Legacies of Dissent: The international impact of the anti-apartheid divestment campaign

Rachel Calcott

Climate change activists in the United States of America draw hope and courage from a previous generation that fought for divestment from apartheid South Africa. The latter were inspired by the student generation of 1976 that gave huge impetus to the freedom struggle in South Africa.

In the 1970s, South African student protests spurred an international divestment movement. Today, that historical moment is giving hope to those fighting climate change.

In June this year, despite the cloudless skies, I spent most of my time on the couch with my eyes glued to various screens. This was standard behaviour for international students stranded in the US this summer; the novel coronavirus had converged with the death of George Floyd and the largest protests in recent memory. The main street of the city I live in flooded with protesters like an engorged artery. Chanting replaced the throb of street traffic. Having fastidiously avoided other bodies for weeks, a friend and I shuffled out of our house in black clothing and medical masks to join those supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. But while the marches made the headlines, the bulk of the conversations around racialised police violence had shifted to online platforms, information diffusing through social media accounts. Our days were spent alternating between masked marches through empty streets, and incessantly scrolling through the thousands of protest videos and news stories that flooded the internet.

On June 8, the red berets and the logo of South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters materialised on my US news feed. The EFF had gathered outside a United States embassy in Johannesburg, Julius Malema appearing in a t-shirt with the text “I Can’t Breathe” beneath his distinctive beret. Members of the opposition party led protesters in 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence—the time the police officer had his knee on George Floyd’s neck. Standing in the centre of a cluster of Black Lives Matter posters, Malema announced to a modest crowd that he’d come out in support of the US movement against police brutality. “When they are going through such a difficult period it’s important that we too show solidarity,” Malema shouted into a microphone, referencing a decades-old relationship between social justice movements in South Africa and the US.

My discovery of the ties between South African activism and US protests began on a snowy March morning outside a popular coffee shop on the Yale University campus. The students gathered outside the café that morning were not the quotidian caffeine-seekers, but a group of students from the Endowment Justice Coalition waiting on a signal to make their way into the nearby Yale Investments Office. Shortly after arriving on campus, a friend roped me into the activist community and laid out the web of financial ties between the university and the fossil fuel industry, a prominent culprit in the escalating climate crisis.

With the devastation of Cyclone Idai—that had made landfall not far from my home province of Limpopo—still fresh in my mind, I tentatively agreed to join the group for a ‘sit-in’, a form of non-violent direct action. They intended to ‘occupy’ the lobby until the University agreed to divest—or arrested them. I loitered on the outskirts, unconvinced that a few students singing 60s songs in a lobby could impact the fossil fuel industry. But non-violent direct action wasn’t a path chosen in the dark—as I was soon to find out, the pressure points of reputational damage and student unrest have influenced administrations past, with far-reaching effects.

Sitting on the glossy floor of the foyer surrounded by sour-faced administrators and security guards, we found ways to keep our minds off the freezing temperatures and impending arrests. One of the older members of the coalition was sitting close by, and on hearing that I was South African, began to tell me about the group of students who, at the height of the anti-apartheid movements, erected a ‘shanty town’ on Yale’s Beinecke plaza. On April 4, 1986, the Yale Divestment Coalition, led by the Black Students Alliance at Yale, built the shanty town (a reference to the temporary housing black migrants were forced to construct by the SA government) on a visible library plaza. It stood until 1988, and five students were suspended for their involvement. Despite this gesture, Yale students were late arrivals to the apartheid divestment movement. By 1986, nearly 200 campuses had already announced plans to fully divest from apartheid South Africa.

Later that year, Ronald Reagan’s veto of an anti-apartheid sanctions bill was overridden by Congress, and the sanctions went into effect. The build-up of student dissent, severed corporate ties, and global institutional divestment culminated in the loss of $1 billion from the apartheid economy.

Critically, these protests did not spring up out of the ether; the campus divestment movement of the 1980s shadowed a much more immediate site of struggle and resistance: the South African student uprising of the 1970s. What started on June 16 in Soweto as a protest against the use of Afrikaans as a language of instruction in schools grew into a national rebellion against apartheid. It is estimated that at least 700 people lost their lives in this uprising and thousands more were injured, arrested and charged or fled into exile.

The aftermath of the uprising spanned economic shifts and the consolidation of ANC influence, but also marked the beginning of a broader student movement. On June 17, 400 white students from Wits marched through Johannesburg. Students in Thembisa organized a non-violent solidarity march, and a parallel protest in Kagiso led to police murders of five people. Across the Atlantic, news of the uprising and killings made its way onto the front covers of magazines and newspaper, reigniting the international anti-apartheid protests that had dimmed down in the 60s.

The first US anti-apartheid organisation sprung up on University of California Berkeley’s campus. Despite a penchant for arresting campus organisers, UC Berkeley divested from all its holdings in companies supporting the South African government by 1986. Meanwhile, at Occidental College in Los Angeles, a student who took a lead role in the South African divestment movement would go on to meet Mandela himself—Barack Obama. “My first act of political activism was when I was at Occidental College,” the future President claimed. “As a 19-year-old, I got involved in the anti-apartheid movement back in 1979, 1980, because I was inspired by what was taking place in South Africa.”

“The divestment movement played a key role in helping to liberate South Africa,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu stated in an interview for news organization 350.org. “The corporations understood the logic of money, even when they weren’t swayed by the dictates of morality.” The Archbishop was referring to corporate divestment in the 80s, but in a new context; in 2014, Desmond Tutu spoke up as a supporter of the fossil fuel divestment movement. “Climate change is a deeply moral issue too, of course. In Africa we see the dreadful consequences from worsening drought, from rising food prices, from floods…”

The Nobel peace prize winner called for investors to ditch their stocks in fossil fuels, and applauded University administrations that had already done so. In early March of 2014, Harvard divestment activists learnt that the civil rights warrior had joined a list of Harvard University alumni, faculty and students advocating for civil disobedience in the face of escalating global warming. “Once again, we can join together and put pressure where it counts,” the Archbishop said.

Five years later, I watched from the stands of the Yale football stadium as members of the Endowment Justice Coalition and Harvard Divest stormed the field in the middle of the nationally televised Harvard-Yale football game. Standing with other international students who had helped plan the action but decided not to risk arrest and deportation, I watched as hundreds of students and alumni stormed the field in protest of the university funds that are still embedded in the fossil fuel industry. We hung banners from the stands and passed out flyers. Some half-intoxicated football fans started chanting with us; more hurled abuse or glowered from under collegiate caps.

Many still question the capacity of non-violent direct action to shift the course of a nation’s history. Non-violent direct action lacks the visible cause-effect relationship of coups and revolution, and is often led by those too young to cast a vote. However, it has a subliminal power that has proven its ability to break the backs of regimes and administrations. Like protest music, demonstrations and civil disobedience evoke a counterpoint to the dominant refrain of a time and place. While the actions of the divestment campaign ultimately led to large-scale capital flight from SA, they also revised what counted as morally acceptable; norms warped in tangible ways. There was a public outcry against South African rugby tours, and national outrage at Margaret Thatcher’s invitation to PW Botha, the then-prime minister of South Africa.

As protests around fossil fuel divestment and Black Lives Matter continue to build in the US, structures we now take for granted may be dismantled or erected anew.

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