Divestment then and now: A history of Wellesley’s South African divestment movement

by Michelle Al-Ferzly ’14, Catherine B. ’15, Dhivya Perumal ’14, Whitney Sheng ’14 and Laura Wong ’16

Contributing Writers

Divestment at Wellesley first surfaced in the 1980’s as a political tactic to garner campus awareness of the South African apartheid regime. Over the course of a ten-year campaign, students, alumnae, faculty and staff mobilized in a large-scale effort to persuade the College and Board of Trustees to divest from all companies with ties to South Africa.

Wellesley was one of many campuses to witness a prominent South African apartheid divestment movement. Beginning in the 1980s, students led protests that took place on college and university campuses nationwide with mixed results. Certain colleges’ campaigns, such as the ones hosted at Swarthmore and Brown, were successful in securing full divestment of their institutions from all relations with companies tied to South Africa. The Smith and Harvard campaigns, however, were only able to achieve a guarantee of selective divestment from their respective schools’ administrations.

The peak of Wellesley’s South Africa divestment movement occurred on a Thursday in late October of 1986. At their highly anticipated meeting this fateful Thursday, the Board of Trustees voted to reject Wellesley’s full divestment from South Africa. Trustee Luella Goldberg ’58 announced of the vote results (17-14) on the Clapp library steps, and students stormed College Road, the main avenue that intersects the campus, hoping to prevent board members from leaving campus. Forty-nine students were arrested that evening; 44 were kept in the Natick Armoury overnight after they refused to identify themselves by their given names, choosing instead to adopt the name “Winnie Mandela” in the face of police inquiry. The “Winnie” moniker referred to the then-wife of Nelson Mandela, who was also a prominent female anti-apartheid activist.

Despite the unprecedented nature of the arrests, the students were well cared for: Wellesley business manager Barry Monihan provided students dinners from McDonalds that evening and doughnuts the following morning. Representatives from Wellesley’s administration also ensured the College community that the students were kept together throughout the night and were not separated into various Wellesley township prisons. The students were fined and released the morning following the protest, and charges were dropped as the demonstration was deemed to have occurred on the basis of “strong moral and religious grounds,” according to President Nan Keohane ’61.

Despite overwhelming resistance from the campus community, the College eventually decided on a selective divestment policy. As of 1985, Wellesley had divested approximately $1.5 million dollars from South Africa. In the aftermath of the 1986 protests, the Board of Trustees elected to divest from all companies that did not adhere to anti-segregation policies in the workplace. The College also sought to establish a scholarship fund for non-white South African students to attend Wellesley.

The divestment movement pursued its activism to fluctuating degrees over the 1980’s until the fall of the South African apartheid government in 1994. In the spring of 1988, students built a shanty on the Chapel green as a symbol of the deprivations facing the majority of South African citizens and led a series of rallies, vigils and lectures denouncing Wellesley’s remaining involvement with South Africa. In addition, several non-student groups, including the Radical Caucus of Faculty and Staff, a group of politically active and left-leaning employees of the College,  and the Advisory Committee on Social Responsibility to the Investment Committee, established in 1975, continued to call for full divestment to no avail.

Since the emergence of socially motivated divestment campaigns on college campuses, several arguments have been iterated both against and in favor of divestment. Critics assert that campuses have no grounds in acting in support of a political cause; advocates counter that a college’s educational mission goes against supporting, even indirectly, a socially unjust regime or practice.

In the statement released in early March of this year, President H. Kim Bottomly  and the Board of Trustees rejected divestment from fossil fuel companies, stating that, “The Board, and I, do not support the idea of using the College’s endowment as a lever for social change and determined that such an action would conflict with the purpose of the endowment.”

Despite President Bottomly’s argument regarding the politicization of the endowment, the South African apartheid divestment campaign example serves as a precedent for the College employing divestment as a tool for social change. It is therefore important to note that this institution has, in fact, divested their endowment funds in the past to further social change in the context of South Africa, albeit only partially. The Divestment Fact Sheet on Wellesley’s website acknowledges divesting from South Africa in the 1980’s, but explains that at the time, most of Wellesley’s funds were controlled by the institution itself, not by investment managers as it is today. In light of these contrasting justifications, it is important that the institution’s message and justifications for their views remains consistent.

As we approach the end of another academic year, Wellesley still stands behind it’s decision against divestment. Other schools, however, have chosen to follow through with the national campaign’s demands: Stanford University recently announced its divestment from coal companies; Hampshire College, moreover, announced its decision to screen out fossil fuel holdings as early as 2011. In light of this ongoing trend amongst institutions of higher education, and our local Fossil Free Wellesley campaign, Wellesley’s administration may once again need to muster its resources in order to reach a responsive decision to campus demands.

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