The short, white woman with a South African accent

Urdang reflects her long friendship with fellow political exile Jennifer Davis, the anti-apartheid activist and changemaker.

Urdang, left, with Jennifer Davis at the Women's March for the Equal Rights Amendment in 1976. Image credit Suzette Abbott.

On October 15th 2019, exactly two months before her 86th birthday, Jennifer Davis passed away. Towards the end of her two-week visit to my home in Montclair, New Jersey, she had a massive brain hemorrhage. She remained unconscious until, without life support, she passed away six days later in hospice.

It is hard, always, to lose a close friend. She was one of my very closest, closer than any sister, someone I learned from, admired fervently, argued with, and was at times intimidated by for her brain and political acumen. She was a friend in the truest sense of the word, but I lost more than a friend, more than her sisterhood, I lost an anchor.

Jennifer was older than me by 10 years. But, unlike my family, her family had longevity. Her father Seymour, a highly respected pediatrician, lived until 95. Her mother Friedel, a German who trained as a pharmacist, escaped the holocaust by marrying him and immigrating to South Africa in the early 1930s. She lived to 102. I had assumed that Jen would outlive me.

We both emigrated from South Africa to New York City in the late 1960s. In 1968 we met at the wedding of a mutual South African friend. She entered the small living room of our friend’s apartment, her two young children in tow, somehow changing the energy in the room as everyone responded to her. She was scarcely more than five foot to my five foot nine, her brown hair long and straight, a lovely smile on her face.

Jennifer hadn’t wanted to leave South Africa. Her activism began in high school in the late 1940s. At university she joined the Unity Movement, one of South Africa’s liberation organizations. Her activism and commitment to the struggle gained momentum and banning, and incarceration loomed for both her and her husband, Mike Davis (since divorced), a lawyer handling political cases. Because of their work, they were targets of the security police. They had little option but to leave. She also harbored concerns about raising her children under the dense shadow of apartheid. Five-year-old Sandy came home from school one day and asked if Andrew, a close African friend, was a bad person. “Not at all,” Jen assured her. “Why do you ask, darling?”

“The teacher told us today to be careful of black people because they are bad people.” Jen knew then that it would be impossible to protect Sandy or four-year-old Mark from the influences of apartheid and the bigoted thinking that came with it.

That wedding was the starting moment of our friendship and camaraderie. Jennifer was then Research Director of the American Committee on Africa (ACOA) and we both were members of the Southern African Magazine Collective. Beginning in 1972, a group of close friends formed a women’s group. Jen and I were founding members. At the time, women’s conscious-raising groups were blossoming like daffodils in the spring. Most faded over time. Ours didn’t. For 47 years, a core of five have continued to meet—three South Africans, two Americans—all involved in the anti-apartheid and solidarity movements. Recently, for the first time, we met without her.

When Jen died, I lost someone who channeled me into better decisions about life and politics, and her sharp editing eye kept my writing from flying off into directions that would not have served it. She was caring, loving, principled. She never allowed a sloppy thought or careless utterance to go unchallenged. With her I was more considered, more insightful. She expected nothing less and could show irritation when she thought I did not reach to her exacting standards.

Those who worked for her have similar memories. Jennifer became the Executive Director of the American Committee on Africa and of The Africa Fund in 1981, and remained there until her retirement in 2000. Jim Cason was ACOA Associate Director at a critical time in the 1980s. He remembers: “Jennifer didn’t just give me her impressions, but listened carefully and cared about what I had to say. As a young person coming into the progressive movement, this was very important to me. And unusual.” It wasn’t just that she listened, people felt listened to. “It was a rare skill,” he added. She also always insisted on asking, “What is the goal here?” as they strategized. She understood the importance of this clarity before moving on. He has carried over into his own work on strategic advocacy for the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

