Jennifer Davis was born to Jewish parents in Johannesburg, where her German mother and South African father had sought refuge from the anti-Semitism that increasingly threatened German society in the early 1930s.
As she came of age in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Davis reflected on Nazi ideas of Aryan supremacy and the consequences they had wrought in Europe. “I learned,” she told the South African weekly the Mail and Guardian, “that when we said ‘never again,’ we meant, really, never again would we allow such things to happen to any other people, not just to Jewish people.”
Davis, who died Oct. 15 at 85, went on to devote decades of her life to dismantling the apartheid system of racial segregation that cleaved South African society and oppressed the black majority for nearly half a century after its establishment in 1948.
Her activism made her persona non grata in her home country, in the description of a history of her work published by the South African government, and drove her in 1966 into exile in the United States, where she redoubled her efforts as one of the most forceful advocates for the divestment of stock in companies that did business in apartheid-era South Africa.
“Simple arithmetic, which proved correct, suggested to us that the companies would stay, enjoying the benefits of apartheid, until they calculated that staying was costing them more than leaving,” she told an interviewer for the book “No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists Over a Half Century, 1950-2000.” “So we needed to raise their pain — and that meant increasing the size of the investments that might be pulled out of their control.”
The divestment movement, along with other efforts in South Africa and abroad, was credited with helping bring about the end of apartheid in the early 1990s.
Davis, from 1981 to 2000 was executive director of the New York-based American Committee on Africa.
An account of Davis’ life published on the website of the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, described Davis as having been “continually pestered by the security forces and later threatened with house arrest” during her early years challenging the apartheid regime. It praised her for “dedicated efforts” that “served not only the South African cause, but helped the plight of the African continent as a whole.”