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Student Movements Helped Fuel Divestment from Apartheid South Africa

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Structure made of cardboard and sticks, with signs denouncing apartheid attached, on a grassy area with an old elegant stone college building in the back. A few people are standing and sitting near the structures.

“Just know that it’s a long-term struggle…The anti-apartheid movement started in the 1930s…In 1977, whenever I would do an educational session, nobody knew what I was talking about. Seven years later, everybody was talking about South Africa. So the constant political education is important.”

As the war on Gaza moves through its seventh month of unrelenting destruction, students around the world are setting up encampments and occupying buildings to press their institutions to cut financial and academic ties with Israel. Their peaceful and passionate protests are bringing a new level of intensity to the multi-sided movement supporting Palestine. They also recall and build on a living history of similar student actions, from those demanding an end to the Vietnam War in the late 1960s on. In this series, Convergence’s Stephanie Luce interviews people who have been engaged in different generations of campus protests. They share reflections on the organizing they were involved in and the lessons it might offer for today. Longtime anti-apartheid campaigner Gerald Lenoir served as co-chair of the Seattle Coalition Against Apartheid from 1984 -’86, during a flow of student activism in that movement.

Stephanie Luce:  Can you start by telling us about your own student activism?

Gerald Lenoir:  I got to the University of Wisconsin Madison in 1966, and in 1969, the Black Student Movement kicked into high gear. We shut down the university and locked down buildings with about 13 demands, including that there be a Black Studies Department, that they should hire more black professors, and recruit more Black students. Of course, there was a lot of repression. The police beat up students. Jailed students. Students were expelled. But in the final analysis, we won most of our demands. In the next semester, a Black Studies program was instituted.

At the same time, there were massive demonstrations against the Vietnam War. And in both of those cases, the National Guard was deployed, and tear gas was used on the students. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, this was kind of a normal happening at the University of Wisconsin, where demonstrations were not only met with repression on the part of the police but the National Guard was called in. So that was kind of my baptism by fire in the movement. Before that, I was not political, in the sense of being an organizer or a leader.

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Stephanie Luce:  That is great that you won most of your demands. How did you manage to win? What was your leverage?

Gerald Lenoir: Well, the shutdown happened over 13 days, I think. At the same time, our leaders were negotiating with the Administration. And I think it had to do with both the bad publicity that the university was getting, because the students were being beat up and that was in the press, and the fact that it was a massive demonstration. It wasn’t just the Black students – a lot of white students joined us. And so the university was not able to conduct business as usual. And the this was happening across the country. There were over 100 universities where this was happening with Black Studies, and against the Vietnam War for that matter. So, they decided to cut a deal.

Stephanie Luce: And when did you begin working against apartheid?

Gerald Lenoir: In 1976, I got a job with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Quakers, who had offices all over the country. In 1977 I started an anti-apartheid program in Seattle. It was a Southern Africa organizing project and so we did work around Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Namibia, all these places where the liberation movements were on the move. And also, in the Portuguese colonies in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau. We did a lot of organizing and education in the communities around these liberation struggles on the African continent.

1976 was a watershed year for the movement in South Africa. The Soweto uprising was in June 1976, which really marked the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa. Students in high school and junior high school began demonstrating against the educational system and that blossomed into more: it began to engage in the broader struggle against apartheid. And so, they murdered students, jailed students. The student movement was continuing the uprisings in South Africa that had been suppressed since the 1960s. The African National Congress and the Pan African Congress were able to get back into the country through secret cells. And so that was really kind of a watershed moment that began in 1976.

In 1977, Steve Biko, the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, was murdered by the regime, and that sparked another round of protests in South Africa. So, from 1976 onward, the movement in South Africa began to pick up and so did the organizing in the US and around the world.

In 1984, Jesse Jackson ran for president.  I was on the Washington State Rainbow Coalition steering committee, and also the head of outreach for the campaign. Jesse Jackson’s campaign really spotlighted South Africa, calling for an end to apartheid and an end to US support for apartheid. And there was broad education throughout the country through the Jackson campaign about South Africa. 

