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Jennifer Davis, an American anti-apartheid activist, passed away on October 15. Among her many legacies, she mobilized public pressure on the U.S. Congress to overturn President Ronald Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. Born in Johannesburg and a graduate of the prestigious University of the Witswatersrand (Wits), she and her husband eventually moved to New York. Soon after, she became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Like other white, highly-educated anti-apartheid activists, she was strongly influenced by the racism of Nazi Germany and the subsequent holocaust.
From 1981 to 2000 she was the director of the American Committee on Africa that coordinated NGO opposition to apartheid and made it a mass movement. She went beyond the Sullivan Principles, which called on American companies doing business in South Africa to treat their South African employees the same as they treated their employees in the United States. She pushed for Americans to boycott South African goods, and for Americans to divest from companies that profited from apartheid.
Within the governing African National Congress, there is frequent criticism that the United States came late and only half-heartedly to the anti-apartheid struggle. Jennifer Davis is a reminder of the important role played by civil society in heightening public awareness in the United States of apartheid—which eventually led to real legislative action—and that the international anti-apartheid movement acquired significant American support.