Direct action gets the goods

In 1985, black students at the University of Houston led a campaign for divestment from apartheid South Africa.

Apartheid demonstration, Duke University, 1986. Image via Duke University Archives on Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed.

The spectacular flight of capital is one of the most constant phenomena of decolonization.

Frantz Fanon

On June 23, 1987, the University of Houston (UH) became the first university in the American South to pass a divestment resolution to withdraw $6.4 million out of companies that profited from the economy of apartheid South Africa. To the general public, it must have seemed surprising that they took a stand against the apartheid regime. However, this form of solidarity with the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) did not come about through the sheer generosity of the board of regents (BOR); they had to be pushed to reach this point.

Dismantling apartheid was on the geopolitical agenda for the vast majority of the world in a highly intensified manner by the 1980s. Most of Africa and the Third World had already overthrown the shackles of colonialism, but apartheid South Africa stood out in that it was a settler-colonial state and had not yet been overthrown. Settler-colonialism refers to colonization by means of settlers coming from elsewhere to occupy and expel the indigenous peoples from their lands; whereas in formal colonialism, the relationship involved the exploitation of both labor and land, as well as hegemonic trade relations. In short, the implication is that the settlers refused to leave as easily as other colonizers from across the colonized world, and the problem of apartheid only intensified the situation. Apartheid was a system of racially discriminatory laws put in place to maintain white-minority political power over the whole of the country. Apartheid is the logical result of settler-colonialism.

Apartheid as a system was a stark reminder for many African Americans, who only recently had lived through Jim Crow segregation in the American South and still dealt with informal systematic racism. An important part of the Civil Rights Movement against Jim Crow laws was the internationalist perspective it took; civil rights organizers, such as Paul Robeson, even went as far as to petition the United Nations, charging the United States with genocide against African Americans. They saw the usefulness of appealing to international allies to help with their struggle. Therefore, it should be no surprise that the students who led the AAM in Houston were leaders and members of the Black Student Union (BSU), only one generation removed from the civil rights struggle.

The great writer C. L. R. James wrote a short footnote in his classic work The Black Jacobins, with a focus on those unknown organizers who really popularized the French Revolution before the struggle began: “We do not know and will never know who were the real leaders of the French Revolution, nameless, obscure men, far removed from the legislators and the public orators.” When documenting the history of the AAM in the US a similar contradiction arises; all one has to do to understand this issue is to look back to Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013 and the reaction by US leaders on both sides of the aisle. When the political establishment in the US opportunistically rallied to celebrate the life of Mandela, it was a far cry from the 1980s, when they considered him a terrorist and protected the apartheid regime with its white-minority rule from what they considered to be the imminent danger of a Soviet-backed African National Congress (ANC). It was not the US political establishment that participated in the AAM, nor was it simply the Jacobins that made the French Revolution. The AAM, like other popular struggles, was built by a lot of seemingly unknown organizers who struggled through exhausting late-night meetings, appealed to different organizations, and actively engaged people at work, in classrooms, on the streets, and around dinner tables. In what follows, we can see that the case of Houston was different; we know some names, the organizations they were involved in, the work they did, and the impact they made. One common theme is clear: the students set off the struggle.

As anyone who has ever attended a protest in Houston already knows, organizing across the city is a difficult task for many activists and political formations, as the geography makes much of the organizing and protest spaces limited to specific localities (the famous protest intersection of Post Oak and Westheimer, city hall, Mickey Leland Federal Building, etc.), and this creates a monotonous repetition of protest actions at the same places, in addition to the seeming lack of political interest and time that many people are willing to sacrifice to attend protests. These problems do not exist in the same way at UH, where political activism is contained within a small area of town, making it much easier to mobilize students around the campus throughout political campaigns between and after classes. It was the geographical factor that presented the students with an opportunity that city-wide organizers did not have when engaging in the AAM.

The year 1985 was tense as other universities around the country were contemplating divestment or, like the University of Minnesota, were already in the process of divesting from South Africa. It was during the fall semester that the BSU decided to launch their campaign and the Student Association (SA) Senate became the battle-ground for the AAM. Senate Resolution 31,023 called for UH to divest from apartheid and was written by Senator Khayam Hussain and members of the BSU. The resolution was introduced during a tense first debate on October 2, 1985, at the SA Senate between supporters and opponents of apartheid. Ultimately, Senator Sarvi Bajwa, chair of the Student Life Committee, decided that the vote would be postponed and that the resolution should be amended to make it stronger.

