, along with the people in my life at ACOA and the Africa Fund, were the Southern Africa Committee members. I met people like South African exile Ken Carstens, and Mary McAnnally, who could type something like 80 words a minute—a great asset when preparing newsletters, which we did. The group—really a form of volunteer collective—put out a regular magazine, at that point primarily a collection of news- clippings. As Africa hardly ever featured in the mainline press, and this was an era long before web pages and Google, that was an important agent of awareness building— focusing as it did on repression and resistance. Later we moved on to developing a capacity for original reporting and analysis, and for a brief but very happy period in my life, I became the editor.

Q: So you began to develop political connections and work in the U.S.?

DAVIS: Yes, although it took me a little while to get all the pieces of my life together— learning about the New York Public School system for my children, who were then seven and six years old, trying to work out whether it would be possible to complete the post-graduate study on the S.A. economy I had just begun at Wits early in 1966, and of course, finding work; my first income- generating work was with ACOA, and I gradually moved from doing individual projects to joining the staff as a part-time employee. Early on I worked a little on some of the research that Blyden Jackson was doing on the role being played by U.S. investment in South Africa; this was published in Africa Today, and also published in pamphlet form, to make it easily accessible to the growing number of activists beginning to develop campaigns aimed at ending the flow of U.S. dollars to apartheid.  I set out to organize the masses of information contained in newspaper clip files, replacing the many drawers marked General by somewhat more rigorous sections devoted to critical economic, political and human rights issues in several Southern African countries still under some form of colonial or apartheid rule. That was the beginning of a research program that sought to undergird our activism with accurate and well focused information.

I followed on Blyden's analysis of U.S.-S.A. links with a pamphlet called Allies in Empire which looked carefully at the economic and military connections which made the U.S. an active partner with the Lisbon government in attempts to suppress guerrilla wars of liberation being fought in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau. By the early 1970s I was learning much more about developments in Africa than I had been able to do while in South Africa, because of course there had been a deliberate attempt by the apartheid state to keep such dangerous material off the newsstands and the airwaves.

At ACOA I met people like Prexy Nesbitt and Bob van Lierop who cared passionately about the outcome of these struggles, and were engaged in intense discussions about which of the liberation movements should be supported.

Q: Essentially your focus had been South Africa?

DAVIS: Right. Living in South Africa meant being focused on the domestic struggle, although we were aware of international struggles, and had been deeply angered by the U.S. role in the Congo, and what we regarded as their murder of Patrice Lumumba. 

Q: And you were aware of the U.S. involvement there?

DAVIS: Yes. As best we could we paid attention to the growing anti-imperialist struggles; we followed the Vietnamese struggles against the French and then the U.S. We were deeply interested in events in China. But little of this was part of the conversation of daily organizing.

Q: And what was the perception from South Africa of the civil rights movement in the States?

DAVIS: Remember that South African censorship meant that we had no television, so we saw very few of the powerful images that shocked many people in the U.S. and internationally. We knew about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, who were seen as important figures, representing different strands of struggle, and that was quite hotly debated, but I think amongst young black South Africans what had happened in the Congo, the role of the U.S. there and the beginning of armed struggle on our own continent aroused more passionate interest.

Q: Am I correct that your contacts with Frelimo [the Mozambique liberation movement founded by Eduardo Mondlane and others in 1962] and Amilcar Cabral were made in the early '70s?

DAVIS: Yes.  I came to respect and work very closely with representatives from several of the Southern African movements and learned as much as I could, as quickly as I could, about their struggles, and the role the U.S. and other industrial countries were playing in seeking to crush them. Contact with Amilcar Cabral, leader of the PAIGC [Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde], a quiet, profoundly political man with a swift, uncompromising intellect and a deep sense of the fundamental importance of the mass base in a freedom struggle was extraordinary. And I formed close, long lasting friendships, that endure today, with the men and women who came to the U.S. to tell the story of their people's oppression and freedom struggle.

ACOA did a lot of public education about the active role both U.S. government and corporations played in undermining the liberation struggles and supporting the Portuguese colonial regime and the white minority rulers in Rhodesia and South Africa. Representatives from these movements— Hage Geingob and later Theo-Ben Gurirab of SWAPO, Shafrudine Khan of Frelimo and others in the Rhodesian movements, ZAPU [Zimbabwe African People's Union] and ZANU [Zimbabwe African National Union]— played critical roles in making these struggles live vividly for thousands of Americans, and we began to target campaigns to end the U.S. collaboration which kept the oppressors in power.

I remember in the late 1960s having a long conversation with organizers of the successful United Farm Workers grape boycott, seeking to learn from them how best we might set about organizing a boycott of Angolan coffee in the U.S. The work we did on this, and the subsequent boycott of Gulf Oil, which was operating in Angola and providing millions of dollars to the Portuguese military regime were both small but well supported campaigns, which began to build a broader base of popular support for Africa's liberation struggles—and taught us important lessons that made us more effective as we took up the struggle against apartheid.  Much of our organizing was around South Africa, but we very consciously looked at the Southern Africa region as a dynamically interconnected whole. Liberation victories in the Portuguese colonies could significantly undercut apartheid's stranglehold on South Africa. So we worked hard at supporting the Rhodesian, Namibian and Portuguese colony struggles.

