Flashback to 1985: After a prolonged and heated debate, the Baltimore City Council approved a call for municipal pension funds to divest themselves from any investments in companies dealing with South Africa. But pension trustees dragged their feet, adopting guidelines which permitted the continuation of already made investments and barred only new ones.
"This is very ticklish," a city employees' union official said at the time about the investment restrictions. "The feeling I get from the general membership is that something has to be done, but not by cutting the throats of the retirees."
This provides the missing historical context to the City Council's speedy and uncomplicated decision last week repealing the ban. Things that today are non-controversial were not always so.
The city ended its South Africa boycott at the urging of Nelson Mandela. "We believe the time has come when the international community should lift all economic sanctions against South Africa," the president of the African National Congress said, referring to steps toward multi-racial rule.
Until the mid-1980s, most local governments in America felt their sole responsibility was to deal with local affairs and not get involved in foreign entanglements. Then two foreign policy issues became so compelling that hundreds of cities and townships felt they, too, had to take a stand.
One of those issues was South Africa's apartheid system, the other was nuclear weaponry.
In recent weeks, sanctions against South Africa have been rescinded by many governments. "Nuclear-free zones," on the other hand, still remain in many localities, including Baltimore City and Takoma Park.
The fast pace of change in South Africa necessitated quick action by the City Council to end an outdated policy because delaying action would have harmed the pension system's ability to get the highest return for its investments, says Councilman Timothy D. Murphy.
"I think the sanctions did as much as -- if not more than -- any other thing to break the camel's back," commented Councilman Carl Stokes.
If South Africa is to move from a minority government to a truly democratic society, it will need plenty of foreign investment. Stopping something was easy. It is far more difficult to channel investments to corporations and purposes that will promote future stability in South Africa while avoiding excessive risks.