Many know that South African apartheid was brought down in part by an aggressive international divestment campaign, but fewer know of the important role played by New York City. On February 26, 1985, the City Council unanimously passed anti-apartheid legislation, kickstarting a national movement.
The bill had been pushed by a broad coalition of unions, activists and banks (including Citibank). Apartheid, an extreme practice of segregation practiced by South Africa’s oppressive National Party from 1948-1994, had resisted most forms of international criticism until the disinvestment campaign. In 1984, Mayor Ed Koch created a panel to measure possible responses New York City could take to pressure the South African government, and the panel recommended withdrawing NYCERs (municipal employee) pension funds from companies doing business in South Africa.
Other cities and states considered similar measures, but when New York City passed Intro 900 in 1985, its $665 million pension investment was by far the largest American fund to disinvest. The legislation’s main support in the City Council was Upper West Sider Ruth Messinger, who explained, “We’re going to cut off all loan monies for South Africa from New York Banks. The city has finally begun to realize the extraordinary leverage it has with its funds. It’s only a beginning.” (In 1997, Messinger became the first major party candidate to run for mayor of New York City, losing to Rudy Giuliani.)
The anti-apartheid legislation affected not only banks invested in New York’s pension funds, but companies who dealt extensively with the city’s procurement office; collectively, these entities represented a significant percentage of the global South Africa investment. Most quickly changed their policies rather than continue investing in South Africa.
In 1990, Mayor David Dinkins, a longtime apartheid foe, enacted an even tougher sanctions bill that not only cut off city contracts with companies that did business in South Africa, but gave preferences to banks that pressured the South African government to end apartheid. Despite pushback from powerful interests such as David Rockefeller, Dinkins refused to lift the sanctions until apartheid ended several years later.
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison he visited the United States for the first time. Many Republicans remained critical of Mandela’s past affiliation with communism, including former CIA Director/then president George H.W. Bush, and Mandela chose New York City for his first stop. New Yorkers loved Mandela, turning out 400,000-strong for his march down the Broadway Canyon of Heroes and packing Yankee Stadium.
In his memoir, Dinkins recounts that George Steinbrenner initially refused to rent Yankee Stadium for the event, but Billy Joel offered up one of his tour dates. After the speech, Dinkins draped Mandela in a Yankees jacket, to which Mandela responded, “You now know who I am. I am a Yankee!” The next day Steinbrenner offered to reimburse the event’s expenses.
To this day the South Africa disinvestment movement remains a model of economic activism, and in New York City’s case, a surprising example of how the city’s inextricable relationship with Wall Street allowed it enact great social change.