Q: I'm particularly interested in exploring your observations on the '80s in which the focus was much more on South Africa.

DAVIS: I know we should be getting to the 80s, but I want a minute's break to remember the extraordinary decade that was the 70s. Most dramatic, perhaps, was the achievement of independence by Portugal's African colonies. Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau all celebrated their victories and moved on to build tremendously hopeful new states in 1975. A new vibrancy in the anti- apartheid struggle inside South Africa was marked by the growth of the BCM [Black Consciousness Movement], new militancy among students, and the dramatic upsurge of worker militancy amongst African and other black workers. African membership of unions was illegal or severely constrained, and the late sixties had seen widespread repression across the progressive union movement. But in 1972 and 1973 a wave of strikes that had their birth amongst sugar plantation workers in Natal, and soon moved into industrial arenas led to the birth of many new unions. The formation in 1979 of FOSATU [Federation of South African Trade Unions], the progressive federation, eventually provided the base for the formation of COSATU [Congress of South African Trade Unions] in December 1985.

Gradually, throughout the 70s and on into the 80s we built close ties with many of the new unions—in arenas such as mining, metal, food and chemicals. These connections enabled us to strengthen ties with progressive sectors in the U.S. labor movement— we had long had a relationship with the UAW [United Auto Workers], and in the days when we were trying to enforce sanctions against the import of Rhodesian chrome into the U.S., or tracking U.S. weapons connections in the region we found staunch allies amongst the Longshoremen.

Maybe now is a good time to stress that organizing in the U.S. was always profoundly affected by what was happening in South Africa. Sometimes this was because the media paid most attention when dramatic bad things were happening—the Soweto shootings in the 1970s, the UDF [United Democratic Front] street battles which coincided with Desmond Tutu accepting a Nobel Peace Prize, created public attention far beyond our capabilities. But the significance of the activist role at such times was that we had campaigns that could channel the resulting anger and disgust—so Americans could do more than rage— they could target their efforts at cutting off the flow of funds and sophisticated weapons, equipment, even oil, that kept the vicious system alive.

Q: Not limiting the comments to decades then, but in terms of how you saw the support for South Africa building up, and who you were working with. You became director of ACOA in 1981.  Dumisani had come on?

DAVIS: Dumisani joined ACOA in the summer of 1979 and immediately did a ten week tour of some thirty campuses, as part of our growing outreach to students. His first organizing responsibility for ACOA was the bank campaign. ACOA had campaigned against bank loans from the 60s but in 1977, as the pace of struggle accelerated in South Africa, and awareness in the U.S. responded, ACOA and Clergy and Laity Concerned [CALC] set up the Campaign Against Bank Loans to South Africa (COBLSA); Dumisani took over the coordinator's role from Prexy Nesbitt and Gene Jones of CALC, who had shared the work. COBLSA provided an important coalition framework for some 50 organizations, including unions, churches, local anti-apartheid groups and national organizations like the AFSC [American Friends Service Committee].

Q: I'm going to ask some specific questions about the networks that came to be important. The state and local divestment group, and the Religious Action Network [RAN]. But before we get into specifics about that, how would you describe the evolution?

DAVIS: The divestment organizing and victories really grew out of the student movement, because it was the students who post-'76 really gave it a mass character. Until then, much of our work had focused on trying to educate the church leaders who controlled investment policy for their often extremely wealthy institutions, and also, at the same time trying to build awareness about the role of U.S. investment in apartheid among the people in the congregations. I participated in many meetings organized by Tim Smith of ICCR [Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility]. I remember sitting with many others in a sort of informal picket in the lobby of the Episcopal Church headquarters in New York early in 1969, while "leadership" discussions were going on upstairs about investment policy, and a demand was being made that "social criteria" should be used when considering investment in South Africa. That's where I first became aware of Bill Johnston, who I was sure was an agent because he was taking so many photographs, and the only people I knew who took photographs were the South African cops. I was swiftly convinced, watching his untiring work, that Bill was actually just a great activist who took photographs all the time.

Q: And your sense of those meetings?

DAVIS: Those meetings taught us to lay out our arguments to very diverse audiences, and they began to build broader awareness of the issues we were raising—that U.S. money invested in South Africa was not just "neutral and economically profitable" but that it was profitable because apartheid crushed all worker organizing and kept wages as low as a few cents or less an hour, and that U.S. money helped the apartheid state build and service its whole system of oppression. But those early meetings reflected the reality that we who were making the call for change had no real power behind us. We had years of hard work ahead of us to mobilize the "people in the pews" that were [Washington Office on Africa Director] Jean Sindab's target, the many thousands who demonstrated on campuses, occupied administration offices, fought the good fight at huge annual denomination conferences and eventually created the climate in which supporting congressional sanctions became a political necessity for many Senators and Representatives.

