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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.