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.
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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.