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Cornell University students sit-in for divestment from apartheid South Africa, 1985
By the mid-1980s, the Apartheid regime had been in control of South Africa for nearly 40 years. The country was in the midst of a national crisis, had declared a state of emergency, and over 5,000 people had been killed by the violence. Despite the African Nation Congress’ requests for international aid, specifically in the form of divestment, the United States (as well as many other powerful countries) resisted. Divestment - a form of economic boycott used to pressure a government, industry, or company towards a change in policy - was seen as too costly of an economic risk by many United States businesses.
However, divestment did have some support, especially among students at universities around the country. Proponents of divestment believed that if universities cut their financial ties to South Africa, the apartheid government would feel pressured to end their discriminatory practices. In the spring of 1985, during the height of the divestment movement, students at Cornell University held a sit-in (beginning on April 18) to urge the Board of Trustees to reconsider their investment policies in South Africa. The student group South African Divestment Coalition (SADC) and its leader Matthew Lyons organized the sit-ins at Day Hall, an administrative building. Over 200 students gathered to demand that the University divest its holdings in companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. When the group refused to disperse, about 100 students were arrested.
At this point, organizer Matthew Lyons called his father David Lyons, a professor of law and philosophy at the university, for additional support. The professor helped organize the Faculty and Staff Against Apartheid (FSAA) and he, along with other staff and faculty members joined the students at Day Hall. Lyons was part of the first group of about 25 Cornell faculty and staff arrested in the divestment sit-ins. Matthew Lyons was also arrested, along with fellow student organizer Joan Meyers, and spokesperson of SADC, Kelly McGowan. All charges against them were eventually dropped, as were the charges against nearly all of those arrested, and no one was convicted.
The next week, after regrouping after the arrests, students and faculty constructed a shantytown on the Cornell campus. They built, and many resided in, shacks made out of thin boards, cardboard, tar paper, and plastic. The protesters hoped to dramatize the residences of many living in South Africa and evoke sympathy and solidarity with the oppressed. The shacks also served as a meeting place and information center for the protesters. Students all over the country erected similar encampments following Cornell’s example.
The shantytowns were a visible reminder to the campus community that the administration had financial ties with South Africa. They were an embarrassment to the university and the administration ordered campus police to remove the encampments. Students, however, simply rebuilt the towns every time they were destroyed. Events such as these seemed to have reinforced the movement, rather than stop it.
In the following weeks, at least five student groups at Cornell went on hunger strikes, 250 faculty members signed and published a petition in the student newspaper, Faculty and Staff Against Apartheid drafted documents including “Why Cornell Should Divest” and a response to the Proxy Review Committee Report on divestment, and there was a 323-73 vote at a Faculty Senate meeting in favor of total divestment. The Board of Trustees, however, was not receptive. Soon after the sit-ins began, Cornell President Frank Rhodes told a group of protesters that the trustees believed investing in socially responsible corporations doing business in South Africa was the best way to aid non-white South Africans.
The students continued occupying the shantytowns until May 11 when a fire erupted and destroyed three of the shanties. The University closed down the shantytowns and ordered them to be destroyed again. When students and faculty refused to leave, they were forcefully dragged from the area and many were arrested. Over 1,000 students, faculty, and staff would ultimately be arrested for the divestment sit-ins at the university. The students left for summer vacation hoping that their efforts during that spring would have a lasting effect on the trustee’s decisions.
Despite the efforts of divestment proponents, Cornell’s Board of Trustees refused to modify their investments and business ties with South Africa throughout the summer and fall of 1985. By 1986, faced again with student opposition, the trustees relented somewhat and adopted a policy of selective divestment. That year, the University held about $146 million of stock in companies doing business in South Africa; by late 1988, the figure had dropped to about $42 million. In January 1989, despite weekly divestment pickets the previous fall, the trustees declined to reduce the University's South African holdings further. The question became moot in the next year as the South African government began to reform and the apartheid system was dismantled.
Although the trustees did not completely divest from South Africa and the protesters could only claim at best a partial victory, the public protests had far reaching implications. It brought people together for a common cause and enabled them to become involved in the larger divestment movement. The sit-ins were the largest, most sustained student political movement in the history of Cornell. While its overall effect on the movement can be debated, what began as a protest turned into one of the most dramatic public demonstrations in Cornell’s history.