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.
In Sacramento, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and influential Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), both black, were promoting divestiture legislation.
But Deukmejian wasn’t buying. He vetoed a bill in 1985. He also blocked attempts to halt University of California pension investments in firms doing business in South Africa.
“Initially, I was looking at it from a legal standpoint and not saying too much,” Deukmejian, now 85, recalls. “I believed we legally had a fiduciary responsibility” to invest in companies that returned the most earnings for UC and government pension funds.
Legally, that was correct, Deukmejian’s then-chief of staff, Steve Merksamer, told me. “But sometimes the law is an ass. Segregation was the law in America for generations, too. Sometimes the law is just frigging stupid.”
Merksamer, who now runs a highly successful political law and lobbying firm in Sacramento, had also heard ancestral horror stories. “I had family killed by the Nazis,” he says. “My grandmother lost everyone.”
Life was becoming more violent for South African blacks by 1986, Deukmejian and Merksamer remember. Both concluded they couldn’t live with themselves if the governor continued to oppose divestiture.
“More people were being injured and killed,” Deukmejian says. “I began to think about it a little differently and remembering the many stories I had heard when I was growing up from my Armenian parents and family.
“They were in Turkey and nobody was helping. A lot of refugees were hoping to get on British and French ships and be rescued, but those countries didn’t come through. They were left on their own with no means to protect themselves.
“I was equating that in my mind to what was happening to blacks in South Africa.”
So Deukmejian pulled what is known in political parlance — usually disparagingly — as a flip-flop.
“California cannot ignore the deteriorating situation in that country,” Deukmejian wrote in a letter to the UC Board of Regents. “We must not turn our backs on black South Africans at this moment of great crisis.”
The governor added: “Given the extent of the violence and unrest … we have sufficient economic justification to question the soundness of California’s investment in any enterprise” pouring money into that country. “I also believe that we have cause to question the business judgment of any company that has not begun plans for an expeditious departure.”
This did not sit well with Deukmejian’s primary constituency in the private sector.
“All the business people opposed him because they were making money in South Africa,” recalls Allan Zaremberg, then the governor’s chief legislative lobbyist and now president of the California Chamber of Commerce.
Soon afterward, in an impassioned speech, Deukmejian persuaded the UC Regents to divest $3 billion in funds over a four-year period. And the Legislature the next month passed a bill ordering the total sale of up to $12 billion in state investments, the largest divestiture plan in the nation.
“We are condemning apartheid in the strongest possible terms that we can within the powers we have in this state,” the governor told reporters before signing the measure in Speaker Brown’s hometown of San Francisco.
Deukmejian also chided his old ally, President Reagan, for not being tougher on South Africa.
After California acted, more than 100 firms — ranging from IBM to Coca-Cola — severed direct ties with and sold subsidiaries in South Africa.
There was some speculation at the time that Deukmejian’s main purpose was to undercut his 1986 reelection opponent, Democratic Mayor Bradley, who had been hammering the governor on divestiture. But looking back, that cynicism was nonsense. Bradley wasn’t ever in the game that year and lost by a landslide.
Deukmejian showed what can be accomplished by one governor with the courage to rethink his position and cross his base — certainly a rare commodity in today’s politics.