When Adolf Hitler came to power in January, 1933, Renate Pratt was nine days short of her fourth birthday. She was 16 when he killed himself in May, 1945. What she saw and lived through during the intervening years in Nazi Germany shaped her worldview and thereafter she devoted her life to social justice, in particular the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
Ms. Pratt, who immigrated to Canada, headed the Taskforce on the Churches and Corporate Responsibility. This ecumenical coalition of Canadian religious organizations worked to isolate South Africa by embarrassing companies and banks from dealing with the apartheid regime.
“My mother was one of Canada’s leading pioneers of corporate social responsibility in the 1970s,” her daughter, Anna Pratt, said. “Armed with just meticulous research on corporate investments, she calmly faced down a hostile corporate Canada. She even changed a few minds.”
The Taskforce worked to raise awareness of Canadian banks and corporations lending money and doing business in South Africa.
“Canadian banks were the second in the world, after Dutch banks, to stop lending money to South Africa,” said Bill Davis, who was chief financial officer of the United Church during Ms. Pratt’s tenure.
Her associate Moyra Hutchinson said Ms. Pratt’s “meticulous and persistent research” helped bring about that change.
“She managed research on Canadian bank loans to South Africa and published a booklet outlining those loans, titled A Few Words from Canadian Banks,” Ms. Hutchinson said. She added one bank chairman later said he wished his institution had stopped lending to South Africa earlier than it did.
One of Ms. Pratt’s spectacular victories came in 1986. After a lengthy campaign she led, Alcan sold its investment in Hulett Aluminium, a major South African aluminum firm. In her book In Good Faith: Canadian Churches Against Apartheid, Ms. Pratt details how she and other Taskforce members travelled to South Africa to check on the company’s claims that it was not manufacturing military materiel and that its presence in South Africa helped black workers.
“In Durban I was able to get in touch with a researcher and community organizer,” Ms. Pratt wrote. “They confirmed what had long been suspected that the company was manufacturing a variety of specialized components for military production. … These included rocket shell casings, bomb stabilizer fins and specialized sheet metal for armoured vehicles.”
Alcan sold its interest in the South African firm just days before its annual meeting in the spring of 1986, although at the time, the company said it sold for business reasons.
Ms. Pratt and the Taskforce faced criticism, saying its work caused economic hardship for the people it was trying to help, the black majority in white-ruled South Africa. In December, 1986, The Globe and Mail published a letter from Ms. Pratt in which she criticized a writer who defended white rule in South Africa after a state-sponsored visit there.
“I take particular exception to Dr. Walker’s charge that ‘ill-informed churchmen, sanctimonious do-gooders, hypocrites, a biased media’ and the like are not only to blame for cornering the lion (the South African Government) but – by counselling international economic sanctions – will also be responsible for helping to ‘pull the trigger‘ should a bloodbath occur. (A position that ignores the more than 2,000 deaths that have so far resulted from South Africa’s states of emergencies.)”
Renate Wera Hecht was born on Feb. 8, 1929, in the industrial city of Wuppertal, Germany. Among other things, it was the place where Aspirin was patented by Bayer, in 1897. During the Hitler era, there was a concentration camp for political prisoners in Wuppertal. There was also a Christian resistance movement against the Nazis and the Hecht family were part of that, though they later left their church when they saw it as caving in to Nazism.
“My mother’s family left the church when it maintained its ties to the Nazi Party,” Anna Pratt said. “She was motivated by the horrors she saw in her childhood. She would tell me that one day a Jewish student or a Jewish teacher would not show up and never return.”
In 1980, Ms. Pratt told The Globe’s Liam Lacey that her conviction and devotion to social justice sprung from what she had seen in life.
“I grew up in Nazi Germany. Then I moved to Africa. … Through Germany and Africa, I’ve learned that struggle for freedom is a daily matter in many parts of the world.”
Wuppertal was heavily bombed during the war; 40 per cent of the buildings were destroyed. It was so dangerous for people on the ground that Renate’s father, a pharmacologist, had cyanide tablets on hand in case the family became entombed in a bombed-out building.
At the end of the war, Renate went to Hamburg where she trained as a nurse. In the early 1950s she went to Uganda to work with new mothers and their babies and acquired a lifelong devotion to Africa. She also met the man who became her husband, Cranford Pratt, a Canadian who was teaching at the university in Kampala.
They returned to Canada, then lived in England and went to live and work in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in 1961, where Mr. Pratt taught at the University of East Africa (now the University of Dar es Salam). Their friend the journalist, Clyde Sanger, recounted how Mr. Pratt was approached to take the post by a senior British academic. Mr. Pratt said over dinner that he had just bought a house in Toronto and had a post at the University of Toronto.
“In the silence that followed, Renate leaned forward and said ‘Cran, you know you would give anything to go back to Africa,’” Mr. Sanger wrote in an e-mail.
They were soon back in Africa, where they became involved with various independence movements in southern Africa, including Rhodesia and South Africa.
“My mum was involved with social justice in South Africa and my parents met and became close to opposition leaders from Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe] including Herbert Chitepo,” Marcus Pratt, Ms. Pratt’s son, said. Mr. Chitepo was assassinated in Zambia in 1975.
Back in Canada, the Pratts became involved in the movement to fight apartheid. Ms. Pratt worked at the YWCA and helped write a short book, Investment in Oppression, in 1973.
During the 1960s and 70s, the Pratt family took in draft dodgers, young American men who left the United States because they didn’t want to serve in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
The Taskforce also worked for social justice in other parts of the world, including Indigenous issues in Canada and oppression in Latin America. They used the same methods: leveraging the moral and financial power of the churches, which owned shares through their pension and investment arms. In her interview with The Globe, Ms. Pratt described how business people working in comfortable office towers in Canada were divorced from the reality in countries such as Brazil, which, at the time, was a military dictatorship.
“We told him [a bank executive] how priests were being killed and bishops stripped and tortured by the military for their political opinions. His response was ‘whoever these people are I’d be more than happy to meet them for a drink and discuss things with them.’ How do you begin to explain that we’re not talking about the sort of people you invite over for cocktails,” Ms. Pratt said.
After she left the Taskforce, she worked on her book, In Good Faith, which was published in 1997. The anti-apartheid campaigner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, wrote the preface.
“We have experienced nothing short of a miracle in South Africa as we have seen apartheid disappear from the scene,” Dr. Tutu wrote. “Renate Pratt’s book is a ringing account of how one group in Canada struggled to galvanize Canadian public opinion to pressure business and government to take a moral stand against apartheid.”
Ms. Pratt’s daughter says her mother’s erudition was all the more remarkable since she had never finished the equivalent of high school in Germany.
Ms. Pratt loved swimming, in particular in Canadian lakes. She loved gardening and walking and continued going on walks until she was unable to.
She was a voracious reader and a devoted parent. She typed her children’s essays and learned from them. Her son Gerhard said she was a stern editor and wouldn’t tolerate an error. She learned French in Canada and Swahili in Tanzania.
Ms. Pratt, who died in Toronto on March 10 at the age of 89, leaves her sisters, Nore Buckle and Kristiana Gessl Hecht; her children, Anna, Marcus and Gerhard; and five grandchildren.