Carleton University students win divestment from apartheid South Africa, 1985-87

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Time Period:  
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
Ottawa, Ontario
Location Description: 
Carleton University
For the Carleton University student union and administration to boycott and divest from South African products, services, and investments.

Across much of the world during the mid-1980s, students on university campuses led boycott, divestment, and other solidarity campaigns targeting the apartheid government of South Africa. This solidarity movement played a fundamental role in the ultimate dismantling of the apartheid state, spawning institutional and governmental pressure beyond just educational institutions. This student-catalyzed movement emerged around 1985, and by 1990, with the release of Nelson Mandela, most of the groups' campaigns were successful. Student activists normally led a three-pronged attack on apartheid, pressuring universities to reform institutional investments and products sold at campuses with ties to South Africa, and reject the public relations speaking attempts of South African envoys at universities.

In October 1985, in response to the news of a scheduled lecture by Glen Babb, South African Ambassador to Canada, students at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, formed the Carleton Anti-Apartheid Action Group (CAAAG), in partnership with and supported by the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG). The aim of the CAAAG was to sever all institutional ties to South Africa while under apartheid rule, meaning that the student union (CUSA) and Board of Governors (BoG) would fully divest from South Africa the endowment fund and other short term investments. Carleton PhD student and CAAAG founder Augustin Moshi justified the divestment campaign: “Unlike those in power, we can't do big things like initiating national economic sanctions against South Africa or taking such measures like severing diplomatic links with it. Since, however, part of out money is used to shore up apartheid, then we have a card we can use to influence the game, although in a small way. The best way to use this card is to call for divestment of university shares in South Africa-related companies.”

By spring 1986, the CAAAG launched a campus-wide student pressure campaign, successfully convincing the CUSA (student union) to boycott South African goods, notably food, beer, and cigarettes. This campaign was fueled by a general campus awareness initiative comprised of student newspaper editorials, leaflets, and meetings. During this same period, the group consistently lobbied the university administration for divestment, growing in strength and numbers and eventually gaining the lobbying partnership of the CUSA.

In the fall of 1986, faced with a lack of response by the administration, the CAAAG began gathering signatures for a massive student petition calling for divestment that reached over 3,000 signatures. Even with the large petition, President Beckel and the BoG were unresponsive to student demands. In response to the lack of action by the administration, at a BoG meeting on January 26, 1987, 300 students protested outside the Board of Governors. Chanting loudly, the student protesters interfered with the BoG meeting, blockading doors and elevators until the police were called and forced to drag each student out of the building.

Obligated to respond to the student protest, CU President Beckel stated: “To cease all business dealings with such companies would significantly interfere with the operation of the University. I will, however, be investigating approaches to some form of restriction on the business we do with these companies in the interest of giving the signal approved by the Board of Governors that Carleton University abhors [sic] apartheid and will do all it can to show its position on apartheid within its business practices.” Following this statement, the Board of Governors announced on March 4, 1987 that it would fully divest from South Africa. On March 20, the BoG, under no additional pressure from students, followed up its divestment commitment with a complete university boycott of all South African goods and South African-owned companies.

Two and a half years after the successful divestment at Carleton and many other universities around the world, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, marking the beginning of a 4-year period of dismantling apartheid rule in South Africa. Today, similar student initiatives are forming in response to the perceived Israeli apartheid, and student activists are turning to successful solidarity models like those targeting South Africa in the mid-1980s. The Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) group at Carleton, part of a broader Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, are calling for institutional divestment via the pension fund, but current President Roseann Runte has yet to take a stand on this issue. The CAAAG alumni are planning a 25-year reunion at Carleton University to lend support to and advise the current student solidarity campaigns, primarily the SAIA.

Research Notes

Larger anti-apartheid solidarity movement on college and university campuses around the world. The CAAAG was most directly influenced by the campaigns of the South Africa Committee at McGill University (1).

The CAAAG's successful apartheid divestment campaign directly influenced the current Carleton group, Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) and their demands for institutional divestment from Israel (2).

Fonseca, Alroy. “The Other Apartheid: Looking back at Carleton's campaign against South Africa.” The Leveller. Vol 2, no 3 (#7), Jan 2010.

Muhanika, Henry. Anti-Apartheid Campaigns In Canada. Carleton University School of Journalism, Ottawa, Ontario: Aug 1987.

Students Against Israeli Apartheid – Carlton. “Divestment Case Study: Carleton and South Africa.” Carleton University Pension Fund: Complicity in Violations of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law in the

Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Additional Notes: 
Currently, the Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA Carleton) are using the successes of the South African solidarity movement campaign 25 years ago as a model for an ongoing campaign at Carleton University. The SAIA are calling on the University Board of Governors, via the pension fund, to divest from Israel/Palestine war profiteers BAE Systems, L-3 Communications, Motorola, Northrop Grumman, and Tesco.

Also, the CAAAG are holding a 25 year activism reunion at Carleton University to lend support and advise the current student solidarity campaigns.

I have been in contact with former CAAAG coordinator Con McAfee, who I am waiting to respond to my questions via email. I am also waiting to hear back from the journalist Alroy Fonseca. After one month, I still have not received answers to my questions via email.

Henry Muhanika's thesis has an extremely detailed chapter, “Anti-Apartheid Battles At Canadian Universities” that analyzes student organizers' strategic unity and effectiveness.

Edited by Max Rennebohm (12/04/2011)

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Blaine O'Neill, 18/09/2010