The debate over divestment from apartheid not only was on the agenda of the student senate but also was being debated between the BOR. In response to the student debate and the growing calls for action to be taken, the regents decided to adopt the Sullivan Principles on October 8, 1985. The Sullivan Principles, named for Reverend Leon Sullivan, a Philadelphia-based pastor who created them, set a series of guidelines for US companies to follow when investing in South Africa. Scholar George Ciccariello-Maher argues that “it is difficult to bind the embodiment of evil to any system of ethics.” The same could be said of the Sullivan Principles, which attempted to resolve the contradictory task of allowing US corporations to exploit South African labor while promoting a labor code of equality. In short, the Sullivan Principles were a cop-out for the regents to attempt to make the issue of apartheid disappear from student politics. The regents acted out of financial interests. Their actions demonstrated that they would rather continue to invest in the racist apartheid regime than adopt the position of the students whose interests they claimed to serve. History will remember what side the regents conveniently took when it comes to apartheid.

The BOR was not alone in adopting the Sullivan Principles. Senate Resolution 31,023 was inevitably passed during the second debate but was changed in support of the Sullivan Principles rather than total divestment. BSU President Melanie Bibuld correctly described the updated resolution as “watered-down and meaningless.” In retrospect, there was a clear conservative initiative by some members of the SA Senate to not allow for a complete divestment. Regardless of their personal justifications for choosing to fight for a different version of the resolution and prolong the process, their actions speak louder than their words. Like the regents, the Senate chose to embrace the weakest imaginable response.

The AAM was not without its rivals. As the Daily Cougar reported, there was one student organization determined to fight against the anti-apartheid campaign, the Students for America (SFA). SFA was a right-wing student organization that attempted to detract from the efforts of BSU and other anti-apartheid organizers. The organization portrayed themselves as anti-apartheid but felt that apartheid would prevent South Africa from becoming communist; therefore, opposing the campaign meant upholding apartheid, which they saw as a lesser evil compared to communism. In practice, it is clear that the SFA did not care about black South Africans, and despite claiming that they opposed apartheid, they essentially supported the system. As Melanie Bibuld put it, “people like those who participate in the SFA feel the only way Third-World people can control their own governments is if they have other white people in control.”

The months of October and of November 1985 were two of the most intense months of anti-apartheid organizing in Houston. On National Anti-Apartheid Day, October 11, a large anti-apartheid rally was held in the student center and was sponsored by the BSU, Omega Psi Phi, and the Society of Black Engineers. During these two months, there were weekly protests held outside of the South African consulate, located near the Galleria, where hundreds of Houstonians protested against the apartheid regime and in solidarity with the ANC, all while risking arrest and jail time, as some local activists received. As local organizer Omowale Luthuli-Allen noted, “through the efforts of the local Free South Africa Movement and the Southern African Task Force, the South African Consulate was forced to close.” Civil society was engaged, ready to fight for South African liberation from abroad, and determined to see apartheid abolished within their lifetime.

Before the South African Consulate closed their doors, they were challenged to a debate by the BSU on the issue of apartheid; the debate would have featured Melanie Bibuld on the side of anti-apartheid and Vice Consul Jacque Jordan defending the apartheid regime’s position. Ultimately, Jordan refused to debate with Bibuld and was replaced by Neo Mnumzana, the United Nations spokesperson for the ANC, who spoke to the students on campus. The apartheid regime knew that they would be defending an unpopular cause and would have only given momentum to the AAM had they decided to actually debate the issue. The fall semester of 1985 ended with great momentum on the side of the BSU, but the outcome was not what they wanted. They had forced the student government and the BOR to give in and reform their investment policies, but reforms were never the goal of the campaign. The fight for divestment had only begun.

The spring semester of 1986 was not filled with the same actions and seems rather dull on the surface; in fact, the only major event the BSU hosted was a lecture by Coretta Scott King. This was likely due to the events of the previous semester. As anyone who has ever been involved in serious political organizing on a college campus knows, the work is extremely draining and often involves many late-night meetings to plan protest actions and logistics, all on top of being full-time students and often working part-time jobs. There was also a change in leadership, with Janeiro Roberts becoming president of the BSU and Bibuld graduating. Leadership transition often takes an entire semester with much of the training focusing on logistics, reevaluating the situation after a semester-long campaign, long-term strategy, how to work with different student organizations, creating coalitions, learning from the experiences of other campaigns, and internal organizational work.

