Student Divestment Campaigns Can Work

Student activists demanding disclosure and divestment of their universities from Israel have been demonized and attacked. That’s because there’s recent historical precedent for divestment campaigns working, as they did against apartheid South Africa.

Graduating students protest in support of Palestinians during George Washington University's graduation ceremony on the National Mall on May 19, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Andrew Thomas / AFP via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden evoked echoes of previous Republican presidents when he suggested that anti-genocide student protesters occupying college campuses across the United States this past semester and demanding divestment from Israel were engaged in violence. Misrepresenting their actions, he asserted in May, “Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations, none of this is a peaceful protest.”

It’s hard not to hear Biden’s comments and be reminded of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon in the 1970s, who referred to antiwar student protesters as “trash” and “bums,” respectively. While it took years for politicians and public consciousness to realize the imprudence of the Vietnam War, history proved those students right. Similarly today, opponents of student efforts to stand in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza have violently attacked them, summoned police to brutally clear their camps, misrepresented their intentions and goals, and tried to force them to abandon their movement.

One of the many ways college officials and critics have sought to delegitimize the student movement is to call the students’ demands for divestment from investments in Israel and companies profiting from its occupation as impractical, too complicated, or idealist. These students stand in a long history of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement, which is modeled on the 1970s and 1980s South Africa divestment movement.

Divestment was a key strategy in the global movement against South African apartheid that resulted in the withholding of billions of dollars from the South African economy. It buttressed the demands from African liberation movements — from the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), and the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) — for the international community to implement the total diplomatic, economic, and cultural isolation of South Africa through sports, academic, and cultural boycott; sanctions and trade and arms embargoes; and divestment.

Divestment is a tactic of economic withdrawal that requires the selling of stock from targeted companies, either totally or partially within an institution’s agreed-upon investment guidelines. Both tactics were used in the movement against South African apartheid, an early example of activists using divestment as a strategy to halt injustice abroad and challenge moneyed elites’ indiscriminate pursuit of profit accumulation.

Many international anti-apartheid proponents saw divestment as an immediate action they could take to help end apartheid in South Africa. But as students and activists pursued this tactic, divestment opponents sought to neutralize their demands and secure their investments by delegitimizing their movement and moving their investments — moves that surely sound familiar to contemporary student activists demanding divestment.

The Push for International Economic Isolation

Divestment was a pillar of the strategy of economic isolation of apartheid regimes, which gained international traction at the 1958 All-African Peoples’ Conference held in Accra, Ghana. The conference was organized by Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, and attended by anti-colonial luminaries from across the black world, including psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon, Congolese politician and future prime minister Patrice Lumumba, and Pan-Africanist author George Padmore.

Representatives from US solidarity organizations seeking an end to Portuguese colonialism and white minority rule on the continent also attended. George Houser, the executive director of the American Committee on Africa, which became the foremost anti-apartheid organization in the United States based on size, funding, and influence, also attended and brought back notes about the call for economic isolation to US organizers.

The idea of economic isolation circulated in the global centers of apartheid resistance before and after the conference. Economic isolation was a practical tactic, compared to military intervention, that newly independent states with limited resources could take to support self-determination in colonized nations. In 1957, the British colony of Jamaica implemented the first trade ban on South African goods and instituted a passport ban.

In July 1959, ANC president Chief Albert Luthuli called for an international boycott movement from within the colonized nation: “All organiszations and institutions in every land and at every level to act now to impose such sanctions on South Africa.”

In April 1960, one month after the PAC-led national Anti-Pass March in South Africa that resulted in a police massacre, South African Communist Party and the ANC members exiled to the United Kingdom and Ireland formed the Boycott Movement that focused on getting British institutions to support economic sanctions. South African protesters were defying apartheid laws that required them to carry passbooks, or the “dompass,” identification documents giving them permission to leave segregated locations.

Before his lifelong prison sentence on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela, speaking on behalf of the ANC at the 1962 conference of the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa, affirmed this strategy, contending, “It has become clear to us that the whole of Africa is unanimously behind the move to ensure effective economic and diplomatic sanctions.”

True to Mandela’s words, the freed nations of the African continent expressed this commitment through the Organization of African Unity (OAU). In 1963, the OAU became the world’s first multilateral governance body committed to using its economic leverage against the white minority states of South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and Portuguese-controlled territories in southern Africa. So committed was the OAU to anti-colonialism, the political body made it a tenet of its founding charter.

African Americans had long supported the struggle for freedom in South Africa and amplified the call for economic isolation. One year after the OAU’s founding, in 1964, the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr, leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), advised organizers to “perfect the use of economic pressures” in the struggle against apartheid, as the US civil rights movement had done, through transnational boycotts or refusal to buy South African goods, gold, and implementing oil embargos. King also spoke of divestment while receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway: “If our investors and capitalists can withdraw their support for the racial tyranny that we find there, then apartheid would be brought to an end.”

Other US activists pursued divestment as a way to support from afar the South African struggle against white minority rule. They started in the 1960s with bank loans. US activists found themselves complicit in the system of apartheid because both US corporations and the government were linked to the apartheid regime through financial, diplomatic, and political connections. Especially after the South African government massacred unarmed protesters during a peaceful anti-pass demonstration in 1960, many US Americans decided that they could not support US bank loans to the South African government, which they felt funded the massacre.

