Mandela’s New York City moment, and how it changed one American’s life forever
Loren Braithwaite Kabosha was a Columbia University law school student on the verge of taking the New York bar exam when she was swept up in the excitement of Nelson Mandela’s first trip to the United States, back in 1990. It changed her life forever. J. BROOKS SPECTOR spoke with her in Johannesburg, just a few days after Nelson Mandela had passed away.
When Nelson Mandela left Victor Verster Prison in 1990, Loren Braithwaite Kabosha was still in law school. She had been active in protests against Apartheid, and, indeed, in student societies that led campaigns to draw connections between the circumstances of African Americans - and the peoples of the Caribbean and Africa. Loren remembers that even before law school, while she was still an undergraduate at Harvard University in the 1970s, she had been upbraided by a university administrator because she was spending too much time on a committee that was pressing for her university’s disinvestment from companies operating in South Africa – and not enough time on her studies.
Then, amidst the growing domestic and international pressure to bring an end to Apartheid by 1989, while she was in her final year of law school, she met ANC legal advisor Albie Sachs, then teaching a seminar at Columbia University. Sachs, of course, later became a widely admired justice of the Constitutional Court. Loren says South Africa’s agonies – and its possibilities – had increasingly become her own personal causes. Rather than life as a typical, rich Wall Street investment lawyer, her growing commitment would come to shape her lifetime connection with South Africa.
While still in law school, there was a conference at Columbia that brought dozens of legal experts together from the US and South Africa to debate South Africa’s post-Apartheid legal future. She explains that it was at that gathering where she met Tebogo Mafole, then representing the ANC at the UN. When she heard Nelson Mandela was coming to New York City on the first stop of his 1990, whirlwind eight-city US tour, she quickly buttonholed Mafole to insist that she get a role – any role - where she could help with Mandela’s upcoming visit.
She says it just happened to be in her favour that she already had hands-on experience in organising trips and conferences on behalf of her religious denomination. But to work on this trip would be a dream come true – even though she was simultaneously studying for that very rigorous bar exam in August that she would have to pass if she was going to become a practicing attorney in America.
On the Mandela trip’s ad hoc organising team, she worked with long-time union organisers Cleveland Robinson of the United Automobile Workers and Jim Bell of the New York Coalition of Black Trade Unions, two men who were keys to actually making Mandela’s trip happen. Loren says that when she explained she was well-acquainted with using computers (still something of a scarce skill among many community organisers) she was tasked with pulling together the endlessly changing schedules and staff rosters, as well as all the other planning documents that would be crucial for managing the New York City leg of Mandela’s first US visit – from his VIP airport arrival, then on to the ticker tape parade and the long list of stops, and then, finally, to the rally at Yankee Stadium. She was working 24/7 - for free, of course.
So how was such a constantly evolving schedule put together? “Eventually I got used to it,” all those constant changes and revisions. As the visit drew closer, increasing numbers of community organisation activists, union organisers and others were recruited and then became involved in the trip – more hands on board, but still more revisions.
“Then, one day I got called into a meeting with Arthur Ashe [the tennis star],” she recalled. “He had been tasked with drumming up support from the business community. I got shifted to working with Ashe to coordinate [with] business to raise funds for the ANC - and for the activities of the visit. There had been some scepticism about Mandela among the business community.” Loren explains. There still were many concerned the city was spending far too much money on this trip “and we needed a counterpoise for this. Ashe was using his rolodex to reach out to business” to bring them on board to support Mandela’s visit to the Big Apple.
“By the time it was all done, it stretched our lives…. [It was] a culmination of our hopes and dreams…. I was the first generation in my family to go to university. I lived through Martin Luther King’s assassination, and I saw anti-Apartheid activism as a logical continuation of that earlier, closer-to-home struggle.”
For Loren, discrimination was discrimination, and this struggle “had to be affirmed the world over”, she explains. As many domestic battles in America increasingly had been won, “we could lift our heads a little higher” and look a little further - to South Africa.
