The university campus has been an important platform for social justice movements throughout American history, from the civil rights era sit-ins to anti-Vietnam War protests.
One of the most striking movements is the student-led movement to divest from South African apartheid, which started in the late 1970s and gained wide movement in the 1980s. South African apartheid was a system of racially discriminative policies and practices institutionalized by whites in South Africa in order to maintain power over black South Africans. Apartheid is an Afrikaans word literally meaning ‘apart-hood,’ or ‘the state of being apart’.
Strong student-led divestment campaigns developed at University of Michigan, Michigan State, Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin. The first university to divest from South African apartheid was Hampshire College in 1977. In 1986, the University of California system divested $3.1 billion worth of stock. By 1988, 155 schools divested, causing a huge monetary loss for the apartheid regime.
It would undermine the South African people to say that the divestment movement alone freed South Africa from apartheid. It was the South Africans that called for the world to divest. They were at the forefront of their own movement for liberation. However, the student movement for divestment played a key role in helping bring down apartheid. Because of divestment from all sectors, South African apartheid was unable to continue its system of racial domination and oppression.
Today, a student movement is growing on US college campuses that is very similar: a movement to divest from Israel’s apartheid and human rights abuses in Palestine.
Students all over the country are now calling on their universities to divest from corporations that aid Israel’s military occupation, such as Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, G4S, Veolia, Elbit, General Electric, Cemex, and others. These corporations, many of them American, play a role in abusing Palestinian human rights and civil rights.
For example, Caterpillar bulldozers demolish Palestinian homes and build Israeli settlements on stolen Palestinian land. Hewlett-Packard provides a biometic ID system to Israeli checkpoints, which restrict Palestinians’ freedom of movement and deny privileges based on ethnicity. G4S provides security, surveillance, and maintenance to prisons inside Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, where Palestinian political prisoners, including children, are imprisoned and often tortured in violation of international law and human rights standards.
History is repeating itself on college campuses. Just like it was the first college to divest from South African apartheid, in 2009, Hampshire College became the first college to divest its funds from corporations that facilitate Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights.
In the fall of 2012, the student divestment movement at UC Irvine grew so strong that the student government unanimously voted to pass a resolution to divest from companies that profit from Israeli apartheid.
The student governments at UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, Oberlin College, and Arizona State University have also passed resolutions to divest over the past year.
Student movements for divestment have also grown immensely at UC Riverside and UCLA. Although resolutions to divest have not yet passed at these universities, there is overwhelming student support, whether they be Palestinian, Arab, Asian, black, Chican@, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, queer, and straight.
During the movement against South African apartheid, university students, alumni, faculty, and staff around the nation stood up and pushed for their colleges to divest. This eventually helped bring down apartheid in South Africa. And it’s happening again. Students all over the country are now standing up and demanding that their tuition not go toward the oppression of the Palestinian people.
Being at a university setting gives people so much privilege to be a force for social change. If you’re a student, how will you use this privilege and power? Will you use it for good, or will you let your college education pass by without making a stink about where your tuition dollars are going?
Make some noise. This is history. Will you be part of it?