American students, in particular, experimented with ways to sever their connections to injustice in the absence of a government-led anti-apartheid stance. They began with bank savings withdrawals, which led anti-apartheid supporters to close their accounts at Chase Bank and National Bank. Some made their individual stock portfolios “South Africa–free” by selling South African–related holdings.

The New Left organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the civil rights organization Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organized a picket and sit-in at Chase Manhattan Bank in New York City in 1965 to protest bank loans to South Africa.

In the 1970s, these economic isolation efforts were extended by organizers of the African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC), organized black students (many of whom attended historically black colleges and universities), and anti-imperial advocacy organizations such as the South Africa Relief Fund and the Pan-African Liberation Committee, which called for a Gulf Oil boycott for its connections to Portuguese colonialism in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique. Churches and Christian organizations such as the World Council of Churches and the United Church of Christ also supported economic isolation by advancing some of the first shareholder resolutions against apartheid.

In 1976, these economic isolation efforts entered a new, more militant phase in the wake of the South African government’s massacre of more than one hundred protesting black school children in a township just outside of Johannesburg called Soweto. The Soweto Uprising and subsequent massacre forced many South African students who participated in the protests into exile. Some students, like Tsietsi Mashinini, ended up on US campuses, where they encouraged “everything American to get out [of South Africa].” This new urgency for economic isolation formed the basis of the student divestment movement, which is remembered today for how students occupied campus buildings and constructed makeshift wooden structures on campus quads to escalate their demand that colleges rid their stock portfolios of South Africa–related companies.

Divestment Organizing in the United States

But before students seized campus spaces, they advocated for anti-apartheid policies at the United Nations, held teach-ins, film screenings, and hosted African liberation movement speakers at their colleges. Some wrote to companies directly and requested that they sever ties to South Africa. Students’ early demands for divestment resulted in the creation of the first ethical investing guidelines, which are still used beyond higher education today and could become the basis for demands for divestment in response to unethical action by companies or states. Their activism also led to many partial divestments by the end of the 1970s, though students successfully persuaded a rare handful of administrators, such as those of Hampshire College, to divest totally.

Colleges with the largest endowments held out until the student divestment movement reached its most militant phase in the 1980s and when the calls for total divestiture grew popular. Students demanded that universities end their financial complicity with apartheid by divesting their endowments, pension funds, and even donation sources from US companies that conducted business with apartheid South Africa. The student movement escalated its protest through campus occupation when they built shantytowns on university lawns beginning in fall 1985. Some occupations lasted for more than one year.

The students were successful because they secured assurances of partial and total university divestitures amounting to more than $3 billion by the end of the 1980s. Those efforts were buttressed by a wave of divestments that came from other sectors, such as state legislature funds. Economic isolation was further assisted by the refusals of dockworkers to unload South African goods and bank campaigns led by the Committee to Oppose Bank Loans to South Africa.

For years, university administrators stalled student demands through ad hoc investor responsibility committees, fact-finding missions to South Africa, and stubborn adherence to the Sullivan Principles, which were guidelines for maintaining investments in South Africa so long as companies’ plants were desegregated and all workers across race were paid the same wage.

Developed in 1977 by African American minister and General Motors board member Leon Sullivan, the Sullivan Principles ultimately protected corporate operations in South Africa, bringing existing firms up to a racially integrated code of conduct. Administrators nationwide used the Principles to avoid divestment from companies that agreed to uphold these guidelines. In a familiar pattern recently witnessed at institutions nationwide, some administrators also called the police on students, dismantled their shanties, charged them with trespassing, and attempted to punish them through disciplinary hearings.

Though universities lost the South Africa divestment battle, they learned from the student movement and used calls for divestment as an opportunity to get richer. Throughout the 1980s, these institutions moved their portfolios away from direct stocks managed by in-house advisors and into funds managed by outside financial advisors to diversify and better secure their endowments. As a result, colleges have grown exponentially wealthier through the outsourcing of endowment management to hedge funds and other wealth managers. These managers have bundled the large assets of multiple colleges and used them for investing and disinvesting in various sectors such as real estate and health care that can create sweeping changes in the global economy. The complex investment landscape that anti-genocide divestment students face today is the result of this shift.

Today’s divestment demands require an additional step: disclosure. Whereas anti-apartheid students could readily determine if a college had holdings in a South Africa–related company, anti-genocide students today must rely on financial managers to first reveal the funds in which colleges are invested. Students will then be able to interrogate each fund for ties to Israel.

Still, universities can realistically meet student demands by first disclosing their investments and scheduling a vote on divesting from companies, funds, and firms that have connections to weapons manufacturers in Israel. But first, their officials must stop equivocating on whether the violence we are seeing in Gaza is genocide. Day after day, world governance bodies and national governments representing people of the world agree that it is.

There is precedent for this beyond anti-apartheid activism. In 2007, the US government divested from Sudan by encouraging all US states and companies to cut ties with businesses with connections to the war and starvation in Darfur. In recent years, students have also won divestment from for-profit prisons and fossil fuels.

The counterargument that divestment is too complicated or impossible is simply untrue. US capitalists divest all the time when an investment no longer serves their interests. The decision to divest, like applying sanctions, is a selective one. There is nothing unusual or unprecedented about it.