Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History
South African Divestment, 1977-1991
Tufts University's investments in companies dealing in South Africa became one of the most volatile issues on campus from the late seventies through the late eighties. From the first news item documenting Tufts investments in 1977 to Jean Mayer's call for reinvestment in 1991, protest and controversy between students, faculty and administration surrounded the issue of South African investments.
In 1977, during a routine disclosure of Tufts investments, students noticed that the university held about six million dollars of stock in companies doing business in South Africa, at the time ruled by the racist apartheid regime. Tufts stock included holdings in IBM, which was designing computers to help the South African government trace the whereabouts of black workers, and Mobil Oil Corp., who had broken international sanctions by providing oil to Rhodesia though South African ports.
Soon after the financial disclosure, the death of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko at the hands of South African police re-ignited protests against the South African regime. Due in part to the increased awareness of South African government policies and actions, the Tufts Trustees issued a statement in October of 1977 dealing with their South African investments. The statement set guidelines for the invested corporations, calling for "respect for human dignity," and also calling on companies to contribute to the economic welfare of all the people in South Africa.
Almost immediately following the trustees' statement, all of the companies in question agreed to follow the newly developed Sullivan Principles. The guidelines, developed by Minister Leon Sullivan, set standards for companies doing business in South Africa, calling for non-segregation in all facilities, equal pay, and the increased promotion of black workers. Students at Tufts, however, felt this wasn't enough. In January of 1978, students created the Tufts Committee for South African Divestment (TCSAD), designed to directly protest Tufts investment in South Africa. In February, Tufts divested from Citicorp after finding it had been loaning money directly to the South African government, and on March 7, the first of numerous discussions between trustees and TCSAD occurred during a public forum. Trustees claimed that complete divestment would ruin Tufts' financial portfolio. For the next two months, the trustees held this stance, even after an April 29 protest outside of a major trustees meeting.
The fall semester of 1978 saw continued protest. On October 18, 1978, eighty students marched in a candlelight vigil calling for divestment. The group chanted and sang in front of President Mayer's house for over an hour, and also dropped off a petition signed by students and faculty calling for divestment. They argued that the Sullivan Principles were inadequate because they did not challenge South African law, and pointed out that the U.N. had called for all of its member countries to divest from companies doing business in South Africa.
On January 23, 1979, an Advisory Committee on University Investments recommended that Tufts divest itself of all South African holdings by June 1, 1980, and in February the TCU Senate also voted to divest. In May, Tufts announced a plan to partially divest, and in October divested from two companies who had not complied with the Sullivan Principles. The partial divestment policy managed to calm campus protests, but the issue again came to the forefront of university life in the fall of 1985.
On November 20, 1985, 100 students marched on Ballou Hall to protest continued investment in companies doing business in South Africa. The protest managed to rekindle interest in the issue, and in February of 1986, the TCU Senate sponsored a referendum about divestment for students and administrators. President Mayer, with the support of the trustees, declared that Tufts policy wouldn't change. He said that without international support, US opposition wouldn't change anything, and also that disinvestment, where corporations remove their operations from South Africa, would be more effective. At the close of the referendum, sixty percent of those in attendance voted to divest by May 1987, but Mayer reiterated his opposition to any change in policy.
Hoping for more exposure among alumni and Tufts benefactors, students held a large scale protest at the February 21, 1986, opening of the Sackler Center, and then picketed outside of a trustees meeting in Cabot the next day. Protests continued during the spring, and in April, students built a shanty on the academic quad symbolizing the shantytowns South African blacks were forced to live in. On April 15, ninety-five students attended another rally outside of the president's house.
During the summer of 1986, the trustees voted to divest from any company with a low Sullivan rating, and in September they sold one million dollars worth of stock from two companies that hadn't signed the Sullivan Principles. In a statement released to the press, the trustees claimed that the stock was sold for purely economic reasons. Such sparring continued through the fall of 1986 and through most of 1987. In October of 1988, a petition signed by 1600 members of the Tufts community called for immediate and complete divestment, and finally, on February 25, 1989, the trustees unanimously voted to divest completely.
The trustees' statement cited the fact that their partial divestment policy wasn't bringing about the desired social change. They sold $6.7 million worth of stock, retaining only media stocks and minimal presence operations, such as airlines with only a few personnel on the ground in South Africa.
Although this should have been the end of the divestment controversy, protest again surfaced in September of 1991, when President Mayer called for reinvestment as apartheid was beginning to be dismantled. A number of brief protests followed, but soon the issue was cleared up, and eventually, Tufts did reinvest in companies dealing in post-apartheid South Africa.