How Nelson Mandela transformed student Barack Obama's politics in LA

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As the world mourns Nelson Mandela — who died Thursday at the age of 95 — some Americans are remembering their involvement in the anti-apartheid movement — including President Obama, who got involved as a young college student in Los Angeles.

In July, Obama spoke at a different school, the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where he recalled his "first step into political life." As a 19-year-old student at Occidental College, he made his maiden political speech — a piece of political stagecraft — on Feb. 18, 1981.

His remarks were part of a student protest in the college administration building. They were meant to persuade the college’s board of trustees, which was meeting there behind closed doors, to divest the school of its investments in companies doing business in white-ruled South Africa.

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It was all a bit corny: As Obama was speaking, two white students costumed in paramilitary uniforms dramatically dragged him from the lectern, to symbolize South Africa’s muzzling of its black leaders.

"I did not think I’d made any difference — I was even a little embarrassed," Obama confessed in July to the Cape Town university crowd. "And I thought to myself: What’s a bunch of university kids doing in California that is somehow going to make a difference?"

A lot of difference, as it turned out.

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A number of California universities joined other academic institutions to pull their money out of companies doing business with South Africa.

Big players like the city of Los Angeles and other civic governments voted to divest. Financial giants like Merrill Lynch and Salomon Bros. stopped doing business with South Africa. The UC system pulled the plug on its $3.1 billion investment in 1986, as California Gov. George Deukmejian signed a law requiring the same thing of the state’s pension funds.

Four years later, Nelson Mandela, newly freed from prison and on his way to leading a post-apartheid South Africa, visited Los Angeles, where he thanked Mayor Tom Bradley and the city for taking up his cause and putting its money where its morality was.

Eric Moore, now a partner at Cassidy Turley, the Los Angeles commercial real estate firm, was a college friend of Obama’s. He, too, had been moved to action by the African National Congress members who had come to Occidental to speak about apartheid, about the Sharpeville massacre and Soweto, about anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, and about Nelson Mandela.

"We were all disgusted with the apartheid regime at that point. There were always signs in the [college] quad and people speaking out," said Moore. "It all kind of welled up to that [February 1981] demonstration with Obama at the microphone.

A realization

"What he said resonated with the people there," said Moore, who was there that day. "He was able to capture their attention. I think he realized for the first time that he was a good public speaker. He definitely brought that performance out when they dragged him offstage. Those few words he said, with that voice he has, went over well."

Roger Boesche, the Occidental politics professor who helped several generations of students organize their protests, said Occidental’s board never did formally divest; in 1990, he sat in the meeting as the board rejected by one vote the divestment request of its new African-American president, John Slaughter.

What the board did do in 1981, said Boesche, was to put some of the college’s endowment in a social conscience fund, a mutual fund that did not put money into such things as apartheid, environmentally destructive companies or arms dealers.

Moore remembered  thinking at the time, "grassroots efforts can work."

In his July speech at the University of Cape Town, Obama spoke to the country he had spoken about 32 years earlier, in that first college speech for which, "fortunately, there are no records."

He lauded South Africa as the "largest economy on the continent" and one that, for the U.S., "isn’t just about numbers on a balance sheet or the resources that can be taken out of the ground. We believe that societies and economies only advance as far as individuals are free to carry them forward."

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