Between erecting a shantytown in Harvard Yard and disrupting a South African official’s speech in the Science Center, anti-apartheid activists at Harvard in the late 1980s pressured the University to fully divest from companies with ties to South Africa.
Even after Harvard tried to placate critics with a policy of “selective divestment,” student activists continued to protest any investment in South Africa.
Activist pressure played a key role in pushing the University to reduce its South African holdings significantly, ultimately leading to a decrease of $230 million in South Africa-based holdings between June 1986 and January 1987.
Although Harvard never did fully divest from South Africa, 25 years later the student participants look back proudly on the small role they played in the downfall of the apartheid regime.
THE SPIRIT OF THE TIMES
South Africa’s system of apartheid was first instituted after World War II, and worldwide opposition to the system of forced racial segregation developed quickly.
In the late 1970s, a significant movement to divest from South Africa began. It aimed to use economic isolation to pressure the apartheid government to change its policies.
As the movement spread throughout the United States, Harvard resisted calls to withdraw its investments and the original movement eventually lost momentum.
However, Harvard activists in the late 1980s were reinvigorated by Jesse Jackson’s visit in April of 1985.
In front of thousands of Harvard students and onlookers, Jackson denounced apartheid and urged students to “choose the moral high road,” according to a 1985 Crimson article.
“We as undergraduates realized that this was a national movement and that what happened at Harvard mattered,” said Jonathan E. Martin ’88, reflecting on Jackson’s speech.
In some ways, the anti-apartheid movement at Harvard stood out in what was a “fairly apathetic time,” said John N. Ross ’87. “This was not like the 1960s where the whole campus was up in arms.”
Rebecca K. Kramnick ’87, who covered the anti-apartheid movement as a reporter for The Crimson, remembered divestment as being “the issue that got students motivated.”
Douglas C. Rossinow ’88 said he stumbled into campus activism as a freshman at Harvard, arriving on campus in the fall of 1984 as a “neo-conservative student from Long Island.”
Believing that opposition to apartheid South Africa was consistent with his belief in individual rights, Rossinow joined the South African Solidarity Committee, or SASC, exposing him to an organization with somewhat of a “radicalist streak.”