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While the blacks in apartheid South Africa were living in shantytowns in the heart of Johannesburg, Harvard College student activists were living in ones they had constructed in the middle of the Yard.
On an April night in 1986, more than 200 South Africa divestment activists erected a shantytown and a symbolic 16-foot ivory tower in front of University Hall to protest Harvard’s investment in companies doing business in South Africa.
Led by the Southern Africa Solidarity Committee (SASC), student activists also staged sit-ins outside University Hall offices and organized multiple protests—including one that attracted over 5,000 people. The movement drew attention not only from Harvard administrators, but also from those outside of the Harvard bubble.
In the late 1970s, many American corporations, universities, and state governments began the process of divesting from South African companies in order to place financial pressure on the apartheid government through economic isolation.
The University, however, remained reluctant to pull out from its investments, and administrators publicly stated that they could better advocate for civil rights for South African blacks by staying involved in the country.
“The most obvious result of divestment would be that the university would lose the influence it currently has to try to persuade companies to oppose apartheid and improve the lot of their Black employees,” wrote then-University President Derek C. Bok in a 1986 open letter to the community.
In response to student protests, Harvard also established a South Africa aid program, which provided a $1 million fund to benefit victims of apartheid and created the South Africa Internship Program, which sent Harvard undergraduates to South Africa for a year to work in educational institutions that help black South Africans.
“THE RIGHT THING”
By 1986, the University was no stranger to the movement to divest from South Africa. Protests began as early as the 1970s, led by the Black Students Association and the SASC, though the movement eventually lost steam, says Damon A. Silvers ’86.
The 1980s saw a revival of the initiative on campus, spurred by growing political repression in South Africa and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 to South African Archbishop and prominent civil rights activist Desmond M. Tutu, who was a strong advocate for divestment.
Harvard’s continuing resistance to divestment drew widespread criticism from the University community, especially amongst students.
With the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s still fresh in Americans’ minds, many students saw the University’s failure to take a strong position against the South African government as immoral.
“There was an undertone here that this was about what kind of country the U.S. was going to be,” Silvers says. “In theory, the U.S. had turned its back on institutionalized racism. But there was a bunch of ways in which we were propping it up.”
“It struck me as deeply dishonest for us not to join the movement to isolate the apartheid regime,” says Jamin B. Raskin ’83, pointing to the fact that the South African government was not only imprisoning politicians but killing people by the thousands.
Students also criticized the 1986 South Africa aid program, especially the internship component, saying that the affiliated work sites—including five primarily white private schools—were not particularly relevant to the South African black community.
“Black South Africans ... have all mentioned in their comments on the Internship Program that they see the program as a way of avoiding divestment and other sanctions against South Africa,” read a report from the SASC condemning the program.
“The choice [for the University] was whether to maintain institutional complicity with the apartheid government or to join this international movement to bring change to South Africa,” Raskin says. “It was an intense political experience because we all loved Harvard very much, and we wanted Harvard to do the right thing.”
“A LIVING PROTEST”
Beginning in the 1984-85 academic year, the University saw a period punctuated by numerous student protests in support of divestment.
For example, the SASC invited Reverend Jesse L. Jackson to speak at a rally in 1985 that filled the Yard with over 5,000 activists.
Student protestors also organized a chaotic blockade of South African Consul-General Abe S. Hoppenstein when he came to speak at Lowell House, established collection drives for African causes, and staged multiple sit-ins at the offices of top University administrators, including Bok and members of the Harvard Corporation.
“We just walked in and sat down and said we were not going to leave the building,” says Rebecca K. Kramnick ’87, who covered the sit-in of the site of a Corporation meeting for The Crimson.
The students were snacking and singing, and it was a “jolly atmosphere,” Kramnick says.
“You gotta get rid of apartheid or a bunch of kids are going to be climbing up on [your] desk and smoking [your] cigars,” jokes Michael T. Anderson ’83 about the message the protestors were sending to University leaders.
And on a spring night in April 1986, members of the SASC constructed their own shantytown—consisting of seven shanties as well as the colossal ivory tower—in front of University Hall.
The settlement—which Silvers says drew “constant student presence”—was meant to represent Harvard’s indifference to the plight of South African blacks, according to Kramnick.
“People were living there and it was a living protest,” Kramnick says.
A few days later, the Conservative Club built a “Black Tower” and a “gulag” in opposition to University investments in Soviet Union-related companies.
The effects of the shantytown protest spread beyond just students.
Duncan M. Kennedy ’64, a Harvard Law school professor at the time, recalls that several faculty members—including Kennedy himself—organized classes in the shantytown among the encamped students.
According to Kennedy, fifteen or sixteen of the twenty students in his class attended the lecture in the shantytown—”higher than normal attendance,” Kennedy says.
“[The protests] gave [faculty] a sense that the students we spent our time teaching had a real moral core and in some ways were more committed than our colleagues,” Kennedy says.
The constant pressure on the University ultimately resulted in partial divestment from South Africa, as well as the cancellation of the internship program.
“In the past, there have been attempts at divestment that were inappropriately swayed by particular points of view on campus where the students were manipulated,” says South African native Nicolette D. Mayer ’88, citing Saudi Arabia and Israel as modern examples. “[But] in the case of South Africa, something fantastic was achieved.”
Kramnick says that although the partial divestment was largely a result of alumni criticism—rather than student activism—the student movement played an important role in raising awareness of the issue.
And while the shantytown was eventually taken down, and rallies faded away, the movement for South African divestment had a lasting influence on the lives of many involved.
According to Raskin, some of the undergraduates involved in the rallies continued to advocate for civil rights in their careers.
For example, Raskin—a state Senator in Maryland—notes that he and other politicians discussed the apartheid protest movement as part of their political campaigns.
“The experience of the divestment movement taught us all a lot of political skills,” he says. “We learned how to organize events and we learned how to debate and to write for a political purpose, so it propelled a number of my friends into careers in law and public life.”
Anderson says the experience gave students a taste of the power of activism.
“The exhilarating part of the movement was feeling like we were engaged in a chess game with the administration,” says Anderson. “It gave everybody that was involved some kind of idea that these institutions are not all powerful—that they can be pushed and even provoked.”
—Staff writer Rediet T. Abebe can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Julia L. Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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