George and others had done early bank campaign work with public demonstrations in the sixties. But I think it was really the student movement that began to make a significant difference.

Q: So you would say that raising the issue with the churches before '76 —

DAVIS: Well, I think it was important because —

Q: It was raised, but there was no force to get them to act.

DAVIS: Yes. Although I wish we had time to look at this more closely—because through the 70s and 80s there were already people who did an incredible amount of work in the churches trying to broaden that base and eventually succeeding in achieving major victories. There were a core group of Lutheran activists; I remember Kim Zalent and Joe Barndt who did this work for years.

Q: And that student activism was essentially a response to Soweto and Biko and the sequence of '76, '77?

DAVIS: Right. And that raised again the question of which groups, within South Africa, should be supported. Steve Biko's work created significant recognition of the role of the BCM [Black Consciousness Movement], as did the upsurge in the 70s among students, which broke into American awareness after peacefully protesting students in Soweto in June 1976 were massacred in a hail of police bullets. Insofar as there had been support for the South African liberation struggle, it had mostly gone to the ANC in the U.S., although by the late 1970s both the ANC and the PAC [Pan Africanist Congress] had official representation. It's worth remembering here that any effort to support liberation movements through the first 25 years I was in the U.S. was done in the context of the Cold War, where the movements were branded in Washington and most other establishment circles as terrorist, because they engaged in armed struggle, and communist, because they represented efforts to share in the wealth produced in their countries.

Q: So the research you were doing in the late '70s then was feeding into the student divestment campaign?

DAVIS: Yes.  Mike Fleshman, later ACOA's human rights coordinator, who was at Santa Cruz in those years, says his group initially found material from ACOA that got them all going in California. They wanted to do something, they looked around, and there were our fact sheets. So they used them. Then we moved into the questions and answers about divestments and so on, always trying to tailor our materials to the needs of people doing organizing in the field. It is often difficult to judge one's effectiveness, but there are these random little bits of evidence— often gathered twenty or thirty years later. Two years ago I was seeing a well established lawyer in New York with a group of tenants, and she recognized me and enthusiastically reminded me of my visit to her campus in New Orleans during a time of divestment struggle there.

Q: Can you talk about the development of the divestment movement?

DAVIS: We continued our work with both student and faith community activists; Josh Nessen joined our staff in 1979, coming out of a family of student activists, and stayed to help build a loose- knit but very visible divestment campaign, with a newsletter and annual weeks of action that linked the Sharpeville massacre and the assassination of Martin Luther King. Sustained, very determined and imaginative student action eventually led some 150 universities to divest their funds from corporations investing in apartheid.

By 1980 we had begun to seek out ways to magnify the impact of divestment. That meant reaching out far beyond already well established networks. Our aim was always to get U.S. investment and companies out of South Africa. Simple arithmetic, which proved correct, suggested to us that the companies would stay, enjoying the benefits of apartheid, until they calculated that staying was costing them more than leaving. So we needed to raise their pain—and that meant increasing the size of the investments that might be pulled out of their control. We did lots of new learning in those days, not only about Africa, but about the nature of investment. We recognized that although both universities and churches controlled many millions of dollars of investments, the billion- dollar funds we could influence were held by states and cities, often in public employee pension funds. We needed to strengthen ties with union members and leaders, with state and city public officials and legislators and with investment advisors.

We had already begun to develop the evidence that although apartheid was profitable investors need not sacrifice their returns by investing in socially responsible corporations. We became mini- experts in social screens and fiduciary responsibilities—and drew significant assistance from a growing group of investment advisors who themselves believed in advocating socially responsible investment. Invaluable advice and support came from activist/experts like John Harrington who already in 1972 had authored a legislative report for the California Assembly Office of Research analyzing California's economic involvement with firms operating in South Africa, and went on to assist the state legislature's Black Caucus to draft divestment legislation.

After 1980 we focused increasingly on achieving what we began to call people's sanctions, because there was almost no support in Washington for imposing either economic or other sanctions on apartheid. Even progressive congressional members were convinced that comprehensive sanctions were only a dream. So we set our sights on targets closer to the homes of the millions of Americans who were already rejecting U.S. collaboration with apartheid. Ultimately those people's sanctions made it possible to win action in Congress.

Q: Dumisani was essentially the person going out and making most of the contacts? 

DAVIS: Right. But most of our staff were involved in some way, writing, speaking, researching, and keeping in close and constant touch, often by long phone conversations, with the diverse members of the growing network. I remember that Gail [Hovey] went out, speaking and doing some of the early writing. Richard Knight began to keep close tabs on the U.S. corporations invested in South Africa, also maintaining careful lists of the states, cities and counties that had adopted some form of divestment legislation, and tracking the amounts involved in actual subsequent divestments.

Q: Who were some of the key people around the country at the state and local level who eventually made up the networks, or was it Dumisani who was making those contacts who would have the names?

