University of California Berkeley students win divestment against apartheid South Africa, 1985


The goal was for the University of California to divest its $1.7 billion in holdings in firms that did business in South Africa.

Time period

10 April, 1985 to 23 May, 1985


United States

Location City/State/Province

Berkeley, California

Location Description

University of California campus
Jump to case narrative


Nancy Skinner—leader of student group “UC Divestment Committee”
William Nessen—leader of student group “Campaign Against Apartheid”


Student group—United People of Color

External allies

Bay Area Free South Africa Movement
Local labor unions
Professors and Teaching Assistants at UC Berkeley

Involvement of social elites

Berkeley Mayor Guy Newport
Willie Brown, Speaker for California’s State Assembly


Regents of University of California

Nonviolent responses of opponent

None known

Campaigner violence

None known

Repressive Violence



Human Rights
National-Ethnic Identity



Group characterization

University students

Groups in 1st Segment

United People of Color
Mayor Guy Newport
Professors and Teaching Assistants

Groups in 2nd Segment

Willie Brown
Bay Area Free South Africa Movement
Labor unions

Segment Length

Approximately 8 days

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

5 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


3 out of 3 points

Total points

9 out of 10 points

Database Narrative

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. The groups demanded that the University of California regents who oversaw the school’s finances divest the 1.7 billion dollars they held with companies that did business in South Africa.

The two anti-apartheid student groups joined forces with United People of Color, another group on campus, and collaborated with them in planning protests. They also broadened their coalition by garnering support from community groups, like the Bay Area Free South Africa Movement, and local labor unions. Throughout the week of April 10 students and community members continued to sit-in daily at the plaza, renaming it “Steven Biko Plaza” in honor of the South African anti-apartheid activist. Many students stayed overnight, talking and watching movies about the apartheid. The campaign intensified when, at 6am on the morning of April 16, Berkeley police staged a raid of the sit-in and arrested 156 protesters. The student body was enraged. They vowed to continue their protest, and called for a boycott of classes the following day. Professors and teaching assistants voiced their support of the boycott, with many stating that they would not punish those who missed class. The campaign also gained the support of Berkeley mayor Guy Newport, who called the arrests “stupid”, and stated that he would not do anything to aid the university in its suppression of the campaign.

On April 17th, the day after the arrests, 10,000 Berkeley students boycotted classes. The campaign began to garner media attention and the university regents agreed to hold a public hearing on the divestment issue on April 24. Willie Brown, Speaker in California’s State Assembly, spoke at ‘Biko Plaza’ and came down against the university’s regents for their lack of action. Thousands of students continued to hold noontime rallies at Biko Plaza and hundreds continued to sleep out on the steps of the plaza. They held teach-ins and educated each other about the apartheid, holding speeches and showing movies. Some protesters sat-in and participated in rallies, while others also blocked entrances to student buildings and resisted arrest during raids. Over the course of the protest, almost 400 students and community members were arrested.

Although getting the regents to agree to a public hearing on divestment was a success for the campaign, the hearing came and went without any change in policy. Students continued to sit-in for 44 days and then finally went home for the summer. The university had yet to divest any of its holdings with companies that did business in South Africa.

Finally, in June of 1986, University of California regents established a three-year plan to divest their holdings from South Africa. The students’ goal was met, but there is debate as to how much their protests affected the decision. Among most Berkeley community members, the consensus seemed to be that the university only took action when members of California’s government voiced their support of divestment. One of the leaders of the United People of Color, a student group that was in partnership with the campaign, stated that the students also failed to build a lasting coalition that would continue the protests. Nancy Skinner, student leader of the UC Divestment Committee, commented in an interview five years later that the students’ victory was more symbolic than outright.


UC Berkeley students were influenced by students that were part of the anti-apartheid divestment movement at the Columbia University (see "Columbia University students win divestment from South Africa, United States, 1985")(1).


Edwards, Annie and William A. Ryan. “Unlike Old Times at Berkeley.” The Guardian 1 May 1985, Print.

Gitlin, Todd. “Divestment Stirs a New Generation.” The Nation 18 May 1985, Print.

Gorney, Cynthia. “Echoes of the ‘60s, A Cause for the ‘80s; On the Nation’s Campuses, Apartheid Protests.” The Washington Post 20 April 1985, Print.

Guess, Robin. “1985 Activists Await Mandela Led Divestment Protests at UC-Berkeley.” San Jose Mercury News 30 June 1990, Print.

Iwata, Edward and Sarah Dodge. “159 Arrests at Berkeley—Apartheid Foes Seek UC Strike.” The San Francisco Chronicle 17 April 1985, Print.

Iwata, Edward and Sarah Dodge. “Big Boycott of UC Classes- Apartheid Protest Widens at Berkeley.” The San Francisco Chronicle 18 April 1985, Print.

Iwata, Edward and Sarah Dodge. “Willie Brown Adds Threat in UC’s Apartheid Protest.” The San Francisco Chronicle 19 April 1985, Print.

Iwata, Edward and Sarah Dodge. “UC Berkeley’s New Generation of Protestors.” The San Francisco Chronicle 17 May 1985, Print.

Additional Notes

Although divestment did not follow immediately from the campaign, it did occur within the next two years, which qualifies the campaign as a success. However, as is noted in the narrative, leaders of the campaign disagree on the weight of the protests in determining the final outcome.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Arielle Bernhardt, 05/02/2010