Category Archives: Obituary

Nelson Mandela: A Memory

Nelson Mandela-A Memory

Dispatches From the Edge

Dec. 5, 2013

“One thing alone I charge you. As you live, believe in life. Always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader and fuller life. The only possible death is to lose belief in this truth simply because the great end comes slowly, because time is long.”

W.E.B DuBois, historian, activist, founder of the Niagara Movement, and author of the “The Souls of Black Folk.”

Those words are taped on my desk next to James Baldwin’s searing quote from “The Fire Next Time”: “A civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that they be wicked but only that they be spineless.” Nelson Mandela, the great clarion of African freedom, whose history was the very embodiment of courage, above all else believed in life. And like DuBois and Baldwin, he understood perseverance.

With the news that Mandela’s breath finally failed him—his lungs were savaged by the tuberculosis he acquired during his 27 years of imprisonment in South Africa—two memories came to mind.

In the spring of 1961, I stood in a vast crowd of people in London’s Trafalgar Square to hear a stream of speakers denounce apartheid, a term I had never before encountered. In part my ignorance was because I was an 18-year-old, fresh out of high school, where I had majored mainly in football and beer, but also because I was an American, and the word was simply not on my political radar screen. A few of us knew about the Sharpeville massacre the previous year, when South African police had murdered 69 peaceful demonstrators, but “apartheid” was as yet an exotic vocabulary word for me.

When I returned home to San Francisco to start college, a few of us tried to get some traction on the issue. The UN had called for an international boycott in 1962, but it had been almost completely ignored by the West. Even Britain’s supposed anti-apartheid Labor Government rejected joining the UN boycott.  It is hard to get Americans to look beyond their shores unless a lot of body bags are coming home. In any case, most of us were swept up in the civil rights movement, the free speech movement, and then the fight to end the war in Southeast Asia. The anti-apartheid movement went on the back burner.

It was not that Americans were unaware of apartheid—even though I doubt that a lot people, even in the civil rights movement, could have given the definition of the Afrikaner word: “the state of being apart”—it was that no one quite knew what to do about it. Until the anti-apartheid movement came up with the idea of divesting in companies that did business with the Pretoria regime, it seemed a bridge too far.

But starting in the 1970s that began to change and, without belittling any other area of the country, Oakland and Berkeley led the way. As the singer and activist Harry Belafonte said, San Francisco’s East Bay was “The birthplace of the U.S. anti-apartheid movement.”

But it was a long, slow slog.

In 1972 Berkeley Congressman Ron Dellums (D-Ca) introduced the “Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act,” which ended up dead on arrival in Washington. The following year Berkeley Mayor Lonnie Hancock tried to get the city to divest from companies investing in South Africa, but the effort failed. It took six years of repeated efforts to get Berkeley to divest. When it finally did, it became one of the first in the nation to do so.

The turning point in the fight against apartheid came in 1984, when students and faculty at the University of California, Berkeley demanded that the biggest university in the world divest its billions of dollars of investments in companies that did business with South Africa.  At the time I was a reporter, who wished them well, but had no great hopes of success. I kept thinking of a line from a poem by Irish revolutionary Padraic Pearse about those who had gone out “to break their strength and die, they and few, in bloody protest for a glorious thing. They shall be spoken of among their people. The generations shall remember them, and called them blessed.”

How wrong I was. Memories of the past can sometimes blind us to the potential for the future.

The students built shantytowns on campus, besieged the Board of Regents and took over historic Sproul Plaza for six weeks. The University responded in typical fashion: tear gas, arrests, expulsions and stonewalling, all of which was like trying to douse a fire with gasoline. Civil rights groups and trade unionists joined the demonstrations, along with people throughout the Bay Area. The University soon found itself at war with the whole East Bay.

The pressure was just too much, even for the powerful and wealthy Board of Regents. In 1986 UC withdrew $3 billion from companies doing business with South Africa, dwarfing modest divestment decisions by universities like Harvard. Dellums re-introduced the divestment legislation, and in 1986 the U.S. Congress passed it. It was the death knell for apartheid.

Mandela remained in prison until 1990, when it became clear to the South African government that it could no longer withstand the international pressure to release him and terminate the system that had enchained a people for over 40 years. While apartheid was officially ended in 1990, it was not until Mandela was elected president in 1994 that it was finally buried.

And that leads to the second memory.

On July 1, 1990, Mandela came to the Oakland Coliseum and told 58,000 people, “It is clear beyond any reasonable doubt that the unbanning of our organization [the African National Congress] came as a result of the pressure exerted on the apartheid regime by yourselves.” He thanked the crowd and held his fist in the air. No, Berkeley students, faculty, civil rights organizations, town residents and trade unionists did not bring down apartheid by themselves, but because they persevered and had spine, they started the avalanche.

It is sometimes hard to remember these lessons because DuBois was right: ends come slowly and history is long. But in the end it is those who fill the plazas, who chain themselves to doors, who shrug aside tear gas and billy clubs—who persevere in the face of prison, exile, even death—to whom history’s laurels go.