DAVIS: I hope we can find some photos of our first "Conference on Public Investment and South Africa," held in New York in June 1981. Forty legislators from 14 states, along with activists from their constituencies, came to share ideas about how to move ahead. At this point no divestment legislation had passed in any state, but already legislators, black and white, from as far afield as Wisconsin, Nebraska, Nevada as well as the East and West Coasts and the South had begun to be engaged.

We had begun the new phase of our work by forming a coordinating committee which included ACOA, CALC, ICCR, TransAfrica, AFSC and WOA [Washington Office on Africa] as core members—the 1981 Conference was organized in the name of that coalition and drew in contacts drawn from all the members. It is a tribute to Dumisani's organizational skill and wisdom that, against considerable odds we kept this committee together, working in a common direction, until it was time to heed Nelson Mandela's call to lift sanctions.

That first conference was extraordinary and exciting. We spent time providing briefings on the situation in South Africa and the role of U.S. investment; but there was also plenty of time for participants to exchange ideas and develop strategies. State Senator Julian Bond roused participants with a dynamic keynote address. One after the other legislators stood up to talk about legislation they had already introduced or planned to introduce soon. And these were promises kept within the year. We broke through some conventional wisdom with this meeting. We had good relations with the Centre Against Apartheid at the United Nations. Challenging the widely held belief that few Americans liked or respected the United Nations we accepted an invitation to have the legislators meet with members of the Special Committee on Apartheid while in New York. They were warmly welcomed by the Nigerian Ambassador who chaired the Committee, were heartened by the enthusiasm which greeted their concern to change U.S. policies on supporting apartheid, and were happy to participate in the press conference held at the UN, and to take turns having their photo taken with the Nigerian Ambassador.

Q: What sticks in your memory about all this organizing?

DAVIS: I think it is the extraordinary range of people who got involved, at many levels, and their seriousness. Some kept on working to achieve a goal for long years, sometimes they had broad local alliances, to support and encourage them, sometimes they must have felt quite alone and isolated. Very often they made strong connections between work they were doing in the domestic arena, work that maybe affected their own lives, or those of their neighbors, and the anti- apartheid work.

Over the years we worked with so many great people—people like State Representative Mel King and State Senator Jack Backman up in Massachusetts, the first state to adopt total divestment, where they maintained a longstanding black and white alliance which was, to some extent also mirrored in the grassroots network around them. It wasn't always like that. And quite often the lone African American legislator was really important.

But Kumalo always used to point out that, given the realities of American population and power distributions, you couldn't pass anything if you only had black support. Alliances were essential—and often those had to be bipartisan as well as black and white. So many names and faces dance through my memories—in Michigan, Representatives Virgil Smith and Perry Bullard worked tirelessly with strong local activist groups drawn from Michigan campuses, churches, and the labor movement. In Wisconsin Representative Marcia Coggs was an early participant in the battle and later her son took over the struggle. State Senator Ernie Chambers, the only African American in the Nebraska state legislature, learned in 1980 that several thousand dollars worth of Krugerrands had been donated to the University of Nebraska. He introduced a bill to reduce the state's budget allocation to the university by the value of the Krugerrands. After Dumisani went out to Nebraska to testify the bill was passed and we kept close contact with Chambers for many years. The names would fill books, and I'd still be forgetting some.

In the early days DK did much of the outreach, inspiring, and organizing—I did a lot of testifying when it got to hearings.

Q: At universities?

DAVIS: Yes, both for state and city legislation, in many meetings with big bank executives as we campaigned to end bank loans to apartheid, and also at universities, as well as often going down to Washington to testify before senate and congressional committees. I got to see much of America because the students on many campuses invited me to come speak as their struggles developed— and as they got stronger they would insist that their board of trustees invite me to formal hearings. Those could be tough— often speaking to a room full of hostile faces—#151;but outside the students provided all the moral support anyone could hope for. I went up to Hampshire College early in the student struggle, and later I remember at least three trips to Amherst; perhaps it was the last time, when the trustees were making their decision, that we stood for many hours as the evening went by, in deep and falling snow, awaiting an outcome. And I had a debate with Hannah Gray.

Q: Hanna Gray? That was Chicago?


Q: Tell me about that.

DAVIS: She was already the university president, with a reputation both as a major academic and tough negotiator. Afterwards the students claimed I won the debate handily but the university maintained its policy of refusing to divest —as did several of the Ivy League schools. We didn't always win the battles, but we helped build a remarkably powerful movement. I went to California several times, getting to see Sacramento while testifying for state action; the places blur— but the archives have copies of all the different testimonies. What I remember best is the hard work and the passion of the many many people who hosted us, worked on the issue, even provided some of the financial support that kept us able to continue the struggle.

Q: So Dumisani would essentially make the contacts—

DAVIS: Oh, and he did a lot of the testifying. But sometimes I would use my economist background to talk to trustees or investment advisors when we felt they wanted something that sounded more—

Q: More technical?

