On May 2, 1985, furious anti-apartheid protestors flowed into the Lowell House courtyard upon learning that South African Consul-General Abe S. Hoppenstein was speaking to the Conservative Club. Protestors linked arms to create a human barricade, chanting “Conservative Club, what do you say? Would you invite the KKK?”
The rally quickly dissolved into chaos as student organizers lost control of non-Harvard protestors who joined the demonstration. The sound of shattering glass reverberated through the courtyard, panicking the crowds gathered there. According to an article written at the time, students blockaded Hoppenstein in the Lowell House Common Room for several hours to give him “the experience of thousands of Black and white South Africans jailed in hell-hole prisons.”
Police eventually held back the crowds to relocate Hoppenstein, which resulted in 20 students filing charges of police brutality.
The Lowell House blockade marked the peak of the anti-apartheid protests in the mid-1980s, resulting in disciplinary action for more than a dozen students.
Students from the Southern Africa Solidarity Committee (SASC) staged the protest as part of their efforts to push President Derek C. Bok to divest Harvard’s endowment from companies conducting business with the apartheid government in South Africa.
Though Harvard never fully divested from South Africa, the protests forced the administration to grapple with its role in indirectly financing the apartheid regime, and made a deep impression on the student participants, who said their lives were shaped by the turbulent events.
A BRICK IN THE WALL OF APARTHEID
Anti-apartheid protests began in Cambridge as early as the 1970s and steadily gained momentum, leading to a student take-over of Bok’s office and a torchlight parade in opposition to Harvard’s investments in South Africa in 1978.
But according to Damon A. Silvers ’86, one of the leaders of SASC, the committee was dormant in the early 80s during a period of relative quiet in South African resistance. As the situation in South Africa became increasingly dire, however, student support for the end of violence in South African grew rapidly.
“We felt Harvard University should not be another brick in the wall of apartheid,” said Jamin B. Raskin ’83, who participated in the 1985 protests while at the Law School.
On April 4, 1985, about 5,000 students gathered in Harvard Yard for a protest organized by SASC, which had invited Reverend Jesse I. Jackson to speak to the riled crowds. Jackson had written a letter to Bok a month earlier in which he urged the University to divest.
The rally was only the beginning of the passionate resurgence of anti-apartheid protests in 1985.
That year, protestors would occasionally stage “pop and stops”—activities to prove that they were well-organized enough to seize control of a major administrative building if necessary. Massive groups of students would instantly materialize and pile into the offices of Massachusetts Hall, where they handed the secretaries flowers and mysteriously said, “We’ll be back later,” before quickly dissipating.
Students also created an alternative fund to collection donations from the senior class that would not be invested in South Africa.
“Our work was profoundly creative,” Michael T. Anderson ’83 said. “It wasn’t just some pious liberal statement about the solidarity of suffering Africans. It was, ‘We can do something about this by squeezing a major institution in the country, one that claims to be very progressive.’”
Bok did respond to Jesse Jackson’s letter, writing that he shared protestors’ “abhorrence of apartheid.” But the president continued to defend his argument that taking a political stance on an issue would compromise Harvard’s independence as an educational institution. In speeches and subsequent letters to the community, Bok continued to state that it was inappropriate for a university to engage in politics or become a moral watchdog.
In the climate of persistent student protests, Harvard eventually divested from South Africa—only partially—and thereafter inaugurated a new policy: The University would not invest in any companies that did more than 50 percent of their business in South Africa.
INSPIRED BY THE PAST
The apartheid protests in 1985 occurred during a fraught time at the University in which liberal students, stuck in “the darkest years of the Reagan administration,” craved the revolutionary change enacted by the notorious rioters of the 60s and 70s, according to Anderson.
Some students in the 80s worried that their generation was “boring and complacent” compared with “all the great cultural ferment in the 60s,” Raskin added.
Anderson said that while students cared immensely about the atrocities in South Africa, the events were in part an attempt to revive 60s-era drama.
“I would get on a bullhorn in front of a crowd whenever I had the opportunity,” Anderson said.
“The political style [of the 1985 rallies] and the cultural references going on were all linked to the 1960s,” Silvers added.
Student protestors’ reinvigorated energy eventually led the University to convene the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities (CRR), a disciplinary body that had not been called upon since the Vietnam War-era protests.
Silvers, who was one of 14 protestors charged in the Lowell House blockade, refused to testify at disciplinary hearings, and was eventually let go without punishment.
Silvers said that his activism and interest in organizing as a Harvard undergraduate had “a huge impact” on the rest of his life, shaping his career path after law school.
He now serves as the director of policy and special counsel for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), a national trade union.
Silvers said that his current work often focuses on issues related to capital markets and companies’ investment decisions, similar to the case in urging Harvard to divest.
“I am intensely proud of [the experience],” Anderson said. “We did something vivid and strong and life-affirming.”
Thomas J. Winslow ’87 said that his role in the anti-apartheid movement propelled him to write a senior thesis about marriage laws in repressive societies, including apartheid South Africa.
After graduating from Harvard, Winslow decided to study at the University of Cape Town. He later established a psycho-social programme for released political prisoners, before co-founding a trauma center for survivors of torture and political violence.
Though Harvard refused to divest completely from South Africa, the University decided to establish a fellowship for black South Africans to spend a year at Harvard in 1979. After graduation Winslow and one of the South African fellows, Mary Jane Morifi, traveled throughout South Africa “not only to meet activists and academics, but to see how apartheid impacted the lives of ordinary black people.”
Now, Winslow and Morifi are married and live in Johannesburg with their two children.
“Perhaps it was a strange twist of fate—Harvard’s failure to disinvest, shanties in Harvard Yard, the fellowship programme for black South Africans, and my academic interests—that eventually brought us together,” Winslow wrote in an e-mail to The Crimson.
Today, Winslow interviews South African high school students applying to Harvard.
“It’s as important as ever that young gifted South Africans have the same opportunities to join the Harvard undergraduate community—not as historically disadvantaged victims of apartheid, as they might have been characterised in the past—but as intellectual equals to any other global candidates for admissions,” Winslow wrote.
PROTESTORS OF TOMORROW
Raskin said that alarming levels of corporate misconduct have influenced the current generation of students—from the Massey Energy Corporation in West Virginia, to BP Oil in the Gulf of Mexico, to Goldman Sachs on Wall Street.
“When I look at the state of the world today, it seems a lot more frightful and perilous than when I was in college,” he said.
Raskin added that young people’s enthusiasm and organization around President Barack Obama’s campaign is proof that students today are still eager to be politically active.
In 2001, strong student organization was evidenced, when undergraduates staged a sit-in to urge the University to pay its employees a living wage. Silvers was involved in some of the negotiations between students and administrators as a third-party labor representative.
Silvers said that his experience as a witness in disciplinary hearings in 2001 with the once-again resurrected CRR created a feeling of “déjà vu,” bringing back memories of his own experience with the CRR in 1985.
According to Winslow, global poverty and achieving the Millennium Development goals are the most pressing issues for today’s students.
“I would hope that the current generation of Harvard graduates would rise to the challenge of eliminating global poverty in the same way my generation participated in the social movement of our time,” he said.
—Staff writer Zoe A. Y. Weinberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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