Skelton: How California helped to lead way to justice in South Africa

  • Anti-aparthied protesters scramble to erect shanties blockading entrances to California Hall on the University of California campus March 31, 1986 in Berkeley. The protesters said the shanties are symbolic of the living conditions of the blacks in South Africa. (AP Photo/Catharine Krueger)

Nelson Mandela and George Deukmejian never met. They never even communicated. But Mandela's freedom and the demise of South African apartheid resulted in no small part because of California's governor.

Many in the United States and worldwide had a hand in pressuring South Africa into releasing Mandela after holding him as a political prisoner for 27 years and ending the nation's oft-violent racial segregation.

But California's action in divesting itself of the bigoted regime greatly increased American pressure and wouldn't have happened without Deukmejian.

It's a hazily remembered story that has scarcely been mentioned in the wall-to-wall coverage of Mandela's death and the outpouring of tributes.

Mandela himself credited California with helping push his nation toward racial integration.

Deukmejian was an unlikely ally — if you didn't know his background.

They had little in common: Mandela was a black leftist, Deukmejian a white Republican and strongly pro-business. But they shared one big passion — an abhorrence of oppression.

Deukmejian grew up listening to stories about his Armenian family suffering and dying at the hands of brutal Ottoman Turks in the early 1900s.

"My father lost a sister. She just sort of disappeared," Deukmejian told me. "Genocide was being carried out against Armenians. My father and his brothers escaped to the U.S. My mother's family also was in Turkey and suffered."

By the 1980s, there was a growing movement in America and elsewhere to pressure South Africa through divestment, refusing to invest or do business with firms keeping direct holdings in the country. The city of Los Angeles, under black Mayor Tom Bradley, adopted its own divestment policy.

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