DAVIS: Yes. Right. DK was just phenomenal in terms of—he had an overall grasp that was second to none. So we both did testimony, with sometimes different nuances. One of the other people who was really critical in some of this work was a young ANC representative, then named David Ndaba (a nom de guerre,.for Sam Gulabe).We had a happy reunion years later, when we bumped into each other at Thabo Mbeki's inauguration as President.

Q: He was the ANC representative? Or deputy?

DAVIS: He was one of the young people in the ANC office when Mfanafuthi (Johnny) Makatini was head representative. Makatini sometimes seemed to wish we would follow the English organizing strategy which focused on human rights/free political prisoner campaigns such as " Free Nelson Mandela." We believed we could have a more powerful impact by building sanctions. I think he recognized that we were making a useful noise. So he often agreed to have David Ndaba testify, and David was terrific. He was very young. Very serious. But he had an angel's face and he was very convincing. I did quite a lot of speaking with him.

Q: Well basically was this both public speaking, and testimony ?

DAVIS: Right. I thought it was important to speak in a team with an African, because I was sometimes attacked for being white—I had incredible debates with Gatsha Buthelezi on television where, defending U.S. investment in South Africa, he attacked me as the white lady who is telling lies.

Q: Debates here in the States?

DAVIS: Yes, right. Television.

Q: So what was the debate?

DAVIS: Well, Gatsha was arguing against sanctions and divestment. He kept on using the racist argument that he's black, I'm white. What do I know? He must know best.

Q: And he was defending—

DAVIS: We should have more investment. I developed I think a fair amount of credibility, over the years, but politically I always felt it important to speak along with somebody from the ANC, or DK, or a representative from Africa who could speak about the ongoing struggle. Passionate and very effective speakers came from South African human rights groups like the Detainees Parents' Support Committee, and church leaders like Frank Chikane and Desmond Tutu.

Q: Can you explain a bit more about the links between the various campaigns over time—what did you learn over time?

DAVIS: Well, for instance, skeptics used to say there's no way you will be able to explain the complexities of the divestment campaign to people—I mean divestment was so complicated, because " the ask" wasn't even direct, like take your money out of South Africa. Instead it was take your money out of corporations that have their money in South Africa. It might have been seen as always one step too many. But in fact, people got to understand it very well. They used to talk about they were boycotting South Africa or divesting from South Africa. They were actually divesting from General Motors, but the aim was impacting on, undercutting the strength of apartheid South Africa, and they could understand the connection well if we presented it clearly.

Q: Right. And so you're saying that basic kind of connection between economic interests and supporting racist or oppressive regimes had already been made in the case of Portugal with Gulf Oil, and with Rhodesian chrome.

DAVIS: Right. I think that Randall [Robinson] burning the crosses in Harvard Yard to highlight the connection between Gulf Oil, its support of Portuguese colonial rule in Angola, and U.S. investors was one of the first really publicly somewhat effective economic campaign actions. I'm not sure we ever quite got there with Rhodesian chrome. In Europe, which imported products like oranges and apples from South Africa, very big boycotts were organized. Here we rarely had that kind of opportunity—but as consciousness about apartheid and understanding about economic actions grew local groups sometimes demonstrated very imaginative understanding of the role of economic pressure on apartheid.

Q: Can you give an example?

DAVIS: In 1983 New York City municipal workers—members of a local within DC 37, [4] already working closely with ACOA—discovered South African canned pineapple being served in a shelter for homeless men. As a result the various municipal unions mobilized to stop this and went much further, leading a successful effort, the following year, to divest New York City pension funds from companies investing in South Africa. Many of those involved helped create a city-wide New York Labor Committee Against Apartheid. It played a significant role in building further economic pressure on apartheid and in developing direct solidarity links with the newly emergent labor union federation COSATU in South Africa in the later 80s.

Q: So by the '80s there was really a lot of consciousness out there, and ACOA's role was simply getting the information out so people could use it?

DAVIS: Well, we certainly worked hard at getting out critical information. But organizing action involves more than broadcasting information, however good and accurate. I think it was getting the information out. It was building relationships with countless activists who could count on us to talk with them as they worked their way through local struggles, and who came to trust us. It was publishing a regular newsletter highlighting actions around the country; it was regularly updating the list of states and cities that adopted people's sanctions, and circulating copies of legislation being debated or passed. It was keeping some sort of coalition of national groups together, which could become tough in the face of various personality and style differences, even where political direction was similar. It was learning how to take advantage of people's strengths—and often swallowing one's personal ego. But I think this was an important role that ACOA played, in addition to our continuing analytical work, our efforts to constantly keep the pressure on apartheid as the situation changed.

Q: You mean in terms of coalition—

DAVIS: Yes. Coalition building, and keeping people together. And part of that worked because even within our small ACOA staff we had different strengths, but also very great common trust and dedication. We didn't feel the need to compete with one another. DK was on the platform because he was a terrific speaker. And he was South African. I could play a different role and sometimes I think this may have made it somewhat easier to keep the coalitions going with national groups like AFSC, WOA, and TransAfrica and the many local groups.

[break in tape]

Q: You were just talking about the differences between the UK and the U.S.

