Divestment was hard to achieve

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Danielle Shi/Staff

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Last month, upon the death of Nelson Mandela, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks released a statement asking us to “remember the special ties that will forever bind our campus to this man and his movement.” The chancellor called the Bay Area “the epicenter of the American anti-apartheid activity due, in no small measure, to the passionate engagement of Berkeley students.” The chancellor wrote that when Mandela spoke at the Oakland Coliseum after his release from prison in 1990, “South Africa’s future president specifically cited our university’s Campaign Against Apartheid as having been particularly significant in hastening the end of white-minority rule in his country. That recognition highlights what is, in my opinion, one of Berkeley’s proudest moments.”

As members of the Campaign Against Apartheid and participants in Berkeley’s diverse, multigroup, multiracial anti-apartheid movement, we thank Dirks for his recognition of what we accomplished almost 30 years ago.

While the chancellor celebrates that accomplishment and that commitment, it is important to recall that back then, both the systemwide and UC Berkeley campus administrations were hostile to the movement. Why their hostility? Because since the 1970s, anti-apartheid activists at UC Berkeley (and at all the other UC campuses and at hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide) made our demand not of the apartheid government but of our own institution. We called on the UC Regents to fully and immediately divest — to sell off — all UC investments in companies and banks that operated in or loaned to South Africa. That local focus as part of an international effort against racial oppression gave the movement great appeal and power.

The UC administration, however (like campus administrations across the country), seemed to believe foreign companies were a progressive force for change in South Africa despite what Mandela, the African National Congress and every other anti-apartheid organization in the country had been saying for decades. Even black labor unions in South Africa — with their own jobs to lose — had called for corporate withdrawal from their country as part of a broad strategy to isolate and weaken the apartheid regime. But the UC president and a majority of the regents kept increasing their investments in those companies. By the 1980s, UC had by far the most South Africa-linked investments of any university — more than $3 billion.

The university’s authorities did not oppose the divestment movement with words and ideas alone. The UC Berkeley administration attempted to physically intimidate the movement, especially the group we were part of, the Campaign Against Apartheid. For 18 months, when persuasion and enticement didn’t work, the administration used campus police (and eventually a dozen other police forces) to confront and suppress demonstrations — strong-arming, punching, kicking, clubbing and otherwise assaulting, injuring, arresting and jailing students, employees and community members as they gathered, chanting “Free Nelson Mandela,” on Biko (Sproul) Plaza and at Crossroads (California Hall) Shantytown. Police seized divestment leaflets, wrestled away our literature tables, confiscated sound equipment and ripped down anti-apartheid banners, symbols and signs. The administration bullied students with bannings, monetary fines, conduct code hearings and threats of suspension and expulsion.

Galvanized by the administration’s repression of campus protest and by the greatest uprising in South African history, Berkeley students and employees and community members from around the Bay Area created in the mid-1980s what remains the largest and most sustained militant movement on a campus since the 1960s. We were also successful.

Not mentioning either the movement’s focus on changing university investment policy or the reaction of UC officials and the UC Berkeley campus administration obscures what happened at that time. So, while pleased that Dirks has proposed an educational event about Mandela’s accomplishments, we would like to suggest a program that also examines Berkeley’s divestment movement. More permanently, the suggested renaming of Lower Sproul as Nelson Mandela Plaza could be augmented with a permanent installation or exhibit documenting the contribution of UC Berkeley students, staff members and community in supporting the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

On behalf of ad hoc organizing committee:

William Nessen, Andrea Prichett, Andy Brodie, John Fox, Steve Masover and Jonathan Winters. 

Signed by 55 other Campaign Against Apartheid members.

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