Politics

Economic Leverage: UC Students Fought Tooth and Nail to Divest from South Africa

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Before the pro-Palestinian BDS movement, before the new push for fossil fuel divestment on college campuses, there was the anti-apartheid struggle. My new piece for California magazine chronicles its growth, from its beginnings amid the civil rights movement to the sustained pressure on the UC system to divest from apartheid South Africa to its eventual victory in the late 1980s.

When Nelson Mandela died last December, it seemed that the whole world mourned his passing. Twitter overflowed with love for the former South African president. South Africans of all colors and ages sat vigil outside his Johannesburg home. Leaders from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe traveled to FNB Stadium to memorialize Africa’s secular saint, and Barack Obama told the assembled dignitaries, “Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done.”

Indeed, 30 years earlier the prospect of a free South Africa was almost unimaginable. Mandela had been imprisoned for decades. Although black townships from Cape Town to Durban were in open revolt against the white-run government, the regime had all the money and firepower it needed to keep the rebellion in check. It also enjoyed the full-throated support of the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who considered Mandela a Communist terrorist.

It was against that backdrop in April 1985 that a few dozen anti-apartheid students launched a sit-in at the entrance to Berkeley’s Sproul Hall. They hung banners, organized teach-ins, and, as night fell, unfurled sleeping bags on the steps. Within days, hundreds were sleeping there overnight, and thousands were turning out for midday rallies.

A banner above the steps spelled out their demand:

END UC TIES TO APARTHEID

CALL TO DIVEST

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Radio Freedom, on the radio

I spoke to Johannesburg’s Power FM today about Radio Freedom, the ANC-in-exile’s revolutionary, anti-apartheid radio program from the 1960s through the ’80s. It was fun, though I wish I didn’t sound so sleepy at first–it was 4am my time. Here’s my piece on Radio Freedom from last year.

Africa
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South Africa

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“We’re a Zambian Band”

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My piece on the rise, fall, and rise of Jagri Chanda–once Zambia’s biggest rock star–went up recently on The Appendix. It’s an epic 50-year tale of psych-rock, Quaaludes, post-colonial politics, gemstone mining, and (yes, ultimately) redemption.

“It’s a Sunday morning in Kitwe, a colonial-era mining town in Zambia’s Copperbelt. Clouds hang low, and the air is hazy. In the countryside, farmers are burning their fields in preparation for the rainy season. We’ve come to this recreation area to see an important part of the country’s musical history.

Emanuel “Jagari” Chanda hops out of a truck. Once upon a time, he was the country’s biggest rock star. As one of the founders of the “Zamrock” psychedelic rock scene of the 1970s, Jagari (an Africanization of Mick Jagger) was a household name. His songs were radio staples, groupies mobbed him, he always drank for free. Now sixty-plus years of age, he’s lost the Afro and gained a few pounds, but he retains a youthful, loose-limbed gait.

The recreation area sits on the edge of a manmade lake, and it’s a gently-ruined place. Jagari strides toward the water, past worn picnic tables and fire pits. Beyond the water lie the copper mines that power this central African country’s economy, open-cut gashes in the earth surrounded by heavily-rutted roads and streams running with mine tailings. Jagari grew up around here. He takes it all in, a dethroned king surveying his lost kingdom. “It’s rundown, as you can see,” he says. “Back then it was new.

As singer for the Witch, the biggest Zamrock band, Jagari played to packed stadiums and toured across southern Africa. This recreation area was always one of his favorite venues. Often the band played from a stage backed up to the lake. The crowd—miners, soldiers, office workers, students—caught fish, barbecued, drank, and danced. Sometimes the Witch played at night, other times in the afternoon, the show peaking as the sun set over the Copperbelt.”

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Radio Freedom: A History of South African Underground Radio

rfLast week, The Appendix published my piece on Radio Freedom, the ANC’s revolutionary radio station during the apartheid era. I discovered that, in many ways, the station’s history parallels that of modern South Africa itself.

At seven p.m. sharp, seven nights a week, during the darkest days of apartheid, an incendiary radio broadcast beamed out from Lusaka, Zambia. It began with the clack of machine-gun fire, followed by a familiar call-and-response:

Amandla Ngawethu!

“Power to the People!”

The shooting faded in and out, waxing and waning with the chant.

Hundreds of miles and two countries to the south, people gathered in matchbox homes in Johannesburg’s industrial townships and community centers in the Cape Flats and thatched-roof huts in black homelands to hear the transmission. They hunched over shortwave radios, straining to hear through clouds of static. They listened with the lights off, making sure that nobody had followed them. Secrecy was necessary, because there were informers everywhere. Just hearing this stuff could get you eight years in prison.

