Kelly: Fight against apartheid came to Nebraska in 1980s with gift of South African gold coins -
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    |   402-444-1000

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

Man, 21, shot in ankle while walking near 30th, U Streets
State Department moves to delay Keystone XL pipeline decision
Omahan charged in fatal shooting in Benson neighborhood
Friday's attendance dips at Millard West after bathroom threat
High school slam poets don't just recite verses, 'they leave their hearts beating on the stage'
Crack ring's leaders join others in prison as a result of Operation Purple Haze
High court denies death row appeal of cult leader convicted of murder
Haze in area comes from Kansas, Oklahoma
Man taken into custody in domestic dispute
Omaha judge reprimanded for intervening in peer attorney's DUI case
Intoxicated man with pellet gun climbs billboard's scaffold; is arrested
Police seek public's help in finding an armed man
Saturday forecast opens window for gardening; Easter egg hunts look iffy on Sunday
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Last day of 2014 Legislature: Praise, passage of a last few bills and more on mountain lions
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
A voice of experience: Ex-gang member helps lead fight against Omaha violence
Church is pressing its case for old Temple Israel site
OPPD board holding public forum, open house May 7
The thrill of the skill: Omaha hosts statewide contest for students of the trades
A recap of what got done — and what didn't — in the 2014 legislative session
When judge asks, Nikko Jenkins says ‘I killed them’
Nancy's Almanac, April 17, 2014: Trees save money
'The war is not over,' Chambers says, but legislative session about is
PAC funded by Senate candidate Ben Sasse's great-uncle releases Shane Osborn attack ad
< >
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Breaking Brad: How many MECA board members can we put in a luxury suite?
As a stunt at the Blue Man Group show, MECA board members are going to see how many people they can stuff into one luxury suite.
Kelly: Creighton's McDermotts put good faces on an Omaha tradition
A comical roast Wednesday night in Omaha brought fans of Creighton basketball laughter by the bucketful. This time it was McJokes, not McBuckets, that entertained the Bluejay crowd.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
< >
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.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for'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 »