December 6, 2013

Mandela’s fight influenced Maine leaders

The UMaine system was among the first universities in the U.S. to take action to divest its investments in South Africa.

By Noel K. Gallagher
Staff Writer

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Longtime Maine civil rights activist Gerald Talbot talks about Nelson Mandela and his chance to meet the liberator in South Africa years ago.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Curtis also was shown the quarry where Mandela and other prisoners were forced to break rocks. On the day that Mandela was released, he picked up a rock and set it down. The other prisoners, watching him leave, picked up rocks and made a rock pile that still stands.

“It was a symbolic gesture of nonviolence. That was so powerful,” Curtis said.

Curtis said South Africa and the world lost a noble and wise figure Thursday. “He was a combination of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln,” Curtis said.


By the mid-1980s, several Maine companies had cut ties to South Africa’s apartheid government, and lawmakers were under pressure to act.

Several bills were proposed, two of them by Rep. Harlan Baker, D-Portland, to completely divest Maine’s trust fund and the Maine State Retirement System. Baker’s bill initially failed, then passed when he reintroduced it the next year, in 1987.

Ivan Suzman of Portland, a political activist who died last year, was active in the state’s anti-apartheid movement. He founded the Maine Project for South Africa and fought to end the state retirement system’s investments in South Africa.

Some politicians and university leaders supported partial measures intended to put economic pressure on South Africa’s apartheid leadership. As years passed, many came to support full divestment. Among them was Gov. Joseph Brennan.

“It is clear the Botha government (of South Africa) intends to do nothing to give human rights to blacks,” Brennan said in the fall of 1986, throwing his support behind full divestiture, even though there was no state law requiring it.

That prompted the state treasurer to sell $264,000 in state investments in Beatrice Co. and other businesses. The treasurer mentioned the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965 and their influence on the movement in justifying why Maine was divesting even a small amount.

It wasn’t until 1987 that Maine adopted a law divesting all state pension funds from companies that were doing business with South Africa.

“Those days were part of a movement for justice and a cause that was far from our home but not far from our hearts,” said Herb Adams of Portland, a local historian and former state legislator who introduced the divestiture bill. “It was part and parcel of the feeling of fair play and equal justice which makes us Mainers.”

Adams said he was visited by the ambassador from the apartheid government of South Africa.

“That is how desperate they were,” Adams said, “that they would come to Maine to talk to a lone legislator and try to argue him out of his own opinions and principles.”

During that era, several Maine businesses stopped doing business with South Africa.

L.L. Bean stopped selling items made in South Africa, including seat covers, and Shop ‘n Save supermarkets stopped carrying Granny Smith apples from South Africa. West Point Pepperell, which ran a textile mill in Biddeford, sold its minority ownership in a South African company.


The fight to divest the University of Maine System took years, Allen said.

“(The anti-apartheid movement) dominated about 10 years of my life,” he said.

The trustees initially resisted, saying they had a fiduciary responsibility and could not even consider moral issues.

“So this was a big challenge to us. We made the case that that was correct, but it was not an absolute,” Allen said. “We asked them, would they have invested in Nazi Germany in munition plants? And of course they said no.”

At that point, he said, activists were able to draw the parallel to apartheid, and eventually gain the trustees’ support.

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