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.
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.
Beginning in 1983, students and student allies at the University of Toronto began creating the organizational structures needed to pressure the University to divest from South Africa. Students created an Anti-Apartheid Network, or AAN, drawing membership from the Student Christian Movement, the Communist Club, the African and Caribbean Students’ Association, and the New Democratic Party Club. The group had large support among the student body from very early on, but gained no traction with the University administration.
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.
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.
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.