The global divestment movement to combat South African apartheid was widespread and often met with political and economic backlash from both government and university officials across the US and abroad. While divestment itself consisted of corporations, states, municipalities, and universities working to cut ties with the South African government and economy, it later became apparent that these sectors were deeply intertwined, and that many of the top officials within these sectors were opposed to such drastic measures of political protest and economic intervention.
The divestment movement really took off in the United Kingdom in the 1960s when the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) called for an international conference on sanctions against South Africa. By calling for the complete divestment of funds from the nation the AAM sparked a turning point for the global call to end apartheid. Many organizations both in the U.K..and U.S. called for divestment at the federal, state, and local level as well as in private corporations and the education system. The divestment of funds from any of these sectors would mean a decrease in the value of the South African Rand and the complete destruction of the South African economy, forcing the apartheid regime to rethink their unequal legislation.
During the start of international awareness and consciousness of apartheid in South Africa it quickly became evident that the United States government was uninterested with cutting ties with the South African government, as well as corporations and companies based in South Africa. Guidelines established by Leon Sullivan in the 1970s, known as the Sullivan principles, helped to encourage corporations to act ethically and further encourage change throughout South Africa. A further objective of the Sullivan Principles was to support economic, social, and political justice by companies; support human rights, and to encourage equal opportunity at all levels of employment” (Sullivan, University of Minnesota). Leon Sullivan went on to further explain that these principles called for improving the quality of life for communities, workers, and children by promoting dignity and equality. Paired with the idea of constructive engagement, which was seen as an alternate to economic sanctions and divestment from South Africa, introduced by President Ronald Reagan. Many US companies quickly backed the values set forth by these principles and called for further divestment in South Africa, which clearly did not follow the values set forth by the Sullivan Principles or the Declaration of Human Rights, which Sullivan looked to for guidance. This call for the multinational community to fully embrace the social welfare of their employees further highlighted the atrocities occurring in South Africa and helped to push the anti-apartheid movement into mainstream media.
Increased television coverage also helped to push the need for reform into the hearts and minds of communities outside of South Africa. With increased televised coverage of the continued massacres, beatings, and segregation the outside world was now able to not only read, but see, what the South African government was doing and how it directly affected the lives of innocent people. These visual images further helped to humanize the movement, and only further encouraged university students and companies alike to push for divestment, in order to cripple the South African economy from the inside.
It can be noted that the origin of student protest against the apartheid government of South Africa can be traced to the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960. As previously mentioned the rise in media helped to show the rest of the world the gruesome truths that were erupting in South Africa and helped to spark a movement for change in universities throughout the US. “The movement did not experience significant growth, nor public notice in the US, until the late 1970’s” (Jackson, 10). B
The Anti-Apartheid Movement at universities across the United States is where one is able to find some of the most vocal advocates for change. As early as 1977, major universities such as Ohio University, the University of Massachusetts, and Hampshire College had begun to divest funds from apartheid South Africa (ACOA, January 1982). By August 1988 155 universities across the United States had divested from South Africa, a huge spike since 1984, when only 53 universities had joined the cause. This spike in divestment correlates to the passing of the 1986 Anti-Apartheid Act by the US government and the further increase in public awareness to the atrocities occurring in South Africa.
The university institutions themselves were not so much advocates for change, but the students within these universities showed a great deal of passion about divesting in South African companies, as well as companies that contributed to the South African economy. A key example that shows this strong divide can be found in Michigan. In 1982 Perry Bullard’s House Bill 4553 “forced divestment of Michigan public colleges and universities from companies doing business in South Africa (The State Divestment Law, University of Michigan).” The Bill passed in the Michigan State Senate with bipartisan support, but was quickly met with aggressive lobbying by university-sponsored lobbyist in the House. By December of 1982 the Bill was passed and “Republican Governor Milliken signed the bill into law and it became Public Act 512, which made Michigan the first state in the country to legislate the divestment of education institutions (The State Divestment Law, University of Michigan).” With the passing of this bill the University of Michigan was now forced to divest approximately one-fifth of their $420 million portfolio.