In 1977, when I started organizing, the issue of apartheid was hardly on anybody’s radar. So I would go into a meeting, and people would say, “apar-what? What are you talking about?” But by 1984, that had changed dramatically. Apartheid was a household word. And so when Jesse Jackson raised it, particularly in the Black community, there was resonance and there was an understanding of the oppression of Black peoples in South Africa.

In 1984 the South African government instituted another round of brutal repression and called for a state of emergency in some of the areas of the country where the protests were the greatest. And that’s when, in November 1984, the day before Thanksgiving, TransAfrica, headed by Randall Robinson, started their demonstrations at the South African Embassy in Washington DC. They staged a sit-in and were arrested. They had daily demonstrations thereafter organized by the Southern Africa Support Committee. Every day famous people stepped up to get arrested. We had Stevie Wonder. We had Dorothy Height, the civil rights activist. We had Harry Belafonte. Dozens and dozens of celebrities and politicians were getting arrested.

That sparked copycat demonstrations across the country. So in the San Francisco Bay Area we had a shutdown of the ports: the ships carrying South African cargo were stopped from loading and unloading. In Seattle, we had a guy who was volunteer counsul for the South African government and we were demonstrating weekly at his house, having arrests every week, for almost three years. Every Sunday. And so all across the country there were demonstrations. There were demonstrations at corporations that were doing business in South Africa, or at banks that were lending  money to South Africa. So, there was a massive response to the question of South Africa in the US and across the world.

Students demand divestment

In 1985, there was a second round of repression in South Africa and the apartheid government instituted a state of emergency that covered the whole country. And that’s when the student movement really kicked off in the US. There were demonstrations before that at several universities, but in April 1985, it blossomed into a massive movement on campuses.  It started at Columbia, where we had the first demonstrations. Then Cornell was the first university to put up encampments.  Then those encampments began to spread all over the country. Close to 50 universities had encampments, and there were over 150 universities where there were protests and demonstrations. It was a massive movement calling for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

Meanwhile, every year for six or seven years, Ron Dellums, a Congressmember from the Bay Area, had been introducing anti-apartheid acts in Congress. In 1986 he introduced the Anti-Apartheid Act again, and it passed. We were all shocked when it passed.  It was a result of all this pressure that we were putting on the government to stop support for apartheid. And the bill passed and went to Ronald Reagan, one of the most conservative presidents, and he vetoed it. But then it went back to Congress, and they overrode his veto. So that was a huge victory for us.

Stephanie Luce:  And what about the student movement?

Gerald Lenoir: The students had kept going since the encampments in 1985. They met with resistance, but some of the universities had begun to divest. Some of the banks had begun to pull out their loans from South Africa. And so, there was a gradual distancing from South Africa by administrations and banks and corporations.

Stephanie Luce: So was a huge victory and surprise when the Anti-Apartheid Act passed in 1986, though we know it took several more years before we saw real change in South Africa.

Gerald Lenoir: Nelson Mandela was released in 1990. A lot of demonstrations had begun to recede before 1990. But then he is released, and there is a four-year period where the ANC and other parties began to negotiate with the South African government for the transition to Black majority rule.

In 1994 I went to South Africa, and worked in an ANC office in Mandela’s home province, in Eastern Cape. And then did reporting for the Oakland Tribune and Black Scholar magazine on the elections and the inauguration.

Stephanie Luce: The students today are facing a lot of dirty tricks to stop their movement – they are being called outside agitators, and dealing with infiltrators. I know you all faced that too.

Gerald Lenoir: Absolutely. There was an attempt to co-opt the anti-apartheid movement in particular. In 1977, Reverend Leon Sullivan, a very prominent Black minister who started a program for job creation and job development for the Black community, came out with what was called the “Sullivan Principles.” The Sullivan Principles was a set of seven affirmative action guidelines for corporations doing business in South Africa. And so, corporations and the government tried to promote those as a way to address apartheid. We roundly condemned those principles. The African National Congress and movement leaders really condemned those as too little, too late. So that was one tactic.

