Jennifer Davis, 85, Dies; Led Divestment Effort Over Apartheid


Jennifer Davis, who came to the United States from South Africa and helped galvanize the divestment and sanctions campaign to undermine apartheid, died on Oct. 15 in Montclair, N.J. She was 85.

Ms. Davis, who lived in Washington, suffered a brain hemorrhage while visiting a friend, her daughter, Sandra Davis Horowitz, said.

For nearly two decades, from 1981 to 2000, Ms. Davis was the executive director of the American Committee on Africa, a New York-based organization that brought together diverse opponents of the strict racial segregation imposed by her country’s white regime.

Ms. Davis mustered the political and economic power of college students, religious congregations, organized labor and members of corporate, pension fund and philanthropic boards to boycott South African products and unload their stock holdings in American companies profiting from apartheid.

Her approach differed from the principles originally promoted by the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan and adopted by some American companies in 1977. Those guidelines called for companies with investments in South Africa to treat workers there in the same way they treated workers in the United States. She called the guidelines “an exercise in triviality.”

“Jennifer Davis was a brilliant strategist and tactician,” Margaret H. Marshall, a South African and the former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, said in an email.

“She, more than anyone else,” Justice Marshall added, “designed and nurtured the nongovernmental sanctions movement in the United States that kept alive in the public mind the plain ugliness and depravation of apartheid, and lent important psychological and material support to those fighting against the regime in South Africa.”

Stephanie J. Urdang, an author and another South African émigré to the United States, said that Ms. Davis had “understood that in order to influence Congress and bring about change at the policy level, it was critical to mobilize average, regular folk” who, she said, “could pressure change at the higher levels of government.”

In 1986, Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which was intended to ban all new trade and investment in South Africa by American companies. President Ronald Reagan vetoed the legislation, but Congress overrode his veto.

Ms. Davis helped arrange Nelson Mandela’s visit to the United States in 1990, barely four months after he was freed from prison after 27 years in detention for opposing apartheid. In 2011, the South African government awarded her the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo bronze badge, named after the noted anti-apartheid leader.

“She was courageous, she was humble, she was tremendously visionary in being able to say apartheid was a system of white power and black poverty,” Donna Katzin, the executive director of Shared Interest, which helps South Africans improve economic and social conditions, said in an interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

Jennifer Heymann was born on Dec. 15, 1933, in Johannesburg to Seymour and Friedl (Neumann) Heymann. Her parents had met in Germany, where her father, a native South African, was studying pediatrics and her mother was a pharmacist. They encountered each other while visiting a mutual relative.

The couple married in South Africa, leaving behind rising anti-Semitism in Germany. Ms. Davis would later say that the cry “Never again” would resonate with her as a call to resist religious and racial oppression everywhere.

She majored in English literature, economics and economic history at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Her political coming-of-age was punctuated by an argument with a history teacher. Ms. Davis insisted that it mattered which white party won the election — an argument that became so passionate, she remembered, that the ruler she was holding snapped in half.

After college, she worked for the millinery union and taught. She married Michael Davis, a lawyer. In addition to their daughter, they had a son, Mark.

As oppression by the government grew, the family emigrated to New York, where their apartment became a sanctuary for African liberation leaders fleeing the authorities.

Her marriage ended in divorce. In addition to her children, she is survived by five grandchildren; her brother, Michael Heymann; and her partner, Derek Boyd.

Ms. Davis joined the staff of the Committee on Africa and the Africa Fund in 1967 and succeeded the Rev. George M. Houser as executive director in 1981. She built a strategic anti-apartheid campaign on a well-defined foundation.

“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,” she said in an interview for the book “No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century, 1950-2000” (2007). “We could take the response beyond marching and demanding, systematically continuing to build greater pressure for change.”

After leaving the committee, Ms. Davis served on the boards of Shared Interest, the Association of Concerned African Scholars and the Washington Office on Africa. She moved to Washington in 2000.

Ms. Davis became a naturalized citizen not long after she arrived in New York and settled on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Most white Americans, she recalled, assumed that she would find social conditions in the United States to be in striking contrast with those in South Africa.

“Yes, but I also see a tremendous number of very poor black people, and wealthy people seem mostly white,” she remembered telling a fellow dinner guest at a Manhattan townhouse. “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,” Ms. Davis said, “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.”

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