On Nelson Mandela and the city of Davis' Measure A anti-apartheid vote

In Davis in 1978, Measure A was a gesture, a comment. That's all. But it mattered.

This flier, from the late 1970s, was posted around Davis to persuade voters to have the city divest in apartheid South Africa.

This flier, from the late 1970s, was posted around Davis to persuade voters to have the city divest in apartheid South Africa.


Dave Webb lives in Davis with his wife Melinda Welsh, founding editor of SN&R.

In March 1978, by a vote of the people, the city of Davis divested its money from apartheid South Africa. It was the very first such municipal referendum in the country, and it was far from the last.

As remembrances of Nelson Mandela swirled last week, a vote in Davis scarcely towers: The struggle in South Africa was life and death. In Davis in 1978, Measure A was a gesture, a comment. That’s all.

But it mattered.

For me, it offered this: What, exactly, draws people into political activism? It’s a far-reaching question, one in which the negative—what pushes people away from politics?—has more universalities than the positive anymore.

I come from a long line of Republicans, capitalists all. I was appalled by apartheid’s brutalities, the arrogance of the racism, how international investment could be laid so bare. Something must be done. This issue had it all for an uninitiated 20-something; little wonder it touched President Barack Obama as it did.

I plunged in. It was intoxicating, the activist life. Political analyses that actually carried moral weight! Good guys, evil guys! Armed struggle, imprisoned leaders! Long, long meetings! Precincts that needed walking, fliers that needed distributing! New skills! No wages! The latter upset my parents as much as the left ideology.

And, yeah, there was this beautiful woman in the leadership of Measure A (the political will get personal; we’ve been married 31 years). It was heady stuff, it swept me away. I nearly flunked out of college.

Mandela should be loved, admired, revered, studied. He should inspire kids here and everywhere else. And, it should be noted, that he, according to ThinkProgress, “blasted the Iraq War and American imperialism”; “called freedom from poverty a ’fundamental human right’”; “criticized the ’War on Terror’ and the labeling of individuals as terrorists without due process,” even Osama bin Laden; “reminded a larger crowd at Yankee Stadium that racism was not exclusively a South African phenomenon”; refused to denounce Fidel Castro or Muammar Qaddafi; and was a “die-hard supporter of labor unions.”

You don’t do 27 years in prison without the clearest sense of what’s what and the gumption to punch hard.

Divestiture was a long road—it wasn’t until the mid-’80s when the issue drew broad support. I remember protesting at UC Davis, we with our signs and our chants. More, I remember feeling ragtag, we were so few, and political activism was so ’60s. Yet we marched and sang and walked precincts and won the vote in our little town.

Ron Dellums presented a Congressional bill in 1986, calling for a full trade embargo against South Africa, which President Ronald Reagan vetoed and Congress overrode.

When the University of California finally divested, Jerry Drawhorn, a longtime KDVS jock and activist, stopped in the street to tell me what had occurred. I felt far away all of the sudden. I said I worked on that cause back in the ’70s. Jerry smiled and said, “I know.”

I programmed the Distinguished Speakers Series at Mondavi Center for 11 years, through 2010. More than one African speaker began his remarks complimenting Davis for being first to divest by way of Measure A. It mattered.

And it matters that the divestment movement on campus has turned its attention to climate change and fossil-fuel companies.

You activists, you go. Go hard. Go long. Good luck.