There was also infiltration in some of the demonstrations on campus. Some agents. Entrapment, and all of that. And there were counter-demonstrations. In Seattle, for example, there was a Young Republican organization that used to do counter-demonstrations. We’d have our Sunday demonstrations, and they would come periodically to protest across the street. There were no clashes because we were much bigger than them in terms of numbers.

We did have a security team. A whole group of people were attached to security every Sunday. But we were just able to ignore them [the counter-protests].

Stephanie Luce: That is a lot of important and exciting work! And on top of that, you’ve done work with the Palestinian movement.

Gerald Lenoir: Yes. So the first time I addressed the Palestine work was in the Jackson campaign, because Jackson’s platform on Palestine basically called for a two-state solution. And he was very vocal about repression in Israel and Palestine. I was a floor leader in the King County Democratic Convention and the Washington State convention. In the King County Convention, we introduced a resolution that said the PLO was the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, which was really radical. (The US hadn’t recognized the PLO at that time, let alone the idea of any Palestinian state. Ambassador Andrew Young, under President Jimmy Carter, had been fired for even meeting with a representative of the PLO. This was the first time Palestine got injected in any kind of sustained way into mainstream politics.)

We didn’t win on that resolution, but we only lost by five votes so we were really encouraged. We took the same resolution to the state convention, but the Zionists at the state convention outmaneuvered us and the resolution never came up for vote. We didn’t think we were going to win, but we wanted to have a floor debate about it. But they managed to squash it before we could take it to a floor vote. We were very uneducated about the rules of the convention and they were very sophisticated about them.  But there was widespread support in the Jackson campaign for Palestinians.

I didn’t really participate in that movement again until 2008 when I was invited by the Third World Coalition, which was an arm of the AFSC, to go on a people of color delegation to Israel and Palestine. I went and witnessed firsthand some of the repression – stealing Palestinian land, taking of their livelihood in terms of taking away the areas where they were growing crops, tear-gassing. Our delegation was tear-gassed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) during a march. After I came back from that delegation I joined the board of Eyewitness Palestine, which has been sending delegations to Israel and Palestine for two decades.

Then I led a Black delegation in 2012. And again, we witnessed the IDF harassing people, and putting the butt of a rifle in the chest of a Palestinian lawyer. We witnessed a Palestinian being taken off of a bus because he didn’t have the right papers. We were accosted by IDF forces in a Palestinian village. We witnessed firsthand the kind of repression that goes on in Israel and Palestine all the time. I was on the board of Eyewitness Palestine for six years and worked with them to do delegations to Palestine and do education around the occupation around the US.

Stephanie Luce: So looking back on your work on campuses and with the movements for liberation in Palestine, and the anti-apartheid movement, what lessons do you have for students today?

Gerald Lenoir: First, it’s imperative to keep the pressure up at the same time that you negotiate with the university. With the University of Wisconsin, that’s what happened with us: we kept the pressure up and we kept negotiating. That’s important.

Second, I think just knowing that it’s a long-term fight. The anti-apartheid movement started in the 1930s. Paul Robeson was one of the first people that had a group that organized for South African freedom. So just know that it’s a long-term struggle.

And then, as I told you, in 1977 whenever I would do an educational session, nobody knew what the hell I was talking about. Seven years later, everybody was talking about South Africa. So just the constant political education—getting into communities, into churches, into colleges and universities, even high schools—it’s really important to build that momentum over years. Movements ebb and flow. And once the flow is over, the ebb is really where you do the deep educational work. On and off campus. It can’t be just on campus. You’ve got to get into the broader communities. And I think some of that is happening. I think over the last 10 years, the movement has really grown to end the occupation.

And then, trying to figure out how to regroup the movement to share experiences and create common strategies. For the most part the anti-apartheid movement was very decentralized, but there were national publications that were being circulated that would keep us abreast of the news from South Africa but would also talk about strategies and tactics. The American Committee on Africa was really consistent in putting out publications. Liberation Support Movement and AFSC had publications. Africa Today was another source, and there were others. Those were national publications. The campuses had their own newsletters, and publications, but they were localized.

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