Capitol Report – Reflections on Nelson Mandela and Apartheid
By State Representative, Leon D. Young
I can remember the issue, as if, it were yesterday: The year was 1985.
My aunt and surrogate mother, then State Representative Marcia P. Coggs, had just introduced legislation in the State Assembly that prohibited the Wisconsin State Investment Board from investing in in any financial institution, either directly or through subsidiary, that had outstanding loans to the Republic of South Africa; or purchasing any stocks of obligation of any company doing business in the Republic of south Africa.
Needless to say, 1985 Assembly Bill 54 created considerable controversy in Madison and around the state, as both factions (those for and against divestiture) expressed their impassioned views.
However, this struggle over the villainous system of South African Apartheid would take on new significance for me.
Moreover, this was the first time that I took the time to learn more about the freedom fighter Nelson Mandela and the incredible sacrifices he was willing to make in an effort to rid his homeland of a deplorable scourge.
I must admit that I was somewhat puzzled as to why Aunt Marcia, as a state elected official, would get involved in a matter such as this?
Wasn’t this a matter for the federal government and the international community to ferret out? But, Aunt Marcia in explaining her rational for introducing the divestment bill simply referenced a famous quote from Dr. King written in a letter from a Birmingham jail: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
My next major epiphany on the issue of Apartheid happened that same year.
Detractors of the divestiture movement (including Rev. Leon H. Sullivan a longtime board member of General Motors) were making the argument that American companies had a “moral responsibility” to continue doing business in South Africa in order to help “reform” the system from within.
In an effort to bolster support for her legislation and quash this erroneous notion being advanced by Rev. Sullivan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa came to Madison and met with Aunt Marcia.
That encounter left an indelible impression on Aunt Marcia, who subsequently shared this moving experience with me.
According to my aunt, Archbishop Tutu was truly a man of God who possesses an incredible aura that you feel in his presence.
Moreover, Archbishop Tutu was emphatic in his insistence that American companies should withhold their investments to South Africa; he also completely rejected this paternalistic notion that unsympathetic outsiders had better understanding as to what’s in the best interest for the Black majority in South Africa.
History tells us that Nelson Mandela would spend 27 years in prison, but his humanity, leadership, and vision would not only free his nation but would become a symbol for the entire world.
Nelson Mandela was a giant among men who leaves an indelible mark of humility, grace and accomplishment in his wake. As Aunt Marcia realized and I have subsequently come to know, we are ALL better individuals for having had the good fortune of sharing this planet with Nelson Mandela.