DAVIS: Well, in the UK there was a very centralized Anti-Apartheid Movement, with many branches all over the country. There if you said you were a member of the Anti- Apartheid Movement, you were probably a paid-up member of this organization. And here in the U.S. you might well be a member of a trade union or a student group or a congregation active against apartheid The unions in some places played a very important role, because, for instance, one key element in the divestment movement was getting public pension funds to put pressure on the state treasurers so that funds were not invested in corporations doing business in South Africa. Union members all over the country began to speak out, to make demands about the ways in which the funds that were their pension funds were handled. This was something new and startling, for many of the "investment chiefs" who certainly did not think that a sheet metal worker or bus-driver had the right to interfere with investment policies. And yet, as the movement grew, all across the country unions began to play an active and important role in the debate— I remember DC 37 in New York, just as an example, and the United Auto Workers in the Midwest, weighing in with important muscle. And the pattern was repeated systematically as the debate about U.S. dollars and apartheid spread across the country. But those members of the unions were not really paid-up members of ".

Q: A separate organization?

DAVIS: Right. Same with church folk mostly. So it was with churches, students, unions. But students have their great passions, and their great flowerings, but they disappear after four years. Keeping a student movement going over time was an exercise in address change. Although some individuals stayed engaged a long time mostly it was sectors like the faith communities, African American congregations, groups of concerned teachers that provided continuity to popular involvement.

Q: So in a sense what you were doing was a constant exercise in coalition building?

DAVIS: Yes, I think that's one of the things that happened. The other thing that happened related to persistence. DK used to say it takes three years to get a piece of legislation through at the local level. What would tend to happen was it would start because there'd been some action at a university. Not always, but a pattern. So a local university would have some real dramatic actions, students would occupy a building, which would create some interest. Maybe then a black legislator or two would get involved. And from there it would spin. And if you were working at it, you could then help it grow and move from the campus to the state legislature. Sometimes via the city. Sometimes just directly to the state legislature. And that varied. By 1991 at least 92 cities and 28 states had passed various forms of legislation imposing sanctions. Sometimes of course the outcome went against us. We never actually got state legislation in New York, our home state.

Q: But you got the city council—

DAVIS: Yes, New York City over time moved from action on pension fund investment to selective purchasing and restrictions relating to banks. And a lot of money was affected.

Q: So let me move onto a question about the Religious Action Network. Can you describe that, and say when did it start to develop? How did you work with it?

DAVIS: The Religious Action Network was an expansion of our work with individual congregations, which had always provided important grassroots membership in anti- apartheid actions. It was less- focused on divestment than it was on creating public awareness, campaigning on political prisoners human rights and policy issues. Many of its member congregations were based in African American communities and most of the black churches were not heavily invested in major corporations, but rather in local projects like providing community housing.

Q: But assume you're describing it not to me, but to somebody who's listening to the tape, who doesn't know what it is.

DAVIS: It was a project of the American Committee on Africa, and involved scores of individual, mainly black churches who became members of the Religious Action Network. They made an annual sponsorship contribution every year to the American Committee on Africa which provided staffing for the network, along with information for use in campaigning and sometimes actual bulletins for a church service. We facilitated linkage between the network and progressive South African church leaders like Desmond Tutu, Farisani, Chikane and others.  The Religious Action Network was central to our campaign demanding the release of the thousands of political detainees South Africa held, without charge or trial, in the mid eighties. We collected hundreds of thousands of keys all across the U.S. to "Unlock Apartheid's Jails."

Q: And how did that get started, that network?

DAVIS: The network was really the brainchild of longtime civil rights activist and Harlem church leader Wyatt Tee Walker and of Canon [Frederick] Williams of the Church of the Intercession. It got started, I think, partly because we had a good tradition of working with a variety of different churches. Both Wyatt Tee Walker, who had been a close aide to Martin Luther King, and Canon Williams were determined to take the message of the struggle against apartheid into the black churches.

Q: And they were basically New York pastors.

DAVIS: Yes. Wyatt was key to building the new network because he was a central figure in the Progressive National Baptist Convention [PNBC][5] and could also draw on his important civil rights credentials. And so if Wyatt said this is like so, a lot of black churches would follow. Fred also had great standing in the church community, and thus their partnership with us gave a penetration into the black community that enabled and reinforced in many ways the pressures that could be put on state legislators. Or eventually on Congress. Because it was not me going up on the Hill [Capitol Hill, the location of Congress] with my three staff people saying do like this.  Through the network we could get ten black churches, in many constituencies, to go when either the senator or the congressperson went back home, and ask hard policy questions, demand that the representatives stop allowing the administration and the corporations to collaborate with apartheid.

Q: Had these connections with Wyatt been ones that George had built up so they were there for some time, or—

DAVIS: George had some—yes. And they were consolidated by work done by Dumisani and by me. It took some time to establish their confidence—especially in me—Wyatt in later years would tease me about being "of the other persuasion" and it was Dumisani who probably first consolidated the relationship, serving, for several years as the RAN organizer.

