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Heirs of anti-apartheid movement rise up

Tactics from South Africa's anti-apartheid movement continue to galvanize a new generation of activists.

Last updated: 15 Dec 2013 14:50
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The growing movement to divest from fossil fuels shows how anti-apartheid tactics live on [GALLO/GETTY]

As people around the world celebrate Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy, a new generation of activists is drawing inspiration from the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. And they’re adopting the tactics that helped that movement emerge victorious and end white minority rule two decades ago.

On Friday, December 6, the day after Mandela’s death, more than 150 students from 10 universities across the Boston area rallied to demand that their school administrations divest from the fossil fuel industry.  On a bridge over the Charles River they hung a banner, it read, "Divest from Climate Crisis".

At about the same time, at Vassar College in New York State, students held a teach-in. "We had a number of speakers talk about divestment and why it needs to happen soon," Graham Stewart, co-coordinator of the Vassar Green's divestment campaign, told Al Jazeera.

And a few days later on December 11, Cornell University’s faculty senate followed the student body’s lead and passed a non-binding resolution calling on the university to fully divest from fossil fuels by 2035. 

The growing movement to divest from fossil fuels is the latest example of how tactics that contributed to the dismantling apartheid live on – boycott and divestment tactics that channeled international solidarity with black South African’s struggle for equality, and built a moral case for the state’s isolation.

"Until [the anti-apartheid] movement got started on university campuses in the 80s, the public just wasn’t paying that much attention to it," said Elizabeth Sanders, a professor of Government at Cornell, and a co-sponsor of the faculty resolution to divest from fossil fuels. But the movement forced political action. "Ultimately they got two thirds of the vote in Congress to pass a resolution that American companies couldn’t invest in South Africa," she said

In the 1990s, campaigns to divest from the tobacco industry were built on that precedent.

More recently, the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions – or BDS – against the state of Israel "until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights" has campaigned for universities and religious institutions to divest from US corporations operating in Israel, waged consumer boycotts against products made in West Bank settlements, and pushed for academic and cultural boycotts. The 2005 call for BDS by Palestinian civil society groups cites the South African struggle against apartheid as a source of inspiration.

Now, it’s climate activists' turn.

Fossil fuel divestment

On 300 campuses across the United States, there are students pushing to have their colleges and universities freeze new investment in the top two hundred publicly-traded fossil fuel companies and to divest from them entirely within five years.  

"We're taking the courage that this can work from the anti-apartheid activists and from Nelson Mandela," said Chloe Maxmin, a Harvard Junior and the coordinator of Divest Harvard. The group is asking administrators to divest Harvard’s 30 billion dollar endowment fund - the largest in the country.

I see the connection to the anti-apartheid movement as taking away the hold that the fossil fuel industry has over our political system by making it socially unacceptable and morally unacceptable to be financing fossil fuel extraction.

- Sara Blazevic, Swarthmore College.

Coordinated at a national level by 350.org, an organisation dedicated to fighting climate change, the campaign encourages religious institutions, cities and counties to divest as well. A year after its launch in the US, it’s gone international, spreading to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, its strategy is not first and foremost to hurt coal, oil and gas companies’ bottom lines by shedding their stock.

"Divestment isn't just an economic tactic," 350 spokesperson Jamie Henn told Al Jazeera.  "It’s a social and political one."

The debates divestment generates are meant to cast doubt on the viability of the carbon business in the 21st century. The argument goes like this: The International Energy Agency calculates that the fossil fuel industry will need to not burn about 80% of their reserves of coal, oil, and gas to keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. (Most countries have agreed that is the limit beyond which climate chaos looms.) The value of those reserves - about 2 trillion dollars - is already factored into fossil fuel companies’ share prices. So those share prices are inflated, and are going to be worth a lot less once governments are forced to begin regulating carbon.

"What the fossil fuel divestment movement is saying to companies is your fundamental business model of extracting and burning carbon is going to create an uninhabitable planet. So you need to stop. You need a new business model," explained Maxmin.

Slow response

Despite efforts to cull reliance on fossil fuels, political opposition from oil, gas and coal industries and their lobbyists has made governments slow to legislate a carbon tax, or place other limits on extraction.

Asked about the divestment movement’s impact on the industry so far, the America Petroleum Institute, a DC-based lobby group, sent Al Jazeera a statement: "This so called campaign is preposterous. It does a disservice to our nation’s pursuit of long-term energy security and to the thousands of families that rely on the substantial investment returns provided to college endowments by the oil and natural gas industry."

"I see the connection to the anti-apartheid movement as taking away the hold that the fossil fuel industry has over our political system by making it socially unacceptable and morally unacceptable to be financing fossil fuel extraction," said Sara Blazevic, who is organizing for divestment at Swarthmore College.

Although the movement has spread quickly, and there have been early wins, it has generated controversy and opened old wounds. Seven colleges have already committed to divestment, as have more than 20 (notoriously liberal) US cities like Seattle and San Francisco.

At Swarthmore, Blazevic recalls making a presentation about divestment to the school’s Board of Managers. The students, she said, "essentially got shouted down by older members of the board who had been around for divestment from South Africa and referred to it as the worst thing that ever happened to the Swarthmore Board of Managers and for them in the 80s".

Swarthmore divested from South Africa in 1990, after more than a decade of student campaigning. "That experience left many on Swarthmore’s current Board with an even greater conviction that the endowment should not be used in this way again," Swarthmore Vice President for Finance Suzanne Welsh wrote in an email interview with the college’s Daily Gazette.

Divestment rejected

Since then, in an open letter Swarthmore's managers have said that though "concern about climate change is both welcome and entirely warranted", the board will not divest because "we believe that to do so would have no measurable effect on halting climate change and at the same time would pose an unacceptable risk to the College's finances".

Instead, the Board advocates for the school to take a stronger leadership role on climate legislation, and to engage in shareholder activism.

Similarly, Harvard President Drew Faust has rejected student and alumnae calls for divestment.

"Conceiving of the endowment not as an economic resource, but as a tool to inject the University into the political process or as a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes, can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enterprise," she wrote in a public statement last Fall. (Harvard selectively divested from apartheid South Africa in 1987.)

Some students say the opposition from board and administrators has only helped to galvanize their efforts.

"It's a lot easier for people to get behind a definite no than maybe this will happen, maybe it won't," said Stewart.

Professor Sanders hopes that the success of the Cornell faculty motion will cause the University President to reconsider his rejection of a student motion to divest last year. "We have to act for the younger generation who are going to bear the consequence of this, and for the poor people who live in low-lying areas and islands and places like Bangladesh," she said. "Because they’re already suffering from it, and we have an obligation to them."

Follow Andrea Schmidt on Twitter: @whatescapes

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Al Jazeera
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