Nelson Mandela and the spiritual legacy of divestment

One aspect of Nelson Mandela’s legacy is spiritually crucial because it shows how systemic evil can be countered by systemic good.

Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid activist, former prisoner and President of South Africa, an icon of non-violent resistance, has died.

While many aspects of Mandela’s legacy are enormously important, one is particularly spiritually crucial because it shows how systemic evil can be countered by systemic good.  That can be seen in the work of divestment, the ultimately huge economic boycott of South Africa that was singularly important in helping to bring an end to apartheid.

Economic boycotts are a crucial Just Peace practice.  In my chapter on non-violent direct action in Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War, I argue, specifically in reference to divestment in the anti-apartheid movement, that such actions demonstrate “the increased ability of non-violent activists to penetrate the complex corporate patterns of ownership and control.”

The specific role of divestment, in the struggle to end apartheid, was certainly economically significant.  Richard Knight, in a chapter in Sanctioning Apartheid (1990), notes “A combination of growing resistance and capital flight has severely challenged the long-term survival of the apartheid system.  The withdrawal of numerous U.S. and UK companies is a significant victory for the anti-apartheid movement.”

As a student and then as a young faculty member, the campus organizing for South African divestment was a long and deeply spiritual experience for me. From 1977 on, beginning on campuses in the West and Midwest, protests to get trustees to withdraw their investments from companies that did business with South Africa, or conducted business there, increased. Organizers were in touch with Nelson Mandela, even from prison. The divestment movement really took off in 1983 as black South Africans increasingly mobilized to make an apartheid regime ungovernable. Televised protests from South African townships fueled the anti-apartheid campaign in other counties, including the U.S.

The possibility, to me, that my actions in calling on a college or university to divest from South Africa were in some way supporting these South Africans was a major learning that led to my commitment to non-violent direct action.  Apartheid was clearly a great systemic evil. What I learned, though, is that global networks of people working together to support economic divestment to end apartheid was clearly a great and practical systemic good.

Today, a new divestment movement is gaining momentum on college campuses in the U.S. “borrowing tactics from the 1980s anti-apartheid campaign and using them against oil, gas and coal companies to fight climate change.” Pressure is being applied to trustees to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

Bill McKibben, environmentalist and journalist, has called this “Fossil Fuel Resistance”.  It is resistance in the face of moneyed interests every bit as seemingly entrenched as South Africa under apartheid, fueled by huge fossil fuel industry contributions. “Weeks before Election Day,” McKibben writes, “Chevron gave the largest corporate Super PAC contribution of the post­-Citizens United era, making sure that Congress stayed in the hands of climate deniers.” But they are starting to lose because “every flood erodes their position, and every heat wave fuels the Resistance.”

In a theological sense, climate change denial is a sin, as I have written. But climate change activism, the “Fossil Fuel Resistance” idea modeled on the anti-apartheid divestment campaign, is a great spiritual work of our time, and a social good.

Thank you, Nelson Mandela, for all you did to show us what principled leadership, in concert with global networks of non-violent direct action, can accomplish.

Image courtesy of Ted Eytan.


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • Wildthing1

    Yet these days a professor questioning the work of financial workers in the WTC and their part in economic injustice in the world can be witch hunted out of a job and give $1 for his freedom of speech! We have lost a long way since back then being unable to even say many discouraging word about an unprovoked invasion of Iraq over 9/11 they had nothing to do with anyway, even Mandela’s criticism held little sway…

  • Emily Delmont

    Much of this is completely inaccurate. Mandela co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe – the armed wing of the ANC. Proven that non-violence wasn’t working, he looked to arms as a path out of Apartheid. Please do your research.

  • quiensabe

    Not sure Nelson would like your new divestment movement, Susan. Even as a communist, Nelson would not nationalize any industries while President fearing global capitalists would not invest in South Africa. Nothing like money to redefine one’s definition of sin, eh, Susan?

  • Damn Dirty Ape

    In my chapter on non-violent direct action in …
    Is this an article on Mandela or an advertisement for the author’s book disguised as an article?

  • anderlan

    Pollution should not be free. What’s right is right. Our law is wrong because it says pollution is free. When we do what is right we are blessed. Our free market is enshrined in our property law. When our law is wrong, our free market is wrong and harms us. Only when our law is moral does the free market have true Liberty to improve our lives. Freedom is the freedom to say 2 + 2 = 4. True freedom is the freedom to live in the truth. Pollution should not be free. What’s right is right.

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