Mills College students win divestment from South African apartheid government, 1984-1988

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Timing
Time Period:  
November
1984
to
August
1988
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Oakland, California
Location Description: 
Mills College
Goals: 
Mills College's total divestment from South Africa
 

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. The first group of United States citizens to actively and publicly draw attention to the injustice of apartheid were black civil rights leaders in the 1960s, who saw parallels between their own struggles and those of the South African people. Despite the empathy shown toward South Africans by this group, it took two decades for the injustice of the apartheid system to seep into the consciousness of the wider American population. The late 1970s and early 1980s marked the emergence of anti-apartheid movements on college campuses across the U.S., as the violence of the South African conflict intensified. Among those college campuses that mobilized to fight the South African apartheid system was Mills College in Oakland, California.

On November 13, 1984, the Black Women’s Collective, International Relations Club, and International Student Association of Mills College hosted a panel discussion entitled “South Africa: Critical Perspectives on the new Constitution and U.S. Business Policies in South Africa.” This conference marked the beginning of the Mills College campaign for divestment from South Africa. Divestment in the minds of these students was the most effective way to apply pressure on the Reagan administration to support the Southern African liberation movement. This conference sparked a wave of sporadic demonstrations on Mills College campus for the remainder of 1984. These demonstrations were organized by individuals rather than a centralized group, and were thus largely ignored by the Mills’ administration.

February 1985 signaled a shift in the Mills campaign for divestment as twenty students gathered to form a battle plan for their protest efforts in the upcoming year. The decision of the group was to focus primarily on educating the campus on the effect divestment could have in undermining the apartheid regime, including films on South Africa and the formation of a committee to explore the divestment issue. This meeting of twenty students marked the formation of the Mills Student Coalition for Divestment (MSCD), a group that dominated all organizing around divestment for the remainder of the campaign. Three key members of this organization were Pat Gillenwater, Melissa Wallace, and Katy Hickman. Pat Gillenwater was the leader of the coalition and formulated much of the feminist influenced rhetoric, advocating for the empowerment of South African women. Wallace was one of the group’s primary spokespersons, making several speeches to the Board of Trustees on the importance of divestiture. Hickman played a key role as a journalist of Mills’ student-run newspaper, the Stream, connecting the wider student body with the goals, rhetoric, and protest efforts of the MSCD.

MSCD’s first move was to take part in the April 16th sit-in against apartheid sponsored by the UC Berkeley anti-apartheid movement (see “University of California Berkeley students win divestment against apartheid, 1985”). Twelve days later MSCD held a teach-in, at the campus Tea Shop, passing out literature and making speeches on the necessity of divestment. The group also organized a letter writing campaign that same year to anti-apartheid spokesperson, San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who later that year included a discussion of apartheid in her speech at Mill’s commencement. Despite these efforts, in February 1985, Mills College President Mary Metz released a statement claiming that Mills College could not commit to total divestment. The following year saw few large scale organized protest efforts, and it was not until 1987 that the MSCD reenergized its public campaign.

In January of 1987, MSCD organized the construction of a shantytown, a flimsy structure meant to emulate the living conditions of many South African blacks under the apartheid system. This method of visual protest had been employed at hundreds of other colleges, including Mills’ neighbor, U.C. Berkeley. On February 26, 1987, Melissa Wallace delivered an impassioned speech chastising the Board of Trustees for their failure to divest. Then in October, MSCD submitted to the Board of Trustees a petition signed by over 200 Mills’ students calling for total divestment by the college. MSCD’s next move was to host a divestment rally and invite City Councilman Carter Gilmore to give a speech. Prompted by this rally, Gilmore put forward a resolution calling for the total divestment of Mills College, which, while unsuccessful, nevertheless brought media attention to the cause. Although the administration remained firm in its anti-divestment stance, they made concessions to student and faculty unrest by supporting several MSCD sponsored teach-ins on South Africa.

The course of the campaign in 1988 was characterized by the building of another shantytown and additional teach-ins. 1988 was also the end of the Mills College Divestment campaign. On August 17, 1990 the Board of Trustees of Mills College decided to totally divest its portfolio from South Africa, undoubtedly swayed by the campaign of the MSCD. The divestment movement at Mills College was significant because in addition to being a piece in the nationwide mobilization of U.S. college students against the policies of apartheid, the Mills’ divestment campaign was mobilized around efforts to support the liberation of South African women in particular. This focus was unique among wider university anti-apartheid movements and perhaps stemmed from Mills identity as an all-women’s institution.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Altbach, Phillip G. and Robert Cohen. “American Student Activism: The Post-Sixties Transformation,” in The Journal of Higher Education 61, no. 1 (Jan-Feb, 1990), 32-49.

Evans, Sara. Tidal Wave: How Women Changed America at Century’s End (New York: The Free Press, 2003.

Mills College, The Mills Weekly. July 1976-December 1990.

Jackson, Nicole. "REMEMBERING SOWETO: AMERICAN COLLEGE STUDENTS AND." Ohio State University. (2009): Print.

Sharp, Gene. Waging Nonviolent Struggle. Boston: Extending Horizons Books, 2005. Print.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Olivia Ensign, 07/02/2009