Looking back at Carleton's divestment from South Africa

Over the last year, Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA) at Carleton University has been calling for a public debate with Carleton administration officials on the question of boycotting Israeli academic institutions and, this winter, new calls are being made for the university to divest its funds of companies implicated in Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian Territories. Given these developments, it seems worthwhile to take a look back at a similar struggle that played out on Carleton's campus just over two decades ago against another system of apartheid. Indeed, there is much that might be learned from that earlier struggle.


"A classmate of mine came up to me after class one day and said Glenn Babb is coming to campus. What are we going to do?", recounts Con McAfee, a coordinator for the Carleton Anti-Apartheid Action Group (CAAAG) back in the mid-80s.


In October 1985, the Carleton Press Club (CPC) had announced that Babb, the South African Ambassador to Canada, would visit campus to debate the "merits" of the apartheid system. Rob McKenzie, the CPC's Vice-President, told the undergraduate student newspaper, The Charlatan, at the time that "we feel Babb should have a chance to announce his views...we're concerned with freedom of expression."


Later that year, Babb received a riotous reception at the University of Toronto, where he had also been invited to speak. When the ambassador arrived at the St. George campus, a 10-kilogram ceremonial mace was thrown at him, narrowly missing his forehead, but striking the hand of another university official. In the auditorium, moreover, chanting student protesters prevented him from being heard and the event was soon stopped. Babb's talk was then rescheduled for February 1986 and, though he was able to complete his talk the second time around, some 300 protesters chanted outside the auditorium. Inside, a number of protesters dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan satirically rose up to applaud the ambassador whenever he paused during his presentation. At the end of the event, as his car whisked him out of the university, other protesters shouted at him and threw snowballs.


At Carleton, meanwhile, the ambassador's views were eventually heard in April 1986, after continued student opposition and the experience from Toronto led organizers to move the event off campus, to the National Press Gallery.


In the year and a half between when Babb's visit was announced in the fall of 1985 and March 1987, a major student movement against apartheid coalesced on campus and succeeded in forcing the university to take a firm stand in opposition to the South African regime. Awakened to the anti-apartheid struggle as a result of the Press Club's announcement, student activists soon moved their campaign from its focus on the ambassador's impending visit to one aimed at forcing the Carleton University Students' Association (CUSA) and the university administration to cut all institutional links with South Africa.


The aims set out by CAAAG were far-reaching, and when the Board of Governors (BoG) announced in December 1985 that Carleton would demonstrate its opposition to apartheid by subscribing to the Canadian Code of Conduct, students were deeply disappointed. The Code was a set of guidelines developed by the federal government in 1977 (and published in 1978) to encourage Canadian firms doing business in South Africa to treat Black workers marginally better and pay them enough " to achieve a standard of living required to meet their basic needs", but fell short of challenging the basic system of apartheid. In response to the BoG's announcement, McAfee, the CAAAG's coordinator, observed that "companies still abide by South African law, which is at the root of racial discrimination in South Africa. Until the law is changed, nothing is going to happen." What was needed at Carleton to protest apartheid was full divestment.


It was in this context, then, that students belonging to campus groups like Oxfam, the International Socialists and the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG), joined together to form CAAAG. This happened in the context of rapidly growing student consciousness about the situation in South Africa. By the fall of 1986, for instance, CUSA (the student union) had already resolved to rid the Unicenter Store of many South Africa-linked products, including certain fruits and Carling-Okeefe beer, and eventually Rothmans cigarettes.


By late winter 1986, the anti-apartheid climate on campus was such that The Charlatan devoted a large chunk of its 20 February edition to the matter. In those pages, staff writer Lynn Marchildon observed that "[a]nti-apartheid activism at Carleton surfaced only five months ago but since that time the university has made considerable progress in severing its links to South Africa ... and has found itself unexpectedly one of the leading Ontario universities of anti-apartheid activity."


Throughout 1986, students kept the pressure on the administration, writing letters to the president, sending BoG members individually signed postcards, meeting in person with various officials, accumulating some 3,000 signatures on a divestment petition, organizing forums and lectures, and presenting the administration with hefty dossiers explaining their case.


Despite this pressure, the administration did little. In fact, when it was discovered in June 1986 that a company linked to Carleton's endowment fund (Moore Corporation) had violated the Code of Conduct, the university's president, W.E. Beckel, lamented having to sell the stock as it had proved to be a "good investment," and added that it was his belief that the company had in fact been "really conforming to the guidelines, only not to the extent that some people argue they should."


Student frustration grew quickly in the face of the administration's inaction and when a BoG meeting on 26 January 1987 -- after more than a year of steady lobbying on the part of CAAAG -- did not result in a decision to divest, students erupted into loud protest. According to the The Charlatan's coverage, "at least 300" demonstrators were on hand. They shouted down the BoG, forcing the group to move to a new room in the president's office, and then trapped the governors there until police arrived. Others blocked doors and hallways and became "limp if the police tried to remove them." Eventually, when the arrival of journalists and television crews distracted demonstrators, a number of governors made an escape for the elevators but were soon prevented from closing the doors by chanting students.


The decision on divestment was sent for reconsideration to the BoG's Executive Committee a few weeks later and, during this time, it appears that student lobbying and protests eventually changed President Beckel's mind. In his official submission to the Committee, Beckel stated that "I believe their [the students'] arguments have merit....I simply believe that if we are to be influenced by morals or social responsibility it is as good or better to attempt to eliminate apartheid by no investment as by partial investment based on adherence to a code of conduct. Let's get out of South Africa as much as we can and stay out, on moral and financial grounds."


With the president on board, and continuing student pressure, the BoG finally opted for full divestment in early March 1987. In addition to ridding Carleton's endowment fund of South Africa-linked companies, the administration decided to not contract for goods or services of South African origin except in extreme circumstances, when adhering to the ban "would significantly interfere with the operation of the University." Nevertheless, President Beckel noted in the memorandum outlining the new contracts policy that "Carleton University abhors apartheid and will do all it can to show its position on apartheid within its business practices."


Carleton's divestment was part of wider trend across Canadian universities. The first university to opt for full divestment was McGill, where the Board of Governors there voted on 18 November 1985 to untie the school of all holdings in South Africa-linked companies. Some 600 student protesters chanted outside the two-hour long meeting as governors -- 11 of whom also sat on the the boards of companies with investments in South Africa -- made their decision. A couple of months later, in January 1986, York University followed suit and voted to withdraw some $8 to 9 million from South Africa-linked companies. In the case of the University of Toronto, however, President George Connell resisted taking action on apartheid for some three years, despite mounting calls from students, staff, faculty and alumini. For some time, he was able to garner support of the Governing Council, but eventually, in January 1988, the Council overruled him and ordered the school to proceed with full divestment. Despite this, the administration under Connell delayed full implementation of the Council's decision for another two years.


***


Today, McAfee, the former Carleton anti-apartheid activist, lives in Malaysia. He recalls that "the anti-apartheid movement had many enemies" but that the students, "as a pressure group, were able to maintain our strength and eventually saw to it that the university agreed to divest from South Africa." Less than three years after Carleton's divestment, Nelson Mandela was released from a 27 year captivity, his walk out of Victor Verster Prison broadcast live to the world.


The rest, of course, is history -- and, it seems safe to conclude, Carleton found itself on the right side of history because of student activism.


Alroy Fonseca is an Ottawa-based filmmaker with Dawghaus Studios.


A version of this article originally appeared in The Leveller.


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