Black Student Unions and the Struggle for Divestment from Apartheid

2 Posted by - February 6, 2019 - LATEST POSTS

BY: DEREK IDE

Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, the struggle against South African apartheid reached its zenith. Although Black Student Unions (BSUs) across the United States pushed for divestment from the brutal apartheid government, the case of the BSU at the University of Toledo is particularly instructive. The BSU at UT in the 1980s was at the forefront of radical student politics. Local leaders like Mansour Bey not only brought figures like the Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton and famous activists like Angela Davis to campus but challenged the administration on their economic support of apartheid, despite threats and intimidation.

From 1984-5 the BSU brought anti-apartheid activists and native South Africans to campus to raise awareness about the crimes of the apartheid government. By June of 1985 they had circulated a divestment petition and in October organized a protest with over 100 students. Students chanted “Long Live the African National Congress!” and held signs like “Apartheid is dead… may it rest in hell.” When protests alone did not accomplish their goals, the BSU erected a mock shanty-town in the middle of campus, issuing a call for total divestment from the South African government. As The Blade reported at the time, the student action placed UT “on the crest of the biggest wave of protests on college campuses since the Vietnam War.”

However, the BSU faced retaliation. One of the organization’s statements explains how in 1985, on the same day that they received a telephone call from the president to negotiate the issue of divestment, another call “came into the Black Student Union to tell us that campus security was investigating the records” of BSU leaders, including president Anthony Muharib and vice-president Mansour Bey. Not long after, both Bey and Mansour were harassed by Chief of Campus security Frank Pizzulo over some  “old bench warrants.” Pizzulo insinuated to the BSU leaders that it may “prove embarrassing” if they were to be arrested. Despite the threats, the BSU’s July 31, 1985, proclamation was defiant:

We are also very concerned with the overall implications of these police tactics which remind us of the very oppressive and inhumane policies of the South African government which we are protesting against. Why these police tactics? Are they intended to intimidate all students into backing away from getting involved in controversial and unpopular issues? If so, it is not working! Therefore, we are today calling upon the support of the progressive elements of the Toledo community to stand with the Black Student Union in solidarity for our right as students and citizens of the United States to express our constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of speech. And furthermore, that we are permitted to continue our campaign to educate and motivate this campus to speak out on the evils and unjust practices of the Botha regime in South Africa. Finally, we demand that the university’s campus police forces cease and desist their harassment, investigations, and surveillance of U.T. students.

By the end of the year, the University of Toledo convened an ad hoc committee to study the issue of their investments. This committee eventually called for divestment from South African apartheid. By August 1989, with the apartheid regime of the verge of collapse, the University of Toledo and two related private organizations finally completed their phased divestment from South Africa, totaling some $4.7 million in investments. It is likely that without the BSU placing such immense public pressure on the administration that such a divestment would never have occurred. Thus, in the spirit of international solidarity, the Black Student Union at UT acted as a galvanizing factor which hastened the fall of the apartheid government.

Sources:

Newspaper clipping, “Over 100 protestors march against apartheid,” The Collegian.

Newspaper clipping, Tanber, “TU Students Erect Shanty in Protest of Apartheid, Ask Total Divestitute,” The Blade.

Press Statement, Black Student Union, July 31 1985. Canaday Center.

The Toledo Blade, George Joseph Tanber, 1985.

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