Many university students throughout the United States pushed for their schools to divest pensions in South African companies and corporations. One school that was particularly successful in this movement was Johns Hopkins University. The students from Johns Hopkins created a Coalition for a Free South Africa, whose goal was to not only get the university from ending investments to South African companies, but to “campaign against banks investment in and loans to South Africa, targeting Maryland National Bank and Citibank (Johns Hopkins Coalition for a Free South Africa, MSU).” Students from the university began protesting on campus and calling for the university to divest, and fast. Initially the Board of Trustees ignored the student’s call to action, but by 1986 some of the faculty members began protesting with the students, and the issue could no longer be ignored. “With the threat of a faculty-student alliance and the possibility of bad PR in October 1986 the board instituted a selective divestment resolution (Armitage, 2016).”
What proved to be extremely unique about the Johns Hopkins case was that it was not until the student protests were put in grave danger that the Board of Trustees took note of the seriousness of this movement. In the spring of 1986 shantytowns were set-up by the protesters; during one night the Delta Upsilon fraternity “fire bombed the shantytowns, not killing anyone, then the press and the Board took note” (Armitage, 2016). By the fall of 1986 the Board had instituted a law prohibiting shantytown structures from being present on campus, resulting in the arrest of 14 students, one of whom claimed to have been sexually assaulted in the process. It was only through all of this bad press and eventual faculty involvement that the Johns Hopkins Board of Trustees noted the seriousness of the movement and the bad press that followed. As previously noted, the Board of Trustees began a gradual divestment in the fall of 1986, and over the next few years Johns Hopkins University successfully divested in all South African corporations and companies.
The call for divestment carried over into the corporate and financial sectors of the United States and United Kingdom as well. In the 1970s students in the United Kingdom staged sit-ins at bank branches near universities and “educated Barclay customers through pamphlets about Barclays’ ties with apartheid in South Africa (Leitner, Swarthmore University, 2014).” The student led protest against Barclays continued well into the mid-1970’s and in 1976 Barclays National, the South African subsidiary, purchased upwards of 6 million pounds of defense bonds, further enraging the protesters, who called for increased public and private withdrawals from Barclays Banks.
Throughout the 1980s, British entities including Camden Council and National Methodist Conferences withdrew their accounts as well. In 1981 the anti-apartheid organization, End Loans to South Africa, “set up a Barclays Shadow Board of Directors to exert shareholder pressure (Leitner, Swarthmore, 2014).” This shadow board published reports that further highlighted Barclays continued involvement in South African Apartheid and worked to gain to support of the United Nations to help continue to work towards ultimate South African divestment. By 1986 the protesters has managed to convince 15 local government authorities within England to close their accounts with Barclays and by November of 1986 Barclays finally agreed to sell their South African subsidiary shares. By March of 1987 Barclays was officially completely divested from South Africa and proof was published that ties had been cut with the apartheid government.
The National Divestment Movement in the U.S. and U.K. was not an overnight success. Many entities such as the city of Dallas opted for partial divestment rather than full. Several unsuccessful acts were introduced to the American Congress prior to the passing of the 1986 Anti-Apartheid Act. In 1987 Representative Charles Rangel introduced the Budget Reconciliation Act, which subjected U.S. corporations operating in South Africa to be eligible for double taxation of they did not divest from South Africa. In 1988, the U.S. House of Representatives also attempted to “mandate the withdrawal of all U.S. companies from South Africa, the sale by U.S. residents of all investments in South African companies and an end to most trade, except for the import of certain strategic minerals (Knight, 1990).” In the end this itself was unsuccessful, however the severity of the “call to action” within the bill resulted in a shift in tone by both the U.S. and South African governments, which noted that increased action would be needed if the political and social climate of South Africa was not altered.