Q: OK, so Dumisani was really the key outreach person on both divestment and the Religious Action Network?

DAVIS: Oh, if you have to have one single person, he was the single outreach person in the sense that he was an incredible mobilizer. And he'd been outstanding at welding together coalitions, and talking to Republicans and Democrats and getting them to agree that apartheid and the U.S. collusion with it was really terrible and that they needed to do something. He worked constantly to get very disparate groups, individuals, ideological opposites to find common ground on the issue of ending U.S. collaboration with apartheid. Sometimes I think our success grew out of this extended effort to bring them together on the one issue, but that [we] had no other stake.:

Q: So in other words there wasn't a vested interest in creating a new organization, or something like that.

DAVIS: Right. Now, in the long term that meant we sometimes avoided issues that needed confronting. On campuses for instance, we never really pushed to address the issue of domestic racism. Those tensions eventually broke the student movement because this became a bigger and bigger issue and you couldn't push it under the carpet anymore. It wasn't enough that you could say, well, we unite against apartheid because, well, why didn't you deal with domestic racism?

But on the other hand, I also think that in many ways the issues that were raised helped Americans begin to understand and deal with fundamental issues in their domestic society. The question of the role of U.S. corporations and the fact that corporations kept on saying that they were in South Africa to do good and to help black people was a very good learning ground for people about the role of corporations. I always remember DK's responding to corporate executives and Sullivan Principle[6] apologists with, " if they want to do good for black people they can come back to where I live here."

Q: In Brooklyn.

DAVIS: Yes. There are places that need building, people need houses. Just like the bank campaign, don't redline Harlem and lend to South Africa. So I think making these connections played an interesting role in pushing that whole subsequent campaigning around corporate social responsibility and also environmental issues.

Q: So you think people may have learned more general lessons out of it.

DAVIS: Yes. One of the most useful things I brought out of South Africa was a Union Carbide advertisement which ran frequently in the 60s in the South African Financial Mail , which said, "we've been in South Africa a long time, we like it here." We used that endlessly, and it was a perfect way to show how closely such corporations identified with apartheid, using their own words. Now, many corporations were not quite as stupid as that, but there was a whole period, after protests first began, where corporations would defend themselves on the grounds that they were doing good, they were building houses, they were—

Q: Well, essentially that's the period of the Sullivan Principles. Of course, he was also an African American minister like Wyatt. Did they have direct confrontations?

DAVIS: I don't think so. Wyatt didn't tend to go around talking about divestment very much, although he had a very strong and pithy argument about not allowing anyone to choose profits over people.  But he wouldn't get into the details. But I really think that for the Religious Action Network it was sanctions that was more important than divestment.

Q: In other words, sanctions at the government level.

DAVIS: At the government level. And that that's where the RAN real power could be expressed— in their capacity to put direct pressure, as constituents, on elected representatives.

Q: In other words, they felt they had the capacity to put pressure on congressional representatives?

DAVIS: Right.

Q: Whereas the divestment was leading up to that.

DAVIS: Yes. Of course the divestment struggles in many states provided important learning space for the subsequent struggle to have federal sanctions imposed. If the state had already voted the Democratic caucus in the state had already probably gone through the whole argument, as had at least some of the Republicans. But for many in the African American churches, their first effort to deal with the issue of support for apartheid took them directly to the congressional representatives. Look what they're doing, they're shooting people; they're killing people. When Desmond Tutu got the Nobel Prize at the moment when the UDF was in the streets protesting the new political repression and a state of emergency, and there were thousands of detentions and lots of street action, the impact on the black churches was galvanizing and drove them toward supporting sanctions.

Q: So it was really the mid-'80s. So many of those churches were also relating, in some sense, to TransAfrica and its Free South Africa Movement.

DAVIS: Yes. I think lots of them were probably Free South Africa Movement churches and their pastors may have been among the many arrested in the demonstrations TransAfrica organized at that time

Q: So despite the fact of the involvement of other denominations, other—

DAVIS: Long-term I think you have to look at the engagement of the faith community via several vehicles, not only RAN. The Religious Action Network probably did its most effective work mobilizing member churches in the Progressive National Baptist Convention. There were also individual churches that had been involved in the divestment movement and then continued to be part of ongoing work via RAN, and we worked hard at keeping them within that framework. But there were also churches within the Lutheran and the Methodist structures that began their involvement when issues of church investment were being fought out within their national structures, and some individual congregations then gravitated towards ACOA, and stayed connected, sometimes via RAN. The divestment issues were fought out at the national denomination structure level, because that's where the money was controlled, but within denominations like the Lutherans, eventually it was fought out at those big assemblies that they hold at regular two or three year intervals.

Q: So you are saying that probably the strongest support for RAN came from PNBC churches and that there were lots of churches involved in anti-apartheid activity more broadly who weren't a part of any of these networks.

DAVIS: Right, that's true.  There were individual congregations that every year made a contribution to ACOA and clearly were involved over many years. There were some who were engaged not only with anti-apartheid efforts, but also providing sustained support, particularly for SWAPO and the Namibian liberation struggle. Not hundreds of them, but a good core.

