Beginning in the 1970s anti-apartheid campaigns in the United States began to gain momentum as the governmental situation in South Africa grew increasingly worse. Across many fields there was a push to divest from South Africa in order to make the point that the United States did not support the actions of the South African government. The belief was that if the South African government was not receiving the large amounts of financial support that it did from the United States it would be forced to change its behavior.
This campaign was part of a greater movement of international opposition to Apartheid in South Africa. The divestment from South Africa was advocated in the United States in the 1960s, but support for divestiture did not reach full scale until the 1980s. The Stanford student solidarity sit-in campaign of 1977 came early on in the rise of this economic pressure.
Beginning in 1948, the white “apartheid” government of South Africa forced the black majority to live as second-class citizens, condemned to poverty and restricted in their freedoms by a system of legalized oppression. On the other side of the globe, in the 1970s, progressive activists in the United States found themselves absent a cause after the end of the civil rights movement and Vietnam War. The blatant atrocity of apartheid seemed a good target. Activists realized that American corporations were supporting the apartheid regime by operating subsidiaries in South Afric
In the late 70s and 80s, American colleges and universities were engulfed in a heated debate over the ethical implications of financial investments. Educational institutions had invested billions of dollars in financial institutions and corporations with holdings in South Africa. Since the mid 1900s, the South African Nationalist government had implemented apartheid – a form of institutionalized racial segregation that had forced over a million South Africans to move out of urban spaces to designated rural areas. Many saw U.S.
There are several noted origins of the South Africa divestment movement in the United States. Students and activists protested the 1948-implemented system of apartheid in South Africa throughout the 1960’s and early 70’s, but the movement failed to gain much momentum. In 1962, the United Nations issued Resolution 1761 which called for economic and other sanctions on South Africa, but it received very little support from Western governments.
South Africa’s system of apartheid became law following the elections in 1948. Similar to the Jim Crow laws in the United States, the system of apartheid was a form of legalized racial segregation. Consequently, South African apartheid became a very important political issue in the United States; this was especially true once the Jim Crows laws were outlawed. Americans of different racial and economic backgrounds opposed South African apartheid.
Starting in the 1960’s, students in the United States started organizing against apartheid in South Africa. They targeted banks and other companies involved in South Africa, and by the 1970’s, many students were starting campaigns to encourage their universities to divest from all companies with investments in South Africa.
As early as 1965, students at Swarthmore College had signed a letter to the college president calling for a removal of investment with Chase Manhattan Bank, but the issue was overshadowed by activism against the Vietnam War.
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.
In the spring of 1985, campaigns against apartheid in South Africa mobilized on campuses across the United States. Students at University of California Berkeley became aware of these campaigns and were moved to act. On April 10, two student groups—the UC Divestment Committee and the Campaign Against Apartheid—began organizing daily rallies at Sproul Plaza, a main gathering place on campus. Nancy Skinner led the Divestment Committee and William Nessen headed up the Campaign Against Apartheid, but the student coalition made decisions through the consensus of all members.
The student-led Yale Divestment Campaign that began in 1985 sought to pressure the Yale administration into withdrawing its shares in companies that operated in apartheid South Africa. Although in 1978 the administration had incorporated the Sullivan Principles (an ethical purchasing guideline) into its purchasing policies, application of these principles was slow.
The Dutch and British colonization of South Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries brought a system of segregation to the region that remained in place well into the twentieth century. From 1948 to 1994 this took the form of apartheid, a system of legal racial segregation that ensured the continued rule of the country by the white minority.
In 1983, the UNC-Chapel Hill Endowment Board agreed to stop investing with firms that rejected the Sullivan Principles, a code of business practices of foreign companies that wished to treat South African workers fairly which was developed by the Rev. Leon Sullivan, a civil rights activist.
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.
In reaction to the continuing apartheid in South Africa, many colleges and universities in the United States divested from South Africa, meaning that they removed the holdings they had from companies which operated there. Apartheid separated blacks and whites; the whites, however, had a monopoly on power and had much higher living standards. Divestment was viewed as a way to put pressure on the South African government to end apartheid by hurting them economically.
On April 4, 1985, seven students at Columbia University, members of the Coalition for a Free South Africa (CFSA), chained closed the doors to Columbia’s administrative building, Hamilton Hall, and sat on the steps, blockading the entrance. They were there to protest the University’s investments in corporations that operated in Apartheid South Africa. Soon after, a march coordinated by other members of CFSA passed by Hamilton Hall. When the marchers saw the small blockade on the steps, they rushed to join in.