MIT students campaign for divestment from apartheid South Africa, 1985-1991

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Time Period:  
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Boston, Massachusetts
Location Description: 
MIT campus
The CAA’s goal was to convince MIT to divest from South Africa to pressure the South African government to end apartheid there.

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. In 1985, as other colleges and universities began divesting, an MIT student group named the Coalition Against Apartheid (CAA) formed to urge the MIT Corporation (which was in charge of MIT’s investments), and MIT’s president Paul Gray, to divest from South Africa.

The CAA was a loose organization and never claimed to have any specific leadership, although it did have the support of a few MIT professors, including Melvin H. King. Most of the CAA’s protests consisted of rallies, meetings, and public statements written to The Tech, MIT’s student newspaper. Opposition letters and articles were also written to The Tech.

Beginning in 1990, protests became more elaborate. A shanty, symbolic of those living in poverty under apartheid, was put up in the middle of campus and torn down by police, who arrested some of the protesters. Five policemen received minor injuries in a minor scuffle. There were many arguments over who started the violence: the protesters or the police. It is unclear, even today, who actually began it. MIT President Gray stated that he would allow future shanty-building protests, granted that the shanty be torn down at the end of the day. The protesters were still not happy. The entire relationship between the CAA and Gray mirrored this single protest: while the protesters made demands and participated in protests (some of which were called “confrontational”), Gray attempted to make the CAA feel like their demands were being met. He never succeeded in doing so, although he may not have had to; he had power that they did not. The CAA never managed to undermine the power of MIT’s administration and so it did not matter whether or not they were content; the administration would do as it pleased.

Other protests consisted of bringing letters in huge 15 foot envelopes to members of the administration, holding a vigil outside of Gray’s house, and trying to break into the MIT Corporation’s club on their lunch break (the protesters were stopped by police). One police officer was hurt and two students were arrested.

More civil meetings between the Corporation and the CAA took place, but the Corporation did not agree to divest MIT’s assets in South Africa, claiming that such an act would only hurt blacks, and that the main function of the Corporation was to raise money to support MIT’s student body (hence it needed the funds from companies operating in South Africa). Also, those companies operated under the Sullivan Principles, which demanded labor equality for blacks and whites. Although only 1% of blacks in South Africa were employed by these companies, the Corporation claimed that the difference those companies made for those employed was significant. The CAA responded by stating that the Corporation only wanted to protect its own monetary interests and did not fully understand the moral reason behind divestment.

MIT never divested its South African assets and the CAA ceased its widespread protests after 1991.

Research Notes

The MIT protests were influenced by divestment campaigns at other colleges and universities around the United States, which arose after a national call for divestment. (1)

Akmal, Arya and Jonathan Pasternak. "Non-violent protest best method to end apartheid." Tech. 110.19 (1990): 5. Print.

Assefa, Samuel, and Sue Nissman. "Life under apartheid has not changed enough to lift sanctions yet." Tech. 111.17 (1991): 7. Print.

Aucoin, Don. "10 injured at MIT rally urging stock divestment." Boston Globe. (1990): 31. Print.

Cano-Ruiz, Alejandro. "Non-violent protest best method to end apartheid." Tech. 110.19 (1990): 5. Print.

Cassidy, Tina. "Protesters demanding divestment try to force entrance to MIT club." Boston Globe. (1990): 26. Print.

D'Angelo, Linda. "CAA protests failed divestment meeting." Tech. 110.25 (1990): 1,9. Print.

Day, Sharlene. "Disinvestment would hurt South African blacks." Tech. 110.28 (1990): 4. Print.

Desai, Niraj. "Apartheid foes cautious about reforms." Tech. 110.2 (1990): 1-2. Print.

Desai, Niraj. "Gray to allow shanties in apartheid protests." Tech. 110.19 (1990): 1,15. Print.

Digavalli, Sasi K. "Life under apartheid has not changed enough to lift sanctions yet." Tech. 111.17 (1991): 7. Print.

Ellis, Ken. "Unruly mob should not affect divestment." Tech. 110.19 (1990): 7. Print.

Hamilton, David P, Charles R Jankowski, and Daniel Crean. "MIT addresses South African divestment." Tech. 105.25 (1985): 1-2,15-16. Print.

Lamberti, Andrea. "ACSR hears views on divestment." Tech. 110.19 (1990): 1,13. Print.

Lamberti, Andrea, and Prabhat Mehta. "Corporation meets amidst protest." Tech. 110.10 (1990): 1,19. Print.

Lamberti, Andrea. "Protesters say case is biased." Tech. 110.27 (1990): 1-2. Print.

Newman, Lisa A. "MIT and Wellesley Students Demonstrate Against Apartheid." Harvard Crimson (1978): n. pag. Web. 5 Feb 2010.

Nissman, Sue. "MIT Coalition Against Apartheid still supports divestment in South Africa." Tech. 111.11 (1991): 5. Print.

Saleska, Scott R. "MIT must divest its South African connections." Tech. 105.25 (1985): 8-9. Print.

Steele, Alan. "Unruly mob should not affect divestment." Tech. 110.19 (1990): 7. Print.

Unknown author. "Coalition Against Apartheid (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)." African Activist Archive. African Activist Archive, Web. 5 Feb 2010.

Urbina, Ian. "The Analogy to Apartheid." Middle East Research and Information Project. Middle East Research and Information Project, Web. 5 Feb 2010.

Watt, Dave. "Corporation to Discuss Divestment." Tech. 111.17 (1991): 1-2. Print.

Additional Notes: 
Further exploration may be needed to discover precisely why the campaign was not successful and to find out why the movement stalled between 1985 and 1990. Also, looking into the question of whether or not divestment was actually an effective measure against the South African government could be useful.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Sophia Naylor, 7/2/2010