Jennifer Davis: Fearless and visionary

Davis, who died at 84 on October 15th, was a prominent leader of the anti-apartheid movement in the US and an analytical thinker and visionary.

Jennifer Davis and Oliver Tambo, New York, 1987. Image credit David Vita via the African Activist Archive.

Gail Hovey worked for the American Committee on Africa (ACOA), an organization that coordinated the sanctions campaign against apartheid South Africa, where Jennifer Davis served as research director of the American Committee on Africa (ACOA). Hovey remembers traveling to South Africa with Davis as observers for that country’s first democratic elections in 1994. “If people are brave enough to vote, they deserve to have observers,” Hovey remembers words from Jennifer Davis that stopped her and fellow elections observers in their tracks. A debate as to whether they should provide staffing in potentially violent spaces during South Africa’s 1994 election had been animated to that point.

Davis, who died October 15, 2019, at 85, connected Americans and Southern Africans beyond her capacity in elections monitoring. She began her career arguing with a teacher about the National Party’s rise to power in 1948. She continued through the university movement at home in South Africa. As a young adult, she engaged in protest alongside her husband Michael, who had served as an advocate with Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, both of whom would go onto to lead the largest liberation movement in South Africa, the ANC. When death threats, state harassment, and subsequent exile took them to New York City, the pair hosted Namibians and South Africans pleading their cases before the United Nations, and they assisted fellow lawyers in seeking funding for political trials. Within this sphere, she funneled some of the guilt she later expressed at leaving home into maintaining connections between the birth home and the new.

Home and exile had not been strangers to Davis in her life to that point. Her Jewish, German mother moved to South Africa and married her father during a tide of rising anti-Semitic nationalism in Europe in the 1930s. Jennifer was born just a few years after. Though she grew up physically removed from much of her mother’s family, the young child and her family received news from family as the Holocaust unfolded. In the book, No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half-Century 1950-2000, editors Bill Minter, the aforementioned Hovey, and Charles Cobb Jr. wrote that “For Davis, ‘Never Again’ meant that every Jew should be an activist, resisting religious and racial oppression wherever it occurred.”

And so she was.

She then succeeded George Houser to serve as executive director of ACOA and the Africa Fund for nearly two decades, as international movements against apartheid reached their apex and as Southern Africans transitioned their domestic politics.

In this capacity, Davis often served as a link to Americans seeking to understand Southern Africa’s complexities, within and beyond their understanding of apartheid. Keeping with ACOA’s mission of moving Africa from the periphery of US foreign policy debates, Davis’s research undergirded much of the organization’s ability to connect with citizens of her new home. This ability came from a belief that sharing stories of the continent would help nuance it to Americans and, thus, change policy toward the region. Throughout, she continued to advocate for connections and, more than that, to advocate in the interests of Southern Africans. More than once, archival records have revealed her speaking her mind to Americans who she scolded as too sympathetic to gradual change and cooperation with the apartheid regime.

In her realm, she contributed to a dialogue that centered Southern African liberation as a continuing tenant of US civil rights work and helped to usher in the era of “global rights.” Alongside co-worker Dumisani Kumalo (post-apartheid South Africa’s first Ambassador to the UN, and who also died earlier this year) and American and Southern African activists, she facilitated public protest against the apartheid regime on university campuses, in front of government offices, and through shareholder activism, among other means. When Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act and—perhaps more significantly—overrode Ronald Regan’s veto of it in 1986, it codified federal restrictions on trading with the South African government. Davis and Kumalo had worked within grassroots coalitions to pass such legislation at local and state levels for years prior. While she focused her work on connecting two sides of the Atlantic, she remained equally emphatic that change work take place in solidarity and worked broadly within and beyond Washington DC, where she worked and lived during her life’s last decades.

Joel Carlson, a close personal friend and one of the attorneys whom she hosted, held meetings with prominent American attorneys that led to the formation of the Southern Africa Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Davis hosted him in New York as the pair worked frantically to find monies for a trial that would save the lives of thirty-seven SWAPO leaders under the Terrorism Act. The Lawyers’ Committee funneled monies into political trials and death inquests, including the trial of the Namibians, trials of the Cassinga detainees, Robert Sobukwe’s cases around his exit visa, and inquests into the deaths of Neil Aggett, Steve Biko, James Lenkoe, Isaac Muhofe, and more. In doing so, American lawyers materially connected their support for decolonization to Southern African colleagues working on it. In her capacity with ACOA, Davis managed much of the infrastructure of this relationship alongside stalwart American women, such as Jean Sindab and Gay McDougall..

Throughout all of this, Davis earned the distinction of being, as an SABC broadcast last week called her “fearless” and “tremendously visionary.” She had often called herself “intense.” Minter, Hovey, and Cobb would add “analytical” to that list.

Many Southern Africans, Americans, and allies from across the globe have no doubt viewed Davis’s passing as yet another bookend on the era of global anti-apartheid politics that transformed not just South Africa, but spaces like the United States, which viewed apartheid as a proxy in its own anti-racist struggles, and indeed global political advocacy itself.

Still others know Davis’s work, if not her name. Jackie Wilson Asheeke wrote in the Namibian newspaper, Windhoek Observer:

Sadly, so many builders of the foundation upon which an independent Namibia and a free South Africa were built, like Jennifer Davis, will not be remembered or appreciated. But, I think that’s ok with them. Their anti-apartheid work wasn’t for applause or riches, it was done because it was the right thing to do.

Indeed, the “rightness” was far more okay with Davis than the applause. To researchers such as this one, she as a subject was almost maddeningly difficult to access. I spent more than a decade calling and e-mailing her, having brief conversations, but always hearing her demure opportunities to discuss her own work. Within her sphere of action, she simply did not see speaking of her laurels as a priority. Those laurels, however, remain active in the connection between people engaged in anti-racist struggles on two sides of the Atlantic. With Davis’s influence, many of them found ways to be brave enough.

Further Reading