Kelly: Fight against apartheid came to Nebraska in 1980s with gift of South African gold coins - Omaha.com
Published Wednesday, December 11, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 9:04 am
Kelly: Fight against apartheid came to Nebraska in 1980s with gift of South African gold coins

Nelson Mandela still sat in prison in South Africa when the controversy over apartheid reached an unexpected place — Nebraska.

It all started with a gift to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln of 1,300 South African gold coins, called krugerrands.

The upshot of 1980 debate over that $800,000 gift — the equivalent of $2.3 million today — was that the Nebraska Legislature became the first state legislative body in the nation to impose economic sanctions against South Africa.

South Africa's apartheid and its white-minority rule surely weren't ended by Nebraska alone. But other states followed the Cornhusker State's lead, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu said during a later visit to Lincoln that such pressure helped to end apartheid.

“It was important for the victims to know they had friends,” he said in 2000, “and it was important for the perpetrators to know someone was watching them.”

The donation of the krugerrands was called “a king-sized donation with a Midas touch” when offered by 1923 Nebraska alum James Coe. He had a degree in electrical engineering and lived in Arizona.

The gift wasn't a certificate for 1,300 krugerrands. It was 1,300 coins, about 100 pounds of gold. A private plane was sent with two campus police officers to carry the booty back to Nebraska.

But a black students' group at UNL soon objected to the university foundation accepting the coins.

State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha spearheaded a 1980 resolution and a 1984 law against state investments in South Africa. Chambers was the Legislature's only black senator when he introduced the anti-apartheid measures.

Tuesday, President Barack Obama and leaders of more than 90 nations joined everyday people in rainy Soweto, South Africa, to mourn Mandela's death and honor his life.

In Nebraska, Chambers concurred with the praise.

“He was great,” the senator said from his office in the State Capitol. “He did things no other man in history has done, especially one who came through what he came through. Nobody could condemn him.”

But Chambers said some of the people “chirping like birds about how great he was were like croaking toads when he was actively pursuing what he was trying to do.”

After 27 years in prison for opposing the white apartheid government that ruthlessly discriminated against black South Africans, Mandela was freed in 1990 and in 1994 was elected as South Africa's first black president.

Recalling the Nebraska krugerrand controversy, Chambers said: “I objected to that tainted money being accepted.”

He told other senators that he would calculate the value of the 1,300 krugerrands and deduct that amount from the university's budget. A master of legislative tactics, Chambers threatened to tie up passage of the entire budget.

Coe, the donor, once said he would withdraw the gift because some students and faculty members alleged that the coins symbolized South Africa's racist policies.

The controversy was resolved with the university being allowed to accept the gift — and sell off the krugerrands — in return for a legislative resolution calling for divestiture of investments in South Africa.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

That was upgraded to state law in 1984. Within six months, managers of Nebraska's public employee pension funds had sold $14.6 million in stocks issued by American companies that did business with South Africa.

Ten years later, when apartheid officially ended, Chambers introduced a bill to lift the sanctions, and it passed. The legislation, he said, honored his promise to seek to change Nebraska law “if the day ever came when Nelson Mandela would request that the sanctions be lifted.”

By then, he said, outside investment was seen as assisting in the building of South Africa.

When Tutu visited the university in 2000, Chambers was notably absent.

“The fact that UNL invited Tutu here and didn't invite me,” Chambers said Tuesday, “lets me know how little esteem people in the state have for me.”

First elected in 1970, Chambers eventually had to step away from the Legislature because of term limits, but is back and has served longer than any other legislator in the state's history.

Chambers, who lists his occupation as “defender of the downtrodden,” never has sugarcoated his comments. He may not be as forgiving as Mandela, and he said Martin Luther King Jr. “was way too mild for my taste.”

But he said he admired them and others who have been willing to “put themselves in harm's way” for important causes.

Nebraska's legislative measures against apartheid were small steps, but Chambers said they received news coverage around the world because they occurred in a conservative Midwestern U.S. state.

That, he said, proved to be a profound symbolic move.

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly

mike.kelly@owh.com    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

EB L Street lane to close
Omaha area may get 1 inch of rain tonight
Some city streets remain closed
Owners of exotic dance bar deny prostitution allegations
More Nebraskans are electing to vote early
Nebraska's U.S. Senate candidates stick to familiar topics at Omaha forum
Kelly: Started at a dining room table, Home Instead thriving at 20 with $1B in annual revenue
Gov. Heineman vetoes bill to ease restrictions on nurse practitioners
19-year-old killed in one-vehicle crash at 72nd & Shirley
8% of alcohol sellers checked in Omaha area last week sold booze to minors
OPS bus, SUV collide; no students onboard at the time
Waitress who served alcohol to teen before fatal crash gets jail time, probation
Lori Jenkins, charged as accessory in 4 murders, waives speedy trial
Iowa State servers hacked, nearly 30,000 SSNs at risk
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
2nd District House race: After 8 terms, Lee Terry knows how D.C. works — and doesn't
Bellevue man is killed at Minnesota dance hall after South Sudanese basketball tourney
Spring corn planting still sputters in Nebraska, Iowa, other key states
Nebraska banking and finance director to retire
U.S. Senate race: State Auditor Mike Foley defends Shane Osborn against ad campaign
Public defender to represent Nikko Jenkins in sentencing
Mid-America Center on track for lower operating loss
Bluffs City Council approves dozens of new numbered street lights
National Law Enforcement Memorial Week set for May
Ted Cruz backs Pete Ricketts' campaign for governor
< >
COLUMNISTS »
Kelly: Started at a dining room table, Home Instead thriving at 20 with $1B in annual revenue
The idea that Paul Hogan had studied and then hatched at his mother's table was that older people, rather than moving in with relatives or to an assisted-living center, would much prefer to stay home instead.
Breaking Brad: Into the claw machine! Florida kid follows Lincoln kid's lead
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a child climbed inside a claw machine. Hey, Florida kid: Nobody likes a copycat.
Breaking Brad: Even Chuck Hassebrook's throwing mud!
The Nebraska campaigns have turned so ugly, Democrat Chuck Hassebrook lobbed unfounded accusations at an imaginary opponent.
Breaking Brad: Kraft wiener recall is business opportunity for TD Ameritrade Park
Instead of returning the wieners, TD Ameritrade Park is calling them "cheese dogs" and charging double.
Breaking Brad: Photos with the Easter Bunny are so 2010
In a sign of the times, most kids ran out of patience waiting for a photo with the Easter Bunny at the mall, just snapped a selfie and went home.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
Tokyo Sushi
$5 for $10 or $10 for $20 toward All-You-Can-Eat Sushi Purchase
Buy Now
PHOTO GALLERIES »
< >
SPOTLIGHT »
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
WORLD-HERALD ALERTS »
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for Omaha.com's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »