Jennifer Davis, stalwart champion of majority rule in South Africa and leader in the anti-apartheid movement in the United States, died on October 15 in Montclair, NJ, surrounded by her family. She was 85. Her love, curiosity, honesty, and insistent focus on building movements to fight for social justice influenced and inspired countless activists and organizers.

Jennifer was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1933. She grew up in what she described as a Jewish middle-class household where her pediatrician father was often woken in the middle of the night to make house calls. Her German-born mother was trained as a pharmacist and her maternal grandmother helped her understand the story of her family in Germany. Jennifer would later say that “never again” meant that every Jew should be an activist, resisting religious and racial oppression wherever it occurred.

In 1948, when the National Party came to power in South Africa, Jennifer took her first political action, a daring argument with her Afrikaans teacher. At the University of the Witwatersrand, she became deeply engaged in the struggle to transform South Africa. The debates at university, her study of the role of foreign capital in South African and colonial development, and her introduction to the Unity Movement all shaped her future work. After university, Jennifer continued her organizing work, focusing on supporting union struggles. But the Sharpeville Massacre and the subsequent banning of most political organizations led Jennifer, her husband and two young children to go into exile in the U.S. in 1966.

Jennifer with O.R. Tambo
(c) David Vita

In the U.S. she joined the staff of the American Committee on Africa where she quickly established her reputation as a champion of the movement to cut financial ties with the government in South Africa. The American Committee on Africa worked closely with the liberation movements in Africa. She testified before Congress on U.S. financial ties to South Africa and also began a decades long focus on the way U.S. corporations were maintaining apartheid. She brought this expertise to the United Nations, testifying before various committees.  

In the 1970s, Jennifer was also a frequent speaker on college campuses in the United States, promoting the divestment movement that expanded dramatically following the Soweto Uprising. In her speeches and teaching, she linked the South African struggle to campaigns in the U.S., demonstrating how the same corporations that were supporting apartheid were busting worker movements in the United States.

In 1981, Jennifer became the Executive Director of the American Committee on Africa and its non-profit affiliate The Africa Fund. She understood that change in U.S. policy would come primarily from pressure around the country and to build that pressure multiple constituencies needed to be mobilized: faith communities, unions, students, state and local elected officials, and many others. With her South African colleague Dumisani Kumalo, she guided the divestment movement as more and more public and private institutions began to divest from U.S. corporations collaborating with apartheid. When repression in South Africa continued to escalate in the 1980s, the American Committee on Africa played a key role in convincing the U.S. Congress to pass economic sanctions against South Africa over President Reagan’s veto.

Jennifer at Unlock Apartheid’s Jails protest with Gay McDougall (c) Rick Reinhard

Jennifer always recognized that leadership in the struggle in South Africa must come from South Africa’s people, and she worked closely with the African National Congress. She also worked closely with the expanding labor movement and with the United Democratic Front, whose combined and growing strength adding to the now unstoppable pressure for change.

At the Africa Fund, Jennifer worked with Little Steven and a host of cultural leaders to tap the energy, power, and economic muscle of entertainers to put pressure on South Africa. The Sun City album sold more than a million copies, educated tens of millions more, and proceeds provided funding for organizations working to overthrow apartheid. It was during this time that Jennifer also sought the leadership of the Rev. M. William Howard and Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker to build a Religious Action Network that would mobilize African American churches in the United States to support the struggle for freedom in South Africa.

Jennifer with Nelson Mandela

When Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison and made his first visit to the United States, Jennifer and Dumisani were part of the organizing group which arranged for Mandela to address Congress and to meet with national leaders and cultural figures. Jennifer and Dumisani also ensured that he meet with organizers and activists from 49 cities who had been at the core of the anti-apartheid movement. 

In 1994, Jennifer served as an official election observer in South Africa’s first free elections and the American Committee on Africa continued to champion the work for fundamental change in South Africa and around the continent.

Following Jennifer’s retirement from the American Committee on Africa in 2000, she continued to consult on international issues.  She served as an active member of the boards of directors of Shared Interest in the U.S. and the Thembani International Guarantee Fund in South Africa. Jennifer, along with Richard Knight, envisioned the online African Activist Archive Project and helped make it a reality.  She remained on the project’s Advisory Committee, always insisting on the importance of building connections with the people who used the archive’s vast material pertaining to the international anti-apartheid movement.     

Throughout her life, Jennifer was known for her clear-eyed focus on achieving identified goals, ever refusing to respond to public provocations. Jennifer’s ability to bring together broad coalitions of individuals working on a common goal was a key to her success. She remained a militant supporter of struggles for a better South Africa as well as for movements for change in the United States. 

In 2011, the South African government, recognizing her contribution to ending apartheid,  honored Jennifer with The Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo in Bronze. She was commended for “Her contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle, the field of education and her commitment to human rights.”

A long-time resident of New York City, Davis moved to Washington, DC in 2000. She is survived by her brother, Michael Heymann, her partner, Derek (Kered) Boyd, by her daughter Sandra Horowitz, son-in-law Paul, by her son Mark Davis, her daughter-in-law Jane, and by five grandchildren.

Donations can be made in her name to the Shared Interest Jennifer Davis Fund for the Future which mobilizes the resources for Southern Africa’s economically disenfranchised communities, or to the African Activist Archive, the organization Jennifer helped to found which chronicles the U.S. southern Africa solidarity movement in documents, images, and audio and video recordings.

13 thoughts on “

  1. Jennifer was a committed, tireless activist against apartheid.

    I served on the Board of ACOA for several years and got to see her sharp mind for organizing up close. She was a strategist who knew the importance of grassroots coalitions .

    She sent me on several speaking tours around the country with Dumisani and other campaigners to speak to schools, churches, workers and community groups. Above is a photo of me with her and Damu Smith at a press conference I think about a campaign to collect signatures against the State of Emergency regulations by the apartheid regime.

    Dear Jennifer–As you know well, there are many struggles still ahead. As we face them, we will remember the lessons you taught us and we will miss you.
    Gay McDougall

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  2. RIP Jennifer, A luta continua! Ironically, a day later Harold E. Scheub passed away in Madison, age 88. He was a not – so -vocal Anti-Apartheid supporter of the Madison Area Committee on Southern Africa. Through his class on the African Storyteller, which drew enrollments of 500+, he wove stories from the Truth and Reconciliation Testimonies.

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  3. We will miss Jennifer. She, along with her colleagues Dumasini, Richard Knight, and many others, made the instrumentality of the ACOA critical for anti-apartheid work in the United States. Both as a student activist and then later as a mature anti-apartheid worker in England and the U.S., the work of the ACOA: the literature it produced, the speakers it supplied and the films it supported become quite useful in my engagement in both the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid work.
    Jennifer’s self-less, committed work for African liberation will forever be remembered. I, for one, have had the pleasure and the blessing of knowing and working with her. A truly brilliant daughter of Africa.
    Thank you Jennifer, and travel safely to your next state of Struggle.
    Kassahun Checole,
    Publisher, Africa World Press

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  4. Jennifer Davis was someone whom I admired and appreciated. I worked for Dr Jean Sindab and then, Damu Smith at the Washington Office on Africa. That is how my path crossed Jennifer’s so many times. I shall never forget her. She led by example, called things as she saw them and didn’t see the need to placate, pacify or stroke anyone’s ego. Her commitment to the anti-apartheid movement was complete. Jennifer’s life is a story that makes up the warm bits of history that can light fires in people’s souls for a very long time.

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  5. I admired Jennifer at a distance and found her boundless energy & organizing abilities quite extraordinary.
    She certainly helped South Africa move to become a democratic country.In fact she became a South African equivalent of Israeli’s righteous among the nations…

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  6. Jennifer Davis was a shining light in the anti-apartheid movement. Sensible, dedicated, strong-willed and in it for the long haul. Jennifer and ACOA made a major contribution to the cause. I remember her fondly from the 1970s and beyond. Reading this tribute brings back many memories, including the inspiring Don’t Play Sun City song and video.

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  7. Jennifer Davis was a tremendous activist and a guiding light to those of us working in the US to support the struggle against apartheid. Go well, dear Jennifer. Rest in peace and in power. Hamba kahle.

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  8. Jennifer fought against the crime of apartheid with her life. A leader and strategist who built coalitions and networks across counties and between continents – for the sake of freedom and human dignity. She pledged her life. Thank you Jennifer. May you rest in power and peace.

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  9. Jennifer Davis found her purpose in Life
    and pursued it with singular focus
    embracing kindred spirits in a common cause campaign
    for social justice everywhere.

    Apartheid finally failed from the collective effort
    of which she was a significant integral part

    History will look fondly at
    her legacy,
    her tender manner,
    her steely determination, and
    her steady gaze on the future.

    The bestowal of the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo
    is but one testimony to her gallantry.
    Her unrelenting commitment to social justice
    has yielded better circumstances,
    and a new generation
    to take the Struggle to new heights.

    Let’s all be grateful for having shared the same space and time;
    and fashion ourselves likewise.

    Mokubung Nkomo
    (a one-time fellow traveler in Babylon)

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  10. Jennifer was a guiding light in the global anti-apartheid movement and helped us a great deal in California. Without her we would have never had the successes we had early on both at the state, but certainly at many local levels across California. She was humble, humane, kind and unrelenting in her dedication to humanity and to progressive forces in South Africa. She will never be forgotten and will always be loved, respected and admired across earth’s boundaries. We owe her so much!

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  11. I worked with Jennifer for over 14 – years during my tenure with the Thembani International Guarantee Fund (TIGF) that was supported by Shared Interest and the ACA, and travelled with her throughout South Africa visiting townships, Mozambique where she once lived and worked and ESwatini (formerly Swaziland) visiting projects that were close to her heart. She was loved by many from all walks of life and, she will be sorely missed by all her comrades and friends. Hamba Kahle Ntombi Wethu. Aluta Continua!

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  12. Jennifer was always a wonder woman to us out in the bush, the small towns and rural sites of struggle in the US against apartheid. She inspired us, she amazed us by her quiet and too modest demeanor, and always, in those first meetings, we were puzzled by how someone with these features could be so surrounded and loved by so many people and lead so many people in so much good social justice work. She’s an inspiration for generations.

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  13. I was fortunate to have briefly become acquainted through phone interviews and in person in 2016 at the ASA conference in DC. She was beyond generous to a young scholar writing about the causes she devoted her life to. Jennifer was one of the good ones who devoted the majority of her life to the cause of human rights through the Unity Movement in South Africa, through 34 years at the ACOA (twenty of those years as it Executive Director), and almost twenty years on the Board of Shared Interest, to help southern Africans gain access to small business loans. Through her activism countless others benefited. She will be missed.

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