On Thursday night, about 80 students convened in Linsly-Chittenden Hall to listen to four Yale alumni speak about their involvement with the anti-apartheid movement on campus in the 1980s.
The panel featured Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, Matthew Countryman ’85, John Ritter ’88 and Elizabeth Juliver ’89, all of whom took part in the anti-apartheid protests that rocked Yale beginning in 1985. The panelists discussed the historical context of the protests, the positive parts of divestment as a tactic and the negotiations with the Yale Corporation. The panel was organized by Yale Students for Prison Divestment and Fossil Free Yale and the discussion was moderated by Travis Deshong ’19, a member of the YSPD and a staff reporter for the Yale Daily News Magazine.
“We convene here today … to discern how history, particularly history of student activism might be instructive for addressing the challenges that we face today as a university community … that is [involved] in a transnational prison industrial complex and a plot to destroy our world — quite literally — through its investments in fossil fuels and for-profit prisons,” said Amanda Joyce Hall GRD ’21, who opened the panel with a speech about the movement’s history.
In the 1980s, students demanded that Yale divest from its holdings in all U.S. companies conducting business in South Africa due to the South African government’s apartheid policy, a system of racial segregation and discrimination that was officially in place in the country from 1948 to 1991.
The protests culminated in the installation of a shanty town on Beinecke Plaza, which stood for 10 days until it was dismantled on April 14, 1986. According to The New York Times, 78 students were arrested while trying to prevent the destroying of the shanty town. It was, however, rebuilt later, and Yale did eventually divest in the early 1990s.
Countryman said that when the group just started its anti-apartheid movement in 1985, they were mostly trying to catch up: Similar initiatives had already started all over the country, and Yale had not been a part of them. For the group, he said, the issue was not even economical, but political.
“We were making a political argument: If in fact Yale pulled out of [companies conducting business in South Africa], it would be a statement about what was acceptable in Western capitalism, and that would have a domino effect,” Countryman said.
The Corporation, in its turn, was defending its policies. Ritter said that at some point six members of the Corporation met with the protesters to explain why it would not disinvest. Aside from that, however, he said the Corporation was less transparent than it is today. Even the Investments Office, to which the groups can direct their concerns today, did not exist then.
Countryman mentioned that the group even tried to contact two most prominent alumni in the Corporation at the time — New York Bishop Paul Moore Jr. ’41 and vocal anti-apartheid politician Eleanor Holmes Norton GRD ’34 LAW ’64 — to understand which way they and the Corporation were steering, but to no avail. They ended up getting the phone number of New Haven’s hotel in which Holmes was staying the night before the Corporation’s meeting and told her that they would publicly call her out if they found out she did not vote to disinvest. Although the Corporation ultimately voted to keep the investments, Countryman said, showing that the group would hold the Corporation members accountable was an important step.
The panelists also mentioned that working together with other campus groups, such as the Black Student Alliance, was crucial to their success. Countryman mentioned that it was especially important for the anti-apartheid group to be multiracial, both in its body and leadership.
Connections with prominent New Haven people and Yale workers also helped the group, Morand said.
Members of both the YSPD and FFY said that the experience of the panelists is applicable to current realities.
Marisa Vargas-Morawetz ’20, an FFY member, argued that much like the students in the 1980s, the current groups are dealing with the unresponsive and disengaged Yale Corporation. Moreover, much like the anti-apartheid movement, the current student groups are making a political argument.
“After the election, many Yale community members are looking for ways to plug in and fight against the policies and ideology of the Trump administration,” she said. “Divestment allows us to use our position as members of the Yale community to pressure the Yale Corporation into taking moral leadership through divestment.”
Joseph Gaylin ’19, a member of the YSPD, also said that learning from the experience of the panelists was invaluable. He said that the current situation in the U.S. is not that different from the one in South Africa at the time of the apartheid, as the U.S. imprisons an even bigger percentage of its African-American population as South Africa did.
“Yale’s investment in mass incarceration, racial discrimination and environmental destruction, highlights the need to continue the work of previous student organizers,” he said.
Both Vargas-Morawetz and Gaylin also highlighted the importance of creating student coalitions. Gaylin added that, much like with the anti-apartheid movement, a campaign against investments in for-profit prisons should have the voices of the students of color at its center.
The anti-apartheid movement officially began with the United Nations calling for economic sanctions on South Africa in 1962.