South Africa Divestment Campaign

Session #1: Anti-Apartheid Movement in the United States
Date: April 26, 2021

Summary from Document: “Anti-Apartheid Activities in the United States of America: A Rising Tide” (1977). Rozell “Prexy” Nesbitt, Writings and Speeches. Presented before the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid on December 12, 1977.

Presenter: Prexy Nesbitt, Presidential Fellow in Peace Studies, Chapman College.

Soweto, Alexandra, Tembisa, Port Elizabeth, Fort Hare University, the black South African students’ struggle, the black consciousness movement, the mass arrests, the death of Steven Biko, the school- children’s continuing school boycott–all these moments of the continuous resistance of African people and their allies inside South Africa have ignited sparks which are now starting a bush fire in the United States.

By the end of 1977, the movement to dismantle apartheid in South Africa was rooted in the growing solidarity of the black community in the United States with the liberation in Southern Africa. In the words of Paul Robeson: “The Negro–and I mean American Negroes as well as West Indians and Africans–has a direct and first-hand understanding, which most other people lack, of what imperialist exploitation and oppression is. With him it is no far-off theoretical problem…” Various initiatives to provide political and financial support to the South African freedom struggle came from small community organizations, churches and religious institutions, to national formations like the NAACP and National Urban League, including the Congressional Black Caucus.

The anti-apartheid movement employed some of the most creative organizing strategies of the period to isolate the South African apartheid regime. Central to this is a “divestment strategy” that (a) sponsored shareholder actions of corporations doing business in South Africa (e.g. Texaco, Mobil, Ford, General Electric, Standard Oil, Union Carbide, Goodyear), (b) demanded that Universities divest themselves of investments and business relationships with any company investing in South Africa (e.g. Columbia, Oberlin, University of Massachusetts, University of Oregon, Antioch College, University of Wisconsin), (c) coordinated massive bank withdrawals by customers (including labor unions and universities) with accounts in financial institutions that conduct business in South Africa, and (d) boycotted high-profile sports events like the Davis Cup and exhibition matches with the South Africa rugby team. “We expect that the hundreds of millions of dollars of church deposits, trust accounts, pension funds, etc. will be used to exert pressure on banks.” By the end of 1977, bank campaigns were underway in Rochester, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Cleveland, New York City, and starting in Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis. A minimum of $30-$35 million has been withdrawn that can be identified by those campaigns.

The involvement of organized labor in the divestment campaigns is notable. Local unions and their federations hold sizable bank accounts and were clear targets of the campaign. So when on June 24, 1977, the Joint Furriers Council withdrew an $8 million-a-year payroll and a $16 million pension fund from Manufacturers Hanover Trust, it marked a inflection point in the campaign. Labor tactics extended to solidarity actions at the port when the ILWU resolved to “stop all handling of goods to or from South Africa and Rhodesia” at their 1977 convention.

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