Prexy Nesbitt, a close friend and fellow activist, began to work with ACOA as its first Field Staff in Chicago in early 1970, soon after he returned from Tanzania where he worked with Frelimo as it fought its war of liberation against colonial rule in Mozambique. Among his many fond memories of their friendship over five decades is the way Jennifer interacted with the African-American community. He accompanied her to Reverend Wyatt T. Walker’s Canaan Baptist Church of Christ in Harlem. Reverend Walker, a prominent leader in the African-American community in Harlem and beyond, was for a time the Chair of the American Committee on Africa and a founder and leader of ACOA’s Religious Action Network aimed at helping to unify the efforts of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations to end apartheid. A strong supporter of Jennifer and her work, he invited her to address his congregation from the pulpit on a number of occasions. Skeptical at first, the congregation was soon responding positively to this short, white woman with a South African accent. Or on another occasion, holding her own with Jesse Jackson, the forceful civil rights activist and prominent leader. At one of his events, Prexy recalled: “There she was, tiny in stature, barely peeking over the mic. Her content was so clear that she soon won the audience over. Her size probably helped her!”

Canon Fred Williams, another African-American religious leader in Harlem, and member of the board of ACOA and RAN, would toast her at her retirement in 2000: “Here was this Jewish woman who made it possible for ACOA’s Religious Action Network to do its work—this coalition of primarily black, male clergy and their churches.” Referring to Jennifer’s tendency to be reserved and self-effacing, he continued: “The public Jennifer is so reliable—the one to look more deeply, to insist on principle, to keep focused even in the face of terrible opposition.” As Prexy put it, “She was non-stoppable when she decided, come hell or high water, to do something, to follow her instincts and her principles, and that often meant going into high water.”

Then there was Dumisani Kumalo. A South African political exile and journalist, he joined forces with Jen at ACOA just as the divestment movement was gaining force. Her work in the public arena as a white South African was at times contentious, given the tensions and conflicts between different groupings of activists. She appreciated Dumisani’s presence and support. In an interview with No Easy Victories, she said, “I developed, I think, a fair amount of credibility, but to have … Dumisani [with me] meant that me being a ‘white lady’ didn’t matter.”

Dumisani and Jennifer were a formidable team. Dumisani, with a strong personality and a rich sense of humor that came with an infectious laugh that lurked behind his serious work, had no ego and cared deeply about the same issues as Jen. They were the perfect match, balancing off their polar opposites in personality and background. As serious and reserved, even shy as Jen could be in public situations, Dumisani always seemed to be enjoying himself. He held audiences in his thrall—whether local, state, or national legislators, religious groups of all faiths, organizations of all political persuasions, or campus activists. Together—Jennifer, the strategist and compelling speaker who had a way of making apartheid understandable to even the most ignorant, and Dumisani with his charisma, charm, and ability to convince even the most die-hard conservative of the evils of the system—they helped forge a divestment movement that would have a major impact on how Americans viewed apartheid and the downfall of apartheid itself. (Dumisani Kumalo was appointed the first Ambassador to the United Nations of the new South Africa after 1994. He too died in 2019.)

Would apartheid have held its ground longer than it did without the US divestment movement and the subsequent Sanctions Act? We do know that sanctions had a real, effective impact on the economy and hastened apartheid’s demise. We also know that without Jennifer’s brilliance as a strategist, her principled approach to her political work, her innovative ideas, and, like a pug at a bone, her insistence to never give up or give in, it may not have worked either. Although ACOA was not alone in pushing the divestment campaign, her quiet, persistent activism in defining its purpose and its achievable goals was essential. While she, like others, saw the importance of changing the minds of elected officials and put considerable effort in that form of education and protest, she insisted that unless the grass roots were mobilized among their constituents, they would happily continue as business as usual. While she gave testimony at hearings at the UN and Congress, while she cajoled heads of corporations investing in South Africa to desist, while she confronted those with power to change their ways, she understood that real change would only come through pressure from below.

The ACOA developed close relationships with many organizations and communities—trade unions, students at colleges and universities, state and city councils, faith-based institutions, community groups, human rights coalitions—and had dedicated staff members organizing among them. Particular targets were the billion-dollar funds of state and city governments, often held in public employee pension funds.

By the time I joined the staff of ACOA and The Africa Fund as Research Director at the end of 1984, 40 US companies had withdrawn their investments from South Africa; another 50 would do so the following year. By the beginning of 1985, Citibank had refused to make any new loans, and Chase Manhattan refused to roll over its short-term loans. From 1982 to 1985, the divestment campaign drove over $4 billion of US Capital investment of out South Africa. This combined to create a major financial crisis in South Africa. At ACOA, Richard Knight kept track of it all, publicizing the results on a regular basis at a time well before the advent of social media.

