In the late 1970s through the early 1990s, South African apartheid was a significant topic of debate and protest on college campuses across America. Students examined the economic ties between their institutions and the companies that exploited the system of apartheid and demanded divestment. Oberlin students were particularly vocal during this time, staging multiple large-scale protests, sit-ins, and demonstrations to demand the college divest their stocks in exploitative companies.
Oberlin student activism for divestment started in 1978, with the earliest large-scale protest in 1979. The administration’s policy was that Oberlin would not own stock in any corporation which had ten percent or more of its worldwide sales in South Africa or that wasn’t following the Sullivan Principles—an agreement meant to ensure that international corporations within South Africa were working to end apartheid. Students were skeptical of the efficacy of the Sullivan Principles, as time passed with no change apparent.
On April 6, 1979, during a large student protest outside a meeting of the Board of Trustees, 105 students were charged with disrupting “essential operations of the college.” Four days later, on April 10, up to fifty percent of students did not go to class to support total divestment, with 100 students circling the administrative building and chanting. These protests pressured the college to sell some of its stocks and to amend their South Africa policy to more stringently follow the Sullivan Principles. In 1980, Oberlin divested all its stock in PepsiCo after the company failed to comply with the Sullivan Principles, but sparked ire when they bought $10,000 in PepsiCo stock six months later, before selling it again—causing the College Investment Advisory Committee (CIAC) to turnover their staff and reevaluate their function.
"[Our 1986 protest] showed beyond a doubt the determination of those involved in the protest meeting to see the College effect a change."
(Maanda Mulaudzi, The Oberlin Review, February 13, 1987)
Student protest continued, with demonstrations, sit-ins, attempts to overload college computers, and the construction of a mock shanty town in front of administrative buildings. On December 6, 1985, fifty-nine students of approximately 150 protesting were charged with violating General Faculty regulations on social and political unrest. Two months later, the administration dropped all charges against the “Oberlin 59” unconditionally, but still would not consider unilateral divestment.
Though the college divested companies here and there, they still had several million dollars in stocks in companies in South Africa. In March 1987, up to 250 students took over the Cox Administration Building with a sit-in for two days during a trustee meeting, causing the trustees to discuss divestment and Oberlin College President S. Fredrick Starr to speak out in favor of phased divestment. Finally, the Board of Trustees agreed in June of 1987 to fully divest by June 30, 1988—almost ten years after the student protests for divestment started.
Responses to Anti-Apartheid Protest
"[The young people] were able to transform the moral climate in this country... and the victims of apartheid were able to see a real demonstration of how people can translate their often eloquent rhetoric... into real action."
(Archbishop Desmond Tutu's commencement address, Oberlin College, May 25, 1987)
Influenced by student protest against apartheid, Oberlin College sponsored the South African Education Program (SAEP) and the Bishop Desmond Tutu Southern African Refugee Scholarship Fund, one of only five institutions in America to support both programs. Bantu education in South Africa, the policy of separate education for black South Africans, was a core pillar of apartheid, and these programs aimed to disrupt it by providing equitable education. The Bishop Desmond Tutu scholarship provided education and scholarships for South Africans who had been forced to flee the country for their safety. Tutu, the South African Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg in 1985-86, and Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996, was the commencement speaker at Oberlin in 1987. He had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.
The SAEP originally supported students in business or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), and in technical school or graduate education, but President Starr and Colby College President William Cotter worked to expand the program to include more undergraduate humanities or social science-focused students. Oberlin and Colby worked not only to get more students sent to their own schools, but also to get other liberal arts colleges to enter the program. The expanded liberal arts SAEP program was named after Oberlin alumnus John L. Dube, a student in the Oberlin Preparatory Department, 1888-1890, and a black South African educator and nationalist. Oberlin typically gave two full scholarships per year to SAEP students, covering tuition, room and board, and all fees.
The South African Oberlin students often got personally involved in the calls for divestment, as well as other parts of campus life: working for student publications, running the textbook swap, and getting involved in other kinds of activism. Oberlin Dean and Professor William Scott visited South Africa four times at the behest of the college to consult with black educational leaders and to select SAEP candidates. Additionally, Scott pioneered the South African Internship and Study Program (SAISP), a six-month program combining internships at Desmond Tutu’s office—in black community organizations and social welfare groups—with classes at the University of Western Cape, South Africa. The program was meant to foster understanding in American Oberlin students of the educational situation in South Africa for black citizens.
Oberlin and Activism Digital Collection, Oberlin College Archives