The BSU was present during the day that student activists from the University of Texas protested in front of the building where regents of the university were meeting to discuss possible divestment. While they failed to sway the regents, they did establish relations with activists in Austin and likely learned from their political experiences as well. Ultimately, University of Texas regents voted to prohibit investments in South Africa a few months later.

The debate over whether to divest was becoming stronger in Houston as well. By the summer of 1986, Chicago, Kansas City, New York City, Oakland, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, had already divested city investments from South Africa and companies that profited from apartheid. On July 24, 1986, the Houston city council voted 11-3 to support Ordinance 86-1279, sponsored by Rodney Ellis and Ernest McGowen, to divest from South Africa. Local Congressman Mickey Leland commented, “Houstonians will no longer finance the racist, immoral government of South Africa.” This was no small feat, as Houston became the first major southern city to divest from apartheid, whose exclusionary laws rang loudly of the same racist logic as segregation.

It must be noted that when this ordinance was challenged a few months later, City Councilman Rodney Ellis held his ground that no exemptions would be made even if it meant that the city’s health department could potentially run out of medical supplies. While his stance was commendable, this could have happened only with the popular support he received from the AAM in the city and the work that organizers were doing to keep the issue of apartheid in the spotlight.

Houston’s art scene took part in the AAM as well when they hosted the South African theater troupe Market Theatre; the group performed political theater in Houston from September 29 to October 5, 1986. When interviewed by Public News, a local progressive art magazine, the troupe’s director said, “As we perform, as we show the production all over, while entertaining we are also educating people. Apartheid and all that’s happening in South Africa is not only happening to South Africans; it is happening to the whole world.”

The combination of popular support for the anti-apartheid ordinance and the willingness of elected officials to take on that matter added more fuel to the fire for student organizers at UH to continue their campaign with renewed enthusiasm as the fall semester kicked off. When BSU students returned to campus that fall, so did the issue of divestment. This time they had the open support of some administrators and professors, most notably Associate Professor Mark Ginsburg, who wrote a strong letter to the editor in the Daily Cougar the week before the annual South Africa Awareness Week. Dr. Ginsburg wrote, “Should any people of conscience be acting through investments or other business-related activities to support a system that involves EXPLOITATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION of 80 percent of the population? I am hopeful that most people associated with UH will agree with me that the answer to that question must be an emphatic NO.”

During South Africa Awareness Week in early October 1986, the BSU built a mock shantytown called Mandela Hall in front of the Cullen Building to give a physical reminder of what apartheid looks like. They also hosted a major rally in the student center in which several hundred students attended. They invited Randall Robinson, who was a founder of the national Free South Africa Movement, to speak to students. Robinson called on students to support full sanctions against the apartheid regime and to understand that this is a national liberation movement, not an issue of civil rights. This was an important distinction during that period. Many people sympathized with the AAM for a litany of different reasons along the lines of anti-imperialism, anti-racism, decolonization, anti-capitalism, pan-Africanism, religious morality, and national self-determination, among others. The AAM was a pole that other movements could rally around and express their politics, which contributed to its status as a popular social movement. It was within this milieu of political trajectories that a new student organization was formed, Students against Apartheid.

During the major rally, student government leaders and BSU President Janeiro Roberts also spoke. The latter pointed out that “the administration is either blind to our demands or they don’t give a damn.” The rally was followed by chants of “Free Africa,” “Free Azania,” and “UH divest now” and a collective march to the administration building.

With immense pressure from civil society organizations, the city council, the popularity of the AAM, and the BSU, a breaking point was reached as the BOR agreed to meet with student leaders to discuss divestment. Janeiro Roberts, SA President Scott Boates, and Students against Apartheid Director Mark Greene met with the regents and explained the many reasons why UH should completely divest holdings from South Africa. It was a key meeting for the movement, and it pushed the issue of total divestment onto the agenda of the next regents’ meeting on June 23, 1987.

It was a major achievement for the AAM to push UH to completely divest from South Africa, as a total investment of around $6.4 million comprising19 companies was liquidated within a span of two years and reinvested elsewhere. As Houstonians, we stood on the right side of history, but this did not come about without struggle. It took direct actions, protests, rallies, and months of planning to make the dream of divestment a living reality.

Further Reading

Rushing to boycott

The cultural boycott of Russia turns to the flawed precedent of apartheid South Africa for inspiration, while ignoring the much more carefully considered boycott of official Israeli culture by the BDS Movement.