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Jennifer Davis, exiled heroine of anti-apartheid movement, dies at 85

Jennifer Davis was born to Jewish parents in Johannesburg, where her German mother and South African father had sought refuge from the anti-Semitism that increasingly threatened German society in the early 1930s.

As she came of age in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Ms. Davis reflected on Nazi ideas of Aryan supremacy and the consequences they brought in Europe. “I learned,” she told the South African weekly the Mail and Guardian, “that when we said ‘never again,’ we meant, really, never again would we allow such things to happen to any other people, not just to Jewish people.”

Ms. Davis, who died Oct. 15 at 85, went on to devote decades of her life to dismantling the apartheid system of racial segregation that cleaved South African society and oppressed the black majority for nearly half a century after its establishment in 1948.

Her activism made her persona non grata in her home country, in the description of a history of her work published by the South African government, and drove her in 1966 into exile in the United States, where she redoubled her efforts as one of the most forceful advocates for the divestment of stock in companies that did business in apartheid-era 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,” she told an interviewer for the book “No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists Over a Half Century, 1950-2000.” “So we needed to raise their pain — and that meant increasing the size of the investments that might be pulled out of their control.”

The divestment movement, along with other efforts in South Africa and abroad, was credited with helping bring about the end of apartheid in the early 1990s. Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who had spent 27 years in prison, became South Africa’s first black president in 1994.

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But before those momentous events, the push for divestment was a controversial matter. Some opponents of apartheid supported a strategy represented by the Sullivan principles, named for Baptist minister, Leon H. Sullivan, who introduced them in 1977. They called for companies with operations in South Africa to ensure such standards as equal pay for equal work and integrated work facilities.

Ms. Davis, who from 1981 to 2000 was executive director of the New York-based American Committee on Africa, found those principles, well-intentioned as they may have been, woefully insufficient. (In time, confronted with the intransigence of the apartheid regime, Sullivan, too, adopted a more aggressive stance.)

“The struggle in South Africa is not about desegregation of the workplace or integration of bathrooms. It is about ending the racist rule of a small, white minority,” Ms. Davis wrote in a commentary published in the New York Times in 1987. “Inside South Africa today, millions of disenfranchised people pursue this struggle for freedom and political power — in the face of police bullets, mass arrests, torture and constant harassment.”

Ms. Davis spoke before Congress and the United Nations, on university campuses and to religious organizations, pension administrators, union officials and lawmakers. She coordinated a blizzard of newsletters and reports on the economics of apartheid.

According to figures cited by U.S. News and World Report in 1985, American companies represented as much as 10 percent of investment in South African manufacturing, including 70 percent of computer manufacturing and 44 percent of the oil industry, and U.S. banks had extended loans totaling nearly $4 billion to South African borrowers.

“We did lots of new learning in those days, not only about Africa, but about the nature of investment,” Ms. Davis told the interviewer for “No Easy Victories.” “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 advisers.”

The divestment movement secured a major victory in 1986, when Congress overrode a veto by President Ronald Reagan of legislation that, among other measures, prohibited all new American investment in South African businesses and halted the importation of iron, steel, coal, uranium and other products from South Africa.

Ms. Davis was persuasive to American audiences in part because she brought to policy debates the clear-eyed insight that sometimes only an outsider can provide.

She once went to a dinner party in the United States at the home of some wealthy acquaintances where another guest remarked to her, “You must see great differences between South Africa and here.”

“Of course I did, but I also saw great similarities,” Ms. Davis recalled. “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.’ ”

The anecdote, Ms. Davis said, proved a useful tool when Americans asked her “why many whites in South Africa seemed blind to the destruction inflicted on black society by apartheid.”

Jennifer Heymann was born in Johannesburg on Dec. 15, 1933. Her father was a pediatrician, and her mother had been a pharmacist in Germany.

Ms. Davis was in high school when she first became engaged with current affairs. She recalled a heated political discussion with a teacher at the time of the 1948 election, which brought the National Party and the apartheid system to power. Ms. Davis become so emotional as she spoke, she said, that she snapped in two the ruler she was holding in her hand.

“I think perhaps this was the first time I felt so passionate about politics,” she said. “I have never lost the feeling that what we as individuals do, and how we allow power to be used, matters.”

Ms. Davis received a bachelor’s degree in 1954 from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where she began her activist work in earnest, and where she studied literature, economics and economic history. She conceded that the curricular mix was a “strange combination,” but it was also one that informed her future work, grounded as it was in the ability of economics to shape society.

After her graduation, she worked in the trade union movement and taught in South Africa before settling in the United States. She joined the American Committee on Africa in 1967 and had lived since 2003, following her retirement from the organization, in Washington.

Her death was confirmed by her partner of 46 years, Derek Boyd, who said she died at the home of a friend in Montclair, N.J., from a cerebral hemorrhage she suffered while traveling.

Ms. Davis’s marriage to Michael Davis ended in divorce. In addition to Boyd, of Washington, survivors include two children from her marriage, Sandra Davis-Horowitz of Hong Kong and Mark Davis of Detroit; a brother; and five grandchildren.

An account of Ms. Davis’s life published on the website of the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, described Ms. Davis as having been “continually pestered by the security forces and later threatened with house arrest” during her early years challenging the apartheid regime. It praised her for “dedicated efforts” that “served not only the South African cause, but helped the plight of the African continent as a whole.”

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