Following Mandela’s whirlwind New York visit and her own success with the bar exam, Loren says she remained in engaged with South African developments. In 1991, together with her two union organiser friends, she was invited to attend the ANC’s conference in Durban. “I was working at the law firm of Paul Weiss Rifkin Wharton and Garrison (one of New York’s best-known power law firms; but one with liberal cause and Democratic Party connections as well)… and Ted Sorensen (long-time Democratic power broker) was a partner.” She remembers that while she was still a lowly associate at the firm, she responded to friends and joined a demonstration, still dressed up in her best power lawyer threads, protesting the visit of Mangosuthu Buthelezi to New York City - on her lunch hour.
By 1992, she was helping organise the anti-Apartheid activists’ gathering, the “Conference in Support of the ANC and Other Democratic Forces for a New South Africa”, a meeting that was a kind of early victory party for the whole anti-Apartheid coalition. There was an 80-member South African delegation in attendance and Loren recalls that a good share of the discussions concerned whether sanctions should now be lifted or kept in place. People like Trevor Manuel had come to insist sanctions be kept in place to keep the pressure on the National Party government to negotiate an end of the old regime, she recalls.
Simultaneously, she also helped organise a parallel conference for the US business community on investing in that soon to emerge “New South Africa.” At that same time, she arranged for Thabo Mbeki to meet with one of her law firm’s senior partners, Ted Sorensen. Sorensen was the kind of lawyer, who, besides being a very big voice in Democratic Party politics, had legal clients that ranged from food products giant HJ Heinz to business moguls like Tony O’Reilly and Maurice Templesman.
While her law firm declined an ANC request to help raise funds for the party to participate in the upcoming electoral battle, they did agree the firm would support a new entity, the South Africa Free Elections Fund, and that it would help raise funds for voter education. As if fated to do so, Loren worked on this initiative as well. (Along the way, she had met Vusi Khanyile, an ANC official keen to lay the groundwork for a black-owned commercial investment bank in South Africa – and an invitation would come her way to work on this project in due course as well.)
This new voter education project was formally launched at the beginning of July 1993 - there were big headlines in The New York Times about it and Nelson Mandela had come back to New York City for the launch. And by now, the pull to be in South Africa, rather than in the US, was getting stronger and stronger for Loren.
Just a few days after the launch, however, a personal tragedy struck when Loren’s husband had drowned while they were on a brief vacation. After that, she threw herself into the work of the new voter education fund with a vengeance and by the latter part of 1993 she had effectively moved permanently to South Africa to work on this voter education fund - with people like the late Rev Beyers Naude.
This project led her to deal with a vast, perplexing universe of South Africans who had no (or could not obtain) identification documents suitable for voter registration. Her enthusiasm – and, she ruefully admits, her New York-lawyer’s “gentleness” – led her board to put her in the middle of dealing with the growing registration chaos in KwaZulu Natal – a place with a violent patchwork of conflicting ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party-controlled zones.
At first, people who were holding temporary voter cards were getting killed as the IFP was still intent on boycotting the election. But when the IFP came on board at the last minute and started bussing in putative voters for their temporary cards, the Polaroid Corporation was quickly hired to help with the issuance of these identification cards. (Ironically, Polaroid had been among the first targets of disinvestment efforts in the US years before led by unions and students, because of its technical support in the issuing of internal passbooks for Africans.)
Following the 1994 election, and the country’s evolution into a non-racial democratic order, Loren Braithwaite Kabosha has moved over to more usual legal pursuits. She has found a role for herself in South African commercial law, as she has become an expert in IT and communications law. But, looking back, it was her student participation in Nelson Mandela’s first visit to New York City, some twenty-three years ago, was what set the course of her life’s work heading off to South Africa, rather than among the office towers of New York City. DM
Photo: Loren Braithwaite Kabosha