We shall miss this dear man who loved freedom and humanity so much that, no matter what was done to him, would not break. He set the bar high. We honor him by clearing it.

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Alexander Cockburn 6/6/41-7/20/12

Aug. 3, 201Alexander Cockburn June 6, 1941-July 20, 2012

For Chaos heard his voice: him all his Traine

Follow’d in the bright procession to behold

Creation, and the wonders of his might.

-Paradise Lost, John Milton

It was fitting that writer and critic Alexander Cockburn’s funeral should include a passage from Milton. For more than 50 years, Cockburn combined polished, erudite writing with fierce political insight in the tradition of the great 17th century English polemicist. Cockburn died July 20 in Germany at age 71, following a two-year struggle with cancer. He was buried July 28 in his beloved Petrolia, Ca.

It is hard to sum up his career because it was catholic in true meaning of that word: all embracing. He wrote for newspapers in England, New York’s Village Voice, the Wall Street Journal, and the Nation, and, along with Jeffery St. Clair, founded the investigative publication, CounterPunch. For more than 50 years, Cockburn was a relentless critic of U.S. foreign policy, opposing the Yugoslav War, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the recent war in Libya.

He was particularly critical of Israel, and for that earned the undying enmity of people like Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who called him an anti-Semite. Cockburn responded by publishing a book of essays entitled “The Politics of Anti-Semitism,” commenting that one could always tell when Israel was misbehaving because of charges of anti-Semitism thrown at its critics.

He was born in Scotland, the oldest of three sons of Claud and Patricia Cockburn. He had two sisters from his father’s previous marriages. The family moved to Youghal, County Cork in 1947, and Cockburn lived there until he went to Oxford in 1960.  Graduating from Oxford in 1963 with a degree in literature and language, he worked as a journalist in London. He moved to the United States in 1972.

For 12 years Cockburn wrote a column for the Village Voice called “Press Clips,” which dismantled the myth of objective journalism and exposed the incestuous relationship between U.S. foreign and domestic policy and the media. The column sent shockwaves through the fourth estate in much the same way as A.J. Liebling’s critical writings had done in a previous generation.

He left the Voice in 1984 and began writing a column named after one of his father’s novels, “Beat the Devil,” for the Nation. He continued to do so up until a few days before he died. His last column appeared in the Nation July 30.

In 1996 he and Jeffery St. Clair founded CounterPunch along with Jeffery, a combination print and on-line investigative magazine that features some of the leading writers on the Left.

The Cockburn family was sort of a journalism collective. His father Claud was probably the best front-line reporter during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War—and the competition was rather steep for that designation—and a brilliant essayist on everything from British foreign policy to Irish agricultural practices. The elder Cockburn’s ability to write about virtually anything paralleled Alexander’s career. As Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel told the Associated Press, “His range was extraordinary. He could write about fox hunting, and he could write about intervention.”

Cockburn wrote several books, including “Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press” (with St. Clair), “A Short History of Fear,” “Corruptions of Empire,” and “End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate.”

Alexander’s brothers, Patrick and Andrew, are also journalists of considerable merit. Patrick, a Middle East expert for the Independent, spent several years in Iraq, writing an outstanding book on Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. He is currently based in Britain and continues to report and comment on the Middle East.

Andrew, an expert on all matters military, has written several investigative books, including a recent one on former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as well as a study of U.S.-Israeli covert relations, and a book on Saddam Hussein.

His Frontline story “Drugs, Guns and the CIA”—done in collaboration with his wife, Leslie Cockburn— is probably the best study of the long and sordid relationship between American intelligence and drug dealers during the U.S. war in Laos and the Contra War against Nicaragua.

Obituaries have labeled Cockburn a “contrarian,” although that term is inaccurate. He was famously fierce and could be absolutely scathing— woe betide those who challenged him in print—but his politics were always coherent and deep-seated. If he disagreed with you it wasn’t because he was being contrary, it was because he didn’t agree with your politics.

He was always suspicious of orthodoxy—a sentiment that he shared with Milton—which many times put him at odds with others on the Left. He was roundly criticized for his doubts about global warming, but his stance had nothing to do with crankiness and everything to do with his mistrust of group think. He was suspicious of assumed truths, and when he expressed those sentiments about global warming he was widely denounced. It was as if he had gone to Lourdes and done something rude to the Virgin Mary. Criticism of independent thinking always made him dig in his heels and if you wanted a good old-fashioned Donnybrook, Alex was your man.

His funeral was very much an Alexander Cockburn affair. The speeches were short and the funeral procession—led by his daughter, Daisy—was headed up by a yellow fire engine. A long line of cars followed, winding their way through the rolling Northern California hills to a flat plain surrounded by high hills crowned with ocean fog. “Over to the glory land” was sung and Cockburn’s beautifully handcrafted coffin—embossed with a typewriter—laid to rest.

We shall not see his like again in our time.

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