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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.”
“It was not that ideologically diverse,” said Rossinow, laughing. “As far as I know, I was the only one in the group who had voted for [President Ronald] Reagan.”
Within a year, though, Rossinow found his political alliances shifting. “When I saw that organized, vowed conservatives were such enthusiastic supporters of this despicable regime, that basically severed my ties to Conservatism as a political identity,” he said.
As one of the largest campus groups trying to increase awareness about apartheid, SASC used sit-ins and protests to urge the University to divest from companies in South Africa.
THE ORIGINAL OCCUPIERS
Anti-divestment protests came to a head in April 1986 when SASC led the construction of a symbolic ‘shantytown’ in the middle of Harvard Yard.
Over 200 activists carried the components of the shantytown and their symbolic, 16-foot tall “Ivory Tower” under the cover of darkness, completing their work at 2:15 A.M. on April 16, 1986.
“I wasn’t sure how many people would show up,” said Ross, recalling how he was surprised at the level of support for the protest. “This was the world before internet and email. It just went through the grapevine.”
The shantytown became a living protest, with students sleeping in the settlement and some professors and teaching fellows even holding classes there.
Although many students were sympathetic towards the cause, not everyone was on board. The settlement received a bomb threat on April 18, and on April 22, the Conservative Club built a ‘Gulag’ in the Yard to draw attention to University investment in the Soviet Union.
But as Commencement loomed closer, some students called for the activists to dismantle the settlement to avoid interfering with the event. Ultimately, one-fourth of the Class of 1986 signed a petition calling for its removal.
Meanwhile, the University and the activists were at a standoff; student activists were unwilling to dismantle the shantytown unless the University fully divested, but the University was steadfast in its opposition to doing so.
However, in their treatment of the protestors, according to Ross, the University was “terrified of clamping down too hard and provoking more student sympathy.”
Although SASC members voluntarily removed most of the shanties two days after Commencement, they left some of the larger structures standing.
Administrators took down the last remnants of their protest without the group’s consent, clearing the area where present-day Occupiers would set up a ‘tent city’ 25 years later in the fall of 2011.
“When I read about the Occupy movement, it made me think back to the tactical debates we had within SASC,” said Rossinow. “The shantytown attracted a lot of attention, but I think the group hadn’t really thought through about how it was going to end.”
Despite the controversy surrounding their actions, these students looked back on the shantytown as one of the most successful of their initiatives.
“It made the University administration pay attention,” Ross said. “They had to look over their shoulders.”
REBUILDING THE MOVEMENT
After administrators dismantled the shanty town, anti-apartheid activists were left questioning how to best proceed against staunch University opposition to their demand for full divestment.
Sit-ins and protests continued, coming to a peak a year later.
On March 24, 1987, members of SASC once again seized the limelight when their “symbolic blockade” of the Science Center ended in controversy and an unexpectedly strong administrative backlash.
South African Vice Consul Duke Kent-Brown had begun his speech in the Science Center when around 20 members of SASC left their seats and blocked off the two bottom exits of the auditorium, according to a 1987 Crimson article.
The students, who sang and interlocked arms while blocking the exits, claimed their goal was simply to ensure that Kent-Brown walked through an ongoing rally outside the Science Center.
But Harvard University police officers intervened and escorted Kent-Brown out of the building as he reportedly shouted, “I better not be touched.”
Harvard administrators were prepared for the blockade and suspected that the students would attempt to protest at the event. Harvard Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III had organized numerous meetings with the students throughout the semester to remain informed of their plans.
Fourteen of the students were later found guilty by the Administrative Board of disrupting the speech and were placed on disciplinary probation. Originally, Epps filed up to six charges against each of the undergraduates, although some of the charges were eventually dropped.
According to Mitchell A. Orenstein ’89, what was supposed to be a standard, run-of-the-mill protest became an overblown controversy. For some participants, the resulting controversy over disciplinary action and freedom of speech soon overshadowed their anti-apartheid efforts.
Overall, Harvard’s largest student movement of the 1980s began to die down in spring of 1987, and enthusiasm for the movement was not as strong as it once was.
“The energy in an activist group is never continuous at the same level. It kind of ebbs and flows, and there are all sorts of reasons why that could be,” said Rossinow.
By the spring of 1987, Harvard had sold most of its stocks and bonds in Texaco, Shell, Mobil, and Ford, cutting its investments in South Africa nearly in half.
The move reduced Harvard’s South Africa-linked holdings to their lowest level since 1983.
The decision was partly due to pressure from the activist community, Treasurer of the University Roderick M. MacDougall ’51 said at the time.
Although activists insisted it was not enough, Harvard’s decision to selectively divest from companies in 1987 “[took] a toll” on the student movement, said Orenstein in 1987 to the Crimson.
“I would say that South Africa as an issue was sort of fading,” said Brooke A. Masters ’89, a reporter for the Crimson who covered the Duke-Kent protest. “Harvard had done the obvious thing to do.”
By May of 1987, University President Derek C. Bok asserted that divestment activism had declined, an observation that was affirmed by a spokesman for SASC. “A lot of intellectuals are rethinking if divestment is responsible,” said Orenstein to the Crimson at the time.
LIFE AFTER HARVARD
Just seven years after the Class of 1987 marched at Commencement—crossing the very ground where the shantytown had stood the year before—Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa. For student activists, this was a monumental milestone that helped to validate their efforts at the College.
“It was a tremendous joy to see Mandela’s election,” Ross said. “I’m guessing that all of us felt like we had made a small contribution to that.”
Thomas J. Winslow ’87 did not participate in the protests at the time, aside from visiting the shantytown in Harvard Yard once to watch an educational video. After graduation, however, he moved to South Africa, where he witnessed the South African Air Force flying a salute to the newly-inaugurated president in 1994.
Looking back, he recognized the powerful role student activism played in the anti-apartheid movement.
“It simply could not have been done without the international solidarity movement working closely with democratic forces inside South Africa,” said Winslow. “I now appreciate the role of student activists and the international solidarity movement much, much more than I did at the time.”
After graduating, Grossman traveled to South Africa several times, allowing him to observe the country’s transition.
“It’s very fulfilling to know you are on the right side of history,” Grossman said.
—Staff writer David W. Kaufman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Michael C. George can be reached at email@example.com.
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