Meanwhile, US President Ronald Reagan continued to argue for “constructive engagement.” Sanctions would only hurt black South Africans he claimed; change could only happen through dialogue. Those youth in South Africa trying to storm South Africa’s Bastille had given up “dialogue” a long time before. All they experienced was increased violence and repression; increased imprisonment and death.

Reagan had his comeuppance in 1986 when Congress overrode his veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which banned all new US trade and investment in apartheid. It is important to remember—as incredible as it might seem in today’s political climate—that enough members of the Republican-controlled Senate broke from their President to override his veto. There was something of a pincer movement that pressured Congress. While critical organizing was being undertaken with the Congressional Black Caucus and at the policy/leadership level, it was the grassroots activism that exerted the real pressure on members of Congress in their local communities who feared future elections if they did not respond to the demands of their constituents to “do something” about apartheid.

Jennifer’s apartment on Riverside Drive and West 86th Street, with its expansive view of the Hudson River, served as a hub for revolutionary traffic passing through New York. It provided a meeting space, and often a bed for representatives of the African liberation movements, as well as the South African Trade Unions and other anti-apartheid organizations. Seated on folding chairs and on the floor, we listened keenly, learning about the progress of their work and their regard for our solidarity work. We would leave reinvigorated. One such meeting changed the trajectory of my life. Sitting on the floor literally at the feet of Amilcar Cabral, leader of PAIGC, which was fighting for the liberation of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde from Portuguese colonialism, I drank in the words of this renowned theoretician, analyst, and influential thinker. Towards the end of his presentation he turned to the role of women in the revolution. “Women were fully engaged,” he said. “Needing little encouragement, they demanded an equal role with men in the movement.” This was the early 1970s, when heated debates were common-place among American women drawn to feminism, and here was a man articulating what we were grappling with. It was hard enough to dislodge patriarchy in the United States, could this evolution in a small African country achieve what we could only dream of?

Some months later, traveling in Africa shortly after he was assassinated, I was invited to visit the liberated areas of Guinea-Bissau as a journalist. I decided to gather material for a book on the role of women in Guinea-Bissau. I needed to write a synopsis for a prospective publisher. I nervously showed the draft to Jennifer. She was an incisive if formidable editor, if she declared it was bad, I’d be sunk. I waited while she read my draft. There was no point in searching her face for her reactions, she concentrated without expression. She reached the end, flipped back to the first page to reread sentences, and sat thoughtfully for a moment longer. She then pronounced it good, very good. She made a few small editing suggestions. I couldn’t have felt more relieved if I had aced a grueling exam. She was one of my strongest supporters throughout the process of writing the book, and beyond. In no small measure I have her to thank for the development of my writing career.

Gail Hovey worked with Jen as ACOA Research Director before I did in the early 1980s, and is one of our five-member women’s group. She and Jennifer went to South Africa in April 1994 as members of the US team of election observers of the first democratic elections. Their group was assigned to Empangeni and its environs in KwaZulu. Since the mid-1980’s violence between the Inkahta Freedom Party based in KwaZulu and the ANC had resulted in thousands of deaths. The violence sharply escalated in the weeks leading up to the election. The organizers wanted the group to be assigned to another area, away from potential violence at the polls, depriving voters of independent observers. Jennifer would have none of it. “If the people are willing to risk their lives to vote,” she insisted, “they deserve to have observers.” The location remained.

The public Jennifer is who she is remembered for. The private one, the friend, the sister, the comrade, is who I, and those who were close to her now mourn. As I mourn, I remember her feistiness. her unfailing commitment to her work, to her friends, to her family. Gail reflected:

Jennifer has been one of my closest friends for over 40 years, and I have to be reminded by the external world how phenomenal she was. Day by day she was so unpretentious. She was self-deprecating and would have denied being a hero. What a force she was. She would always say it was a joint effort. It was. But only because she was instrumental in making it that way.

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