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University of Wisconsin students win divestment from apartheid South Africa, 1969-1978
Madison Wisconsin was one of the first communities in the United States to recognize apartheid in South Africa as a serious and international issue that could potentially be addressed in part through American activism and solidarity. The University of Wisconsin-Madison was a focal point for this activism, due to the dedication and engagement of its students and professors. Although most American activism on South African apartheid did not begin until the mid 1980s, Madison began protesting the situation in the 1960s. Before 1969, there was largely disjointed and uncoordinated activism on the subject, which culminated in two radically different protests in May of 1968: one, on the 17th, was a large-scale seven hour long sit-in where hundreds of students protested the university's investment in Chase Manhattan Bank, whose investment policies toward South Africa perpetuated apartheid. The second event, carried out the very next day, was the infamous firebombing of the University's South Hall (which, due to misreporting, is often cited as having been in protest of the Vietnam war).
Although the firebombing seems to have been a major catalyst for organized protest in Madison, it also breaks with subsequent activism in Madison. The true beginning of the Madison campaign for divestment began the next year, 1969, with the formation of the student group MACSA (The Madison Area Committee on Southern Africa). The group was symbolically formed one day after the nine-year anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa, and it proved itself to be an extraordinarily powerful force in Madison’s struggle for apartheid divestment. MACSA’s tactics were explicitly nonviolent.
As a group, MACSA focused on lobbying and persuasion, and its first few years (1969-1975) were devoted to gathering information on injustices committed in South Africa and on educating the American populace. It ran frequent teach-ins and trainings, and a main project during the 6-year period was the creation of MACSA News, a newsletter on the conflict that by 1975 was subscribed to by over 400 homes. MACSA also published three influential papers: Is Southern Africa Wisconsin's Business, Wisconsin Corporate involvement in Southern Africa, and Israel and Southern Africa. These contributed to Wisconsin’s growing uneasiness with its own ties to the situation in Southern Africa.
The campaign continued in this vein of education until the 1976 Soweto uprising in South Africa enabled it to use the information and support-base it had collected to push for substantive policy change. Over the next two years, aided by the publicity from the Soweto uprising, MACSA was able to achieve three major victories, commonly referred to as the Mad Town Victories.
During its fledgling years, MACSA had developed strong ties with local policymakers and was able to draft a symbolic resolution expressing condolences to the people of South Africa and condemning apartheid. This was passed by the Madison Common Council. MACSA continued its heavy lobbying, thanks to which a second resolution was also passed. This one had substantially more power: it required the city of Madison – whenever possible – to award contracts to companies entirely unaffiliated with South Africa. This was the first resolution of the sort to be passed in the United States, and served as an example to the 92 other cities to eventually pass similar resolutions.
Along with the legislative pressure exerted by MACSA, there were also student members simultaneously participating in direct action: in May of 1977, 12 students occupied the Chancellor’s office demanding divestment. This, along with MACSA’s now serious legislative momentum and the growing unpopularity of apartheid in South Africa, gave MACSA the political clout to draft and pass another resolution like the first, this time through the Board of Supervisors of Dane County, of which Madison was the capital. The entire county was now required to award contracts to businesses with no involvement in South Africa when at all possible.
The final Wisconsin giant to divest from South Africa was the entire University of Wisconsin system. Although the University was well acquainted with MACSA thanks to the group’s strong publicity and many meetings held on campus, MACSA can claim little direct credit for the Board of Regents’ decision to divest. Instead, the credit goes to a close ally of the movement, whom MACSA almost undoubtedly influenced to take a stand. This ally was Wisconsin Attorney General Bronson LaFollette. LaFollette announced that the Wisconsin Stature 39.29(1), which prohibited “the purchase of stocks in firms practicing racial discrimination”, made the University’s investment in companies supporting Apartheid illegal. This resulted in a resolution passed on February 10, 1978 by the Board of Regents that divested the University system of all its holdings in offending companies. This was the largest divestment before or since from South Africa, totaling $14 million worth of stocks.
With the major goals of the campaign accomplished, MACSA no longer met regularly, and eventually dissolved. Another group, the Madison Anti-Apartheid Coalition (MAAC) was to form in 1985 and continue general Anti-Apartheid activism, yet after MACSA’s end Madison was no longer a center for Anti-Apartheid action.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison campaign for divestment from South Africa was an enormous success, especially considering that it came nearly a decade before most other divestment campaigns. It served as an inspiration to other schools and activist communities struggling for divestment, and as the largest University system to divest it sent a strong message to those to come that divestment was a feasible tactic for addressing injustice abroad.