RON DELLUMS (1935 – 2018)

The man who led the US government to impose sanctions on apartheid passes into history

The man who led the US government to impose sanctions on apartheid passes into history
Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums speaks at a demonstration for immigrant rights telling the federal government to stop the raids on illegal immigrants during a rally at City Hall in Oakland, California 01 May 2007. EPA/JOHN G. MABANGLO

The passing of Ron Dellums, on Monday 30 July, allows us to contemplate the impact of a single US congressman and a nearly anonymous banker in the collapse of the apartheid regime.

By the early 1980s, America was in increasing turmoil over how to deal with apartheid South Africa. For some, such as North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms, the object was to shield South Africa as best as could be done on geopolitical strategic grounds (and more than just a tincture of sympathy for both South Africa’s anti-communism and its white supremacist ideology).

President Ronald Reagan and his Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Chester Crocker, meanwhile, were still enamoured of their strategic brainchild, constructive engagement. They saw this as a way to work with Pretoria and simultaneously preserve US influence in the region as Zimbabwe became independent, Namibia would soon enough follow down that path, and the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique eventually would be wound up as well. And astute observers could even see South Africa itself would eventually change as well, and so all the more reason to keep up connections as things changed out there in Southern Africa.

Meanwhile, among the substantial American business community operating in South Africa, increasingly, they felt their choice was either: to hunker down, ride out the storm, and hope things would solve themselves; to disinvest, sell off corporate assets, and then leave the country; or, to take on board the ideas of Philadelphia-based preacher/social activist Rev Leon Sullivan.

His call was for corporations to remain in the country, but for them to commit to engaging in some serious corporate good works, investing in real corporate social responsibility efforts, and carrying out active steps to train and promote corporate black employees, along with other parts of the “Sullivan Principles”. These were actively supported by organisations such as the SA Institute for Race Relations as well as the Progressive Party, as consistent with their own ideas that the path to real racial and political progress ran through a progressive business community changing the racial and economic landscape, and pushing government the right way.

Of course a third way was also becoming increasingly influential – and that was the original “boycott, disinvestment and sanctions” campaign being waged against South Africa. The initial impetus for this campaign originally came out of action committees in several labour unions, from activists on a number of college and university campuses, and from among veteran leftist activists now long-experienced from the anti-Vietnam War protests, anti-poverty battles, and the country’s civil rights struggles.

This movement was now becoming allied with growing pressures on sports, cultural and academic figures to act in accord with the strictures of the UN Special Committee on Apartheid, and to carry out protests against people on the committee’s list who had visited or performed in South Africa instead. Public advocacy groups such as TransAfrica and demonstrations at the South African Embassy helped round out the picture. Still, the US government under President Ronald Reagan strenuously opposed taking any official action against the regime, save for enforcing restrictions on the sale of military hardware.

Then Ron Dellums entered the mix. He hailed from Oakland, California and was a product of that area’s unique racial and radical politics. (Oakland, of course, had a long tradition of such radical activity, what with being the home of the Black Panthers, the legendary radical author Jack London, and, just nearby, the nationally pace-setting campus radicalism of the University of California at Berkeley with its free speech movement and anti-Vietnam War protests.)

Dellums himself came from a family steeped in labour organising activism, and, following service as a US Marine, had entered politics as a Berkeley city councilman. He had studied social work in university and had worked as a psychiatric social worker, before the political bug bit him.

In 1970, he was recruited to run (and win) against a liberal Democratic incumbent congressman in the primary election, against a man who was deemed insufficiently anti-war. In the general election, Dellums scored a convincing victory in which he had happily labelled himself a socialist/Democrat. He became the first black person elected to Congress from northern California – and, in fact, from a district that at the time was more than 70% white in that first electoral campaign for Congress.

Once in Congress – he served there for 27 consecutive years – he devoted himself to strident anti-Vietnam War activism, and then opposition to various new weapons systems such as the B-2 bomber and the MX missile. Perhaps most famously, he was a fierce opponent of apartheid South Africa. Along the way, he was also a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Reporting on his passing, Reuters had noted:

Branded ‘an out and out radical’ during his first congressional campaign by Republican US Vice President Spiro Agnew, Dellums accepted the label as a badge of honour, as recounted by the San Francisco Chronicle. ‘If it’s radical to oppose the insanity and cruelty of the Vietnam War, if it’s radical to oppose racism and sexism and all other forms of oppression, if it’s radical to want to alleviate poverty, hunger, disease, homelessness and other forms of human misery, then I’m proud to be called a radical,’ Dellums told reporters at the time.