Q: Let me actually shift in a bit different direction, being prompted by your last question. The position of ACOA and of the various networks on liberation struggle, on armed struggle, how did you see that developing? By the time that you—

DAVIS: By the time I came from South Africa, it was ACOA's position, I guess it was George's position, that you supported the right of armed struggle. And that was established by supporting the right of the Algerians to conduct an armed anti-colonial struggle. And so it was never an issue of debate by the time I arrived at ACOA. In fact there wasn't a great deal of armed struggle at that point when I came.

Q: In South Africa, you mean, but there was in the Portuguese colonies.

DAVIS: Just beginning.

Q: And so within ACOA, from the time you were there, that was not a question. It may have been a question of who do you support more than others.

DAVIS: Yes, well—mostly I think that that was a tension around Angola more than anywhere else. Zimbabwe was interesting because of course the "authentics", the group with which the ANC had a close alliance, was ZAPU. We tended to give support to ZANU quite early on the grounds, first of all, I think that—George tended to be open to talking to everybody; a position which had strengths and had weaknesses. I remember while I was editing Southern Africa magazine asking John Saul for an in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of ZAPU and ZANU and the article produced considerable debate.

Q: Basically the position that ACOA was taking by that time was whoever was doing the most.

DAVIS: Yes.  As far as South Africa was concerned, by the eighties this seemed clearly to be the ANC or ANC/UDF. As the UDF operated internally, and membership in the ANC was illegal, its links to the ANC were initially quite low-key, although the players were often the same.

ACOA and the Africa Fund had strong ties with many of the liberation movements, like the ANC, SWAPO, PAIGC, MPLA and Frelimo. Staff visited with them in Africa, and we raised direct material support to aid their humanitarian projects, as well as constantly battling to change U.S. policy on the political front. During the 80s we also built strong ties with UDF leaders in South Africa, and played a considerable role in facilitating the June 1989 visit of UDF Co-President Albertina Sisulu and a strong delegation to the United States. This was the moment when, finally, official Washington was beginning to recognize the need to loosen ties with their old apartheid allies.

Q: If armed struggle wasn't a question within the organization to what extent was it a question in terms of the outreach to the churches or other people?

DAVIS: I think the violence of the South African state made it easier to make the argument that passive resistance doesn't work in South Africa because it was so obvious that the state doesn't tolerate any protest and will just shoot people in the street. That had already been established for many Americans by the wanton brutality of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960.

Q: If you were to look analytically back at the successes and failures of the '80s period. What would you single out?

DAVIS: I think that the things that were important in the way we worked were the ability to connect people here to what was happening in South Africa, and enable them to see the commonality of the struggles being fought on the two continents. It was always clear—I think it was clear with other struggles, too, but most clear with the South African struggle—that the immediate spark able to generate interest usually came from South Africa. Something happened in South Africa and people here responded. But they could respond in a directed and effective way because we had developed patterns of action, had established tools for impacting policy, and had done the analysis necessary to reveal what needed doing and why it might be effective. So if you got angry and you wanted to do something, well, go and make sure that your pension fund doesn't invest in South Africa, pull your union's money out of banks that lend to apartheid and redline Harlem [7]. We could take the response beyond marching and demanding, systematically continuing to build greater pressure for change.

Q: So that there was the demand to release political prisoners, but there was also "Here is a material way to increase the pressure for that."

DAVIS: Right

Also, we kept very close working relationships with sympathetic members of congress like Charles Diggs, Howard Wolpe, and key staff people on both sides of the aisle. [8] But we always focused our organizing outside the beltway, believing that our pressure on a senator to support sanctions would really have an effect if each time he went to a ball game back home he was surrounded by students asking questions about sanctions and that he would face similar questions in church on a Sunday morning. So the long years of organizing to build grass roots understanding of the need to cut all economic linkages with apartheid paid off as the struggle moved from the local to the national—and we could usually count on local allies to move into action when it was time to "keep the pressure on."

[1] 50th Anniversary of Founding of ACOA, October 3, 2003, Washington, DC.

[2] Canon Fred Williams, Testimonial at party to mark Davis' move from New York to Washington, October 11, 2003.

[3] See interview with Dumisani Kumalo in this collection. Kumalo, currently South African Ambassador to the United Nations, was commonly referred to by colleagues and friends as " DK."

[4] District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSME).

[5] The Progressive National Baptist Church is the smallest of the three major national denominations of African American Baptists. It was founded in 1961 in a split from the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A.by a group of clergy who were actively involved in the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr.

[6] The Sullivan Principles were a set of principles for reform in U.S. companies involved in South Africa, initiated by the Rev. Leon Sullivan in March 1977 and eventually endorsed by more than 150 U.S. companies.

[7] " Redlining" refers to discriminatory practices by banks by excluding or singling out minority neighborhoods for higher home- loan rates.

[8] " Both sides of the aisle" refers to both political parties.

This page is part of the No Easy Victories website.