Anti-apartheid student protestors display a banner atop Dartmouth's Baker Tower | Dartmouth Library
Anti-apartheid student protestors display a banner atop Dartmouth's Baker Tower | Dartmouth Library

When the protests against Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza broke out across US campuses, a friend suggested that they were perhaps similar to the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s. I disagreed, simply because, at the end of the day, US forces are not directly involved in the fighting in Palestine and American kids are not being conscripted to go fight in the war and are not coming back in bodybags, so the emotional investment is entirely different.

But the discussion did take me back to the anti-South African apartheid and pro-divestment protests on American campuses in the 1980s, of which I was also once a part. I suggested that the current protests bore more similarity to that movement which, it should be recalled, did indeed achieve its aims eventually. It would be instructive to look at exactly what happened more than 30 years ago.

I arrived at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in the fall of 1987 to study for my undergraduate degree. A year and a half earlier, an incident had taken place at the college that had been seared into the collective memory of campus activists.

As the global opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa had gathered pace, student activists at Dartmouth had constructed ‘shanties’ on the main college lawns (like today’s ‘encampments’), to draw attention to the living conditions of black South Africans under the brutal white regime and to call for the college to divest from all companies doing business in South Africa.

Obviously, these ramshackle shanties with activists camped out in them were an eyesore for those used to looking at the pristine beauty of the campus. But while the college administration threatened to remove them, it dithered on taking action because using force against peaceful protestors would have also created a PR disaster.

Two months after the shanties were established, a group of right-wing students attacked them in the middle of the night — on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, no less — with sledgehammers.

The resulting outcry against the vandalism and violence led to the faculty of the college shutting down classes for a day to conduct teach-ins about prejudice and racism, the administrative block being briefly occupied by protestors and to the vandals being expelled or suspended from college.

By the time I joined the college, the story of the shanties had become part of the lore of student activists but the movement for full divestment from South Africa continued to remain strong. The original Dartmouth Community for Divestment had strengthened alliances with other groups on and off campus — including one titled the Committee on Palestinian Rights — to form the Upper Valley Committee for a Free South Africa. And acts of protest continued off and on.

It all came to a head in November 1989, when the administrative Parkhurst Hall was once again occupied by pro-divestment protestors and a group of us barged in on a trustee meeting. The college trustees, who managed the college endowment and investments, were forced to meet with the protestors and give a hearing to our demands.

After a small group of activists also disrupted another trustee cocktail gathering, the college finally had had enough. A day later, the college president announced a full divestment from all companies doing business with apartheid South Africa.

What’s interesting to note is that, by this time, only two percent of Dartmouth’s investments remained in companies that continued to operate in South Africa. Yet the college found it simpler to divest totally than to deal with the bad press the protests continued to bring to it. Similar protests were happening on many other campuses around the US as well.

A few months later, Nelson Mandela had been freed from jail in South Africa after 27 years in captivity. A year after that, apartheid South Africa was no more.

I recall all this history for two reasons. One, it is important to not underestimate the power of collective action. Obviously, there were plenty of other factors influencing South Africa’s trajectory, especially the resistance movement within, and the apartheid regime stood isolated in most of the world from an ongoing cultural and state boycott.

But every little bit of action — even in privileged US colleges thousands of miles away from the reality of South Africa — helped create the conditions for the final dismantling of apartheid. Eventually, it became just too costly in perceptual terms for multinational companies and states (such as the US) to continue to do business as normal with the apartheid regime.

Two, for young student activists currently involved in the global protests against Israel’s genocidal and apartheid regime, it is important to keep chipping away at it. There will inevitably be setbacks and change may not come immediately, but eventually critical mass will be reached. Despite the pressures (from institutions wielding power), despite the mischaracterisations of the movement (by the media and vested politicians), and despite the reactionary resistance to change (from those who stand to lose), the real power of moral clarity remains with those refusing to accept a genocide.

It’s also instructive to remember that Nelson Mandela — and his African National Congress — was labelled a ‘terrorist’ for the longest time by precisely those complicit Western powers that now refer to him as a saint. And that he never backed down from hitching the liberation of South Africa to the liberation of Palestine. Israel was a big supporter of the white apartheid regime.

Ironically, the thing that Zionists have always hated the most is a comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa. With their brutality in Gaza and the rest of Palestine, they have now successfully ensured that no one can ignore this comparison without being on the wrong side of history.

The writer is a journalist and filmmaker and Dawn’s Editor Magazines.
X: @hyzaidi

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 19th, 2024

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