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Friday September 17th

Student protests against Apartheid are part of a long history of activism

<p>A flyer from the divestment campaign on UNC campus in 1985.&nbsp;Photo courtesy of University Archives.</p>
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A flyer from the divestment campaign on UNC campus in 1985. Photo courtesy of University Archives.

This is part of a series of stories looking into different parts of UNC’s long history and how life at the University has changed over time.

In the 1980's, UNC students protested against Apartheid, a system of racial segregation in South Africa.

Dale McKinley, a political activist in South Africa, grew up in Zimbabwe and was a graduate student at UNC in the 1980's. He was involved with the Anti-Apartheid Support Group, which formed at UNC in 1985.

"Myself and a few others thought that it would be good if we started a group on campus to raise the issues, particularly around divestment from the UNC funds in any companies that had been doing business with South Africa,” McKinley said. "So that’s what we did, we just called a meeting and invited anybody that wanted to join and took off from that point."

Divestment at UNC meant removing the University’s endowment funds from businesses that, at the time, were based or did a lot of of work out of South Africa. 

Lisa Lindsay, a history professor at UNC who was also a student anti-apartheid activist at Johns Hopkins University in the 1980's, said the African National Congress, a Black Nationalist organization and political party in South Africa, encouraged outside parties to divest. 

“Their strategy was that there would be external economic sanctions and internal unrest and these two together would force the South African government to negotiate and end Apartheid, which is in fact exactly what happened,” Lindsay said.

McKinley said 30 to 40 people attended the first meeting of the Anti-Apartheid Support Group and over the next few months he said the base of active group members grew to about 100. But when the group began taking action, McKinley said hundreds of students came out in support.

Nicholas Graham, University archivist, said the faculty passed a resolution during this time encouraging the endowment committee of the Board of Trustees to divest. He said student referendums also showed support for divestment. 

“In 1983, students voted almost three to one in support of the resolution to divest and in 1986, it was almost two to one,” Graham said.

However, McKinley said not everyone agreed.

“There was a vocal minority on the campus that was somewhat in opposition,” McKinley said. “The (College) Republicans in particular at the time were very much supportive of the Reagan administration’s stance, which was to continue ties with South Africa and to not pull out, but try to influence from the inside.”

A press release from the College Republicans and Students for America in 1986 called leftists hypocritical and inconsistent and highlighted the disagreement with divestment. 

“We agree that Apartheid is immoral, but the shanties and the whole disinvestment movement will not bring democracy and equality to black South Africans,” Bill Peaslee, then-chairperson of the College Republicans, said in 1986.

McKinley said after about the first two years of the Anti-Apartheid Support Group’s existence, the group split.

"There were some people who felt we were being too radical, confrontational, in terms of some of the occupations and these kinds of things,” McKinley said. “So there was a bit of a split in the group, and as a result of that, myself and most of the, I would say, very active members of the group, we basically said we want to continue with these tactics, and so we established what we called Action Against Apartheid."

McKinley said in between the two groups, there were guest speakers, rallies and educational activities in the Pit. Group members also built a shanty town in front of South Building, performed street theater, disrupted Board of Trustees meetings, occupied then-Chancellor Christopher Fordham’s office, went on a hunger strike and shut down the University computer system for at least a day.

Graham said in his opinion, the shanty town was the most effective protest because it was visible and lasted for a few days.

“This was to symbolize the shanty towns in which many black South Africans were forced to live,” Graham said. “And so they built that to make a statement to the Chancellor and to other students.”

Ultimately, the University did divest in October 1987.

Lindsay said she thinks the divestment of universities played a small role in the ending of Apartheid.

“There’s no question that outside economic pressure helped to bring down Apartheid and I think part of the building of that outside economic pressure was the student movement,” she said.

McKinley said student protests like this one are important.

“I think what we did was not just an issue of South Africa and anti-Apartheid, but was very important at the time to recreate a sense of activism,” McKinley said.

“I’d been told that before the early eighties, UNC had been very quiet in terms of student activism, and I think we played a role — we certainly weren’t the only ones — in rejuvenating a sense among students of being activists, of speaking out and I think that left a very good legacy.”

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