One of Dellums’ greatest political triumphs was congressional enactment in 1986, over the veto of Republican President Ronald Reagan, of US economic sanctions against the apartheid policy of racial separation by South Africa’s white minority government.”

This 1986 bill passed twice in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The first time, its passage was vetoed by Ronald Reagan, but it then passed a second time in Congress by an overwhelming margin, becoming the first legislation in the 20th century dealing with a foreign policy issue that passed Congress following a presidential veto.

Right from the start, Dellums was true to his anti-war beliefs. Just weeks into his first term, he set up an exhibition of Vietnam war crimes photographs in an annex to his congressional office suite, featuring four large posters depicting atrocities committed by American military personnel. Although the congressional leadership did not sanction formal hearings on the My Lai massacre, Dellums organised informal but well-publicised ones on the killings.

The following year, Dellums began his congressional campaign against apartheid and pursued it for 14 more years until the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 became law, making major changes in the way the US and its government interacted with Pretoria.

Along the way, he was criticised for his support of Fidel Castro’s involvement with the MPLA in Angola by the conservative press, as Dellums was labelled “the prototype of the Castroite congressman”. He also introduced legislation (which was unsuccessful) in September 1987 to prohibit economic and military assistance to Zaire, citing a poor human rights record, corruption, and the regime’s collaboration with South Africa.

True to his anti-military stance, he was a strong opponent of the B-2 stealth bomber, originally designed to evade Soviet radar towards the end of the Cold War. With the end of that strategic standoff, Dellums pressed for ending the programme, or at the minimum, capping production at just 21 craft, citing numerous studies that focused on the massive – and rapidly ballooning – costs. Although his specific amendments to the procurement legislation were not passed, appropriations for those craft never exceeded funds sufficient for more than 21 of them.

When he finally left Congress to become a corporate lobbyist, then mayor of Oakland, even do-or-die political enemies respected him. Then-Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (of all people) had said of him:

We are losing one of its finest Members, a Member that I have great respect for, because he always did his homework, was so articulate and eloquent on this floor. He always got my attention when he stood up and took the microphone. He would stop every Member in their tracks to hear what he had to say, and there are very few Members that have served in this body that can claim the respect that both sides of the aisle had for the gentleman from California. And the incredible reputation that the gentleman from California has brought to this House; he has elevated this House. He has elevated the distinction of this House by serving here, and this House will greatly miss him when he leaves.”


A friend of this writer, a person originally from Dellums country in northern California, wrote to say:

God, who could figure out Dellums? He was a weird combination of Berkeley leftist and Oakland black machine politician. These two strands came together in his anti-Vietnam War activism and the anti-apartheid legislation. There were always questions about the gap between Dellums’ ideals and his actions (for a while he was a lobbyist with some unsavoury clients). He was a clear voice for progressive politics in Congress, but I gather he wasn’t totally successful as Oakland mayor. Maybe he’d gotten too old or didn’t have the skills set for running a city, I don’t really know. But he was definitely a classic product of Berkeley/Oakland politics – which is unique in the US. He was a smart, colourful guy, probably better than most pols.”

And South Africans should always remember his signal contribution to the end of apartheid, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, when that still seemed something impossible to achieve in American politics.

Come to think of it, there is yet another American who is even less remembered than Congressman Dellums is now among South Africans, but whose decisions were, in their own way, just as consequential for change. And here we are thinking of the late Chase Manhattan banker, Willard Butcher. “Who?” readers may be asking at this point.

In the 1980s, Butcher was a vice president in his bank with responsibility for the global portfolio that might now be called “emerging markets”. Seeing the increasing default rate on government sovereign debt in Latin America and the exposure his bank then had, in 1985, he took a hard look at the rest of the portfolio and was troubled by what he saw.

Thus, when Chase loans to South Africa came due, he refused to roll them over into new loans in the post-Rubicon Speech days as PW Botha refused to embrace real change, and Chase Manhattan Bank thereby called in those now-mature instruments. This triggered a scramble by virtually every other bank to lessen their own exposure to South Africa, thereby helping bring about a collapse in the rand, and making it nearly impossible for apartheid South Africa to borrow funds to finance its rapidly expanding debt.

This served to heighten severely the costs of continuing repression. Butcher never took much public credit for this (and no one really knows his private views on South Africa), and he served the bank as its president for a few years until he quietly retired. But the effect on the apartheid regime was enormous.

Even if their names are not on the sides of stone memorials for what they did, Congressman Dellums and banker Willard Butcher almost certainly did as much as anyone else to bring apartheid to its end. Now they just need some recognition in South Africa for their consequential acts. DM


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