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 ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

As Nelson Mandela fought racial oppression in South Africa, his influence was felt around the world, including here in Maine, where the state university system, legislators and ordinary citizens felt moved to exert their own pressure on the South African government to end apartheid.

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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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In the early days of the anti-apartheid movement, the University of Maine System trustees voted in 1982 to sell all of the system’s investments – $1.9 million worth – in companies that were doing business with South Africa.

“It was one of the major success stories in the United States. We were one of the first 10 universities in the whole United States to completely divest,” said Doug Allen, a University of Maine philosophy professor who led the committee that studied apartheid and made the case to divest.

The trustees’ vote came eight years before Mandela was released from prison, where he spent 27 years for his anti-apartheid work.

Maine’s “little Ivies” of Bates, Bowdoin and Colby colleges later made moves to divest, stripping some South African investments from their portfolios.

The widespread divestiture in South Africa is credited with pressuring the government to dismantle the apartheid system.

Mandela died Thursday at the age of 95.

“There was a special grace about the man when you were in his presence,” said Jon Jennings of Cumberland, who said he met Mandela in 1991 when he was an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics. “He was very much a person who understood his place in history. He radiated a joyful and peaceful presence.”

Mandela had been released from prison the previous year and was touring the United States. Jennings said he had a special team jersey made up for Mandela, with his name on the back, and presented it to him as a gift.

When Jennings visited Mandela in 2003 during a business trip to Johannesburg, he asked Mandela if he still had the jersey. Mandela replied that he did, Jennings said, and he was invited to eat dinner with Mandela and his family at their home.

“It’s not often that you get to meet a true saint. He not only participated in history, he moved history,” said Jennings, who is now South Portland’s assistant city manager. “It’s a sad day for their nation and the world. They lost their George Washington.”

Former state Rep. Gerald Talbot of Portland, Maine’s first black legislator, visited South Africa in 1998, when Mandela was president. As Talbot stood beside a road in a large crowd, Mandela and his security detail passed.

“He was walking toward us and then he stopped. I reached out for his hand and he shook it. I was the only person he shook hands with. I can’t explain why, but I am proud of that moment,” Talbot said.

For Talbot, a longtime activist, there was no question that he would throw his energy into fighting apartheid.

“It was in South Africa, but it was still a cruelty to humans. I had to do something. It’s like civil rights – human rights – it’s what you have to do,” he said.

“Nelson Mandela will always be alive in someone’s heart and mind because of what he was able to accomplish in his life,” Talbot said.

Doug Curtis Jr. of Rockland, a retired Army colonel, never met Mandela, but he did visit the prison in South Africa where Mandela was held for more than two decades.

In 2008, Curtis visited Robben Island, a waterbound prison seven miles from Cape Town where political prisoners were held. The guides, all former guards and prisoners, showed him Mandela’s cell, an 8-foot-by-7-foot box with a bucket and a blanket on the floor.

(Continued on page 2)

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