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“But He’s Not a Politician!”

edleeMy profile of Mayor Ed Lee is the cover story in this month’s San Francisco magazine. With photography by the great Jim Hughes. I’ve never met Hughes, but he also shot my profiles of Rose Pak and Aaron Peskin. Here’s the subhed:

Mayor Ed Lee wasn’t supposed to be a polarizing political figure. Then the economy went berserk, and the old San Francisco fault lines cracked wide open.

 

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Awards

Here’s some good news: Two stories I wrote for California magazine last year won CASE awards. My profile of R.J. Rushdoony, the obscure but enormously influential right-wing Christian, tied for the gold, and my piece on Rod Benson, the most famous pro basketball player in the world never to have played in the NBA, won the bronze.

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A Spurious “Smoking Gun”

smokinggunIn commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, here’s a piece I wrote for Mother Jones back in March 2003. It’s about the lies that got us into a war.

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The Kid’s Got Guts

theoMy latest for San Francisco magazine: a profile of Theo Ellington, the rising Bayview political activist who led last year’s fight against “Stop and Frisk”:

 

But Ellington’s campaign showed that the African-American community—down to about 6 percent of the city’s population—still has some fight left. It also heralded the emergence of a new leader. “Brotha Clint” Sockwell, a community activist, a teacher, and one of Ellington’s mentors, puts it sardonically: “Theo represents the hope of the remaining three or four black people in San Francisco.”

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Last Occupiers Standing

occYou might have heard that Occupy’s dead. Certainly it’s changed. The large occupations of public space are gone, as are most of the marches. But the movement lives on through the work of groups like Occupy Bernal, which fights illegal home foreclosures in San Francisco’s southern neighborhoods. My piece for San Francisco magazine:

Housing justice organizations like the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment have been doing such work for years, but Occupy Bernal–like similar groups around the country, from Oakland to Minneapolis to Atlanta–has brought fresh bodies to the cause, along with a certain theatrical flair. It organized a bus tour of Peninsula mansions belonging to Wells Fargo board members, has occupied homes to stave off evictions, and is pushing for a moratorium on foreclosures in San Francisco. And when any San Francisco home goes up for auction, occupiers go to city hall to drown out the auctioneer with whistles and loud music.

Photo by Stian Rasmussen.

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Rose Pak is Winning

rpI’ve got the cover story in December’s San Francisco magazine: a profile of Rose Pak, Chinatown activist, community leader, and power-broker extraordinaire. This was a fun one to report and write.

PAK HAS BEEN general consultant to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce since the 1980s, but the title hardly does her justice. She is a confidante of mayors, a consumate political infighter who can get people hired or fired, and one of the leaders of a Chinatown-based political machine that has helped elect generations of local politicians. Most famously, of course, Pak and Brown engineered Lee’s ascension to the mayoralty in 2010, making him the city’s first Asian American to hold the position.

Pak’s political enemies—and they are legion—have their own loaded terms to describe her. They see her as a Chinatown “godmother,” ramming through policies that benefit her friends and punish her enemies. They say that she’s corrupt, dictatorial, an all-around nasty piece of work. Even the extent of her power is the subject of much debate in political circles. Sometimes she revels in her notoriety, but mostly she down-plays her influence. “Power,” she likes to say, “is an illusion.” If so, a lot of people can’t take their eyes off the shadow on the wall.

A COUPLE OF WEEKS after the banquet, I find myself careering down a steep fairway in a golf cart at the Olympic Club, the old-line, members-only golf course out on the city’s southwestern edge. It’s a rare bluebird day with a light breeze off the ocean—perfect for the charity tournament Pak has organized here for the last 18 years to benefit Chinese Hospital. She has already raised $25 million for the hospital’s rebuilding. Today will bring in another $720,000.

Pak is in the cart ahead with the mayor, who drives hunched over the wheel as if fleeing a bank robbery. At the wheel of my cart is David Ho, a 35-year-old community outreach manager with the CCDC and one of Pak’s closest associates. Periodically, Lee and Pak stop to chat with golfers beerily playing their way through a round. At one stop, Pak yells to a man about to tee off, “Hey, you need a mulligan? We’re selling them for 125 bucks a pop!” She laughs—ahuh-huh-huh-huh, like a muscle car backfiring—and then they’re off again.

Photo by the great Jim Hughes, who also shot the legendary “Aaron Peskin in a Speedo” photos that ran with my profile of the supervisor back in 2007.

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