Apartheid Divestment @ Gonzaga

Divestment in the 1980s: Apartheid South Africa

Starting in 1985, a group of Gonzaga students began advocating for the Board of Trustees to divest Gonzaga’s endowment from companies doing business with the brutal, racist Apartheid government in South Africa. Articles from that time are below. The following is a brief reconstructed narrative of that time. It is our view that, just as history would have rightly judged Gonzaga harshly had it not divested from companies doing business in Apartheid South Africa, history will similarly judge us if we do not divest from fossil fuels.

Just as Gonzaga students were the moral conscience of the University in the 1980s, so too our students today are standing up and calling on Trustees of our university to have the courage of our convictions and divest from the fossil fuels that will harm not only a single country, but all over the world.

 A brief narrative

In April of 1987, students constructed a makeshift “shanty town” to bring attention to the plight of people living under the oppressive regime. “Just behind the stone walls of the Ad building [now called College Hall] a makeshift wooden shelter, simulating the typical shacks that blacks in South Africa refer to as home or shanties, bore slogans of protest such as “Does Skin Color Determine Freedom?” (Gonzaga Bulletin, 04.16.1987). Students occupied the structure for a week in “demonstration of Gonzaga’s present investment policy in that country [South Africa].” The students distributed fliers which read: “We are going to live in this shanty to show our solidarity with suffering people in South Africa. We hope to educate students about the problems there and encourage the university to consider a change in their current investment policy.” (ibid.)

However, despite these efforts, the following fall (September 18, 1987) the Board of Trustees voted against South African divestment. According to the Bulletin (see images below), a committee of faculty, students, and trustees, headed by VP of Finance Chuck Murphy, recommended against divestment. Defending this decision, Gonzaga President Bernard J. Coughlin, S.J. said “investment in companies such as Chevron provides a great opportunity for the training of lower class blacks” (Gonzaga Bulletin, 09.25.1987).

The week of February 21st, 1988, with the support of the administration, students organized a “South Africa Week,” during which they operated under “a simulation of racial constraints” so as to “better educate the Gonzaga community about apartheid issues occurring in South Africa” (Gonzaga Bulletin 02.19.1988). Some faculty participated by segregating seating arrangements “whites in front, mixed in the middle rows, and blacks in back” (ibid.)

The week of events concluded with a debate over the resolution: “That Gonzaga University should divest itself of any company doing business in South Africa.” These events seem to have increased student interest in advocating for divestment. In one letter to the editor in the fall of 1988 a student, Burt Turbing, wrote ‘Condemning Apartheid while owning stock in South Africa is like condemning prostitution while purchasing the services of a prostitute. … I recall Bishop Tutu’s analogical message to the United States, “If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has his foot on the tail of a mouse and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.’ … Since the situation in South Africa is so delporable, I ask that Fr Coughlin innform the university, via the student paper, of his argument for keeping stock in South Africa. For many of us, it doesn’t make sense. I think many people, like myself, consider Gonzaga’s economic security and benefits reaped from economic exploitation in a third world country reprehensible and said, if not sinful. So I implore Fr. Coughlin to make his reasons known for not divesting. if he thinks it can do some good, he should explain how, else I think he is gravely misguided” (Gonzaga Bulletin 11.04.1988).

The following week in the fall of 1988 the administration responded to these call for a justification of its policies via a letter from VP for Administration and Planning, Harry H. Sladich. Sladich wrote “that Gonzaga adheres ‘to a set of principles that have assured integration, equal employment and equal pay’ for black South Africans” (Gonzaga Bulletin 11.18.1988). In another student letter to the editor, Burt Turbing again questions whether this was true. He notes that advocating for reform isn’t enough. “Reforms within a deplorable system, such as Apartheid, make life in that racist society slightly more pleasant, but do nothing to abolish Apartheid. A disenfranchised black with job training and equal pay remains a disenfranchised black” (ibid.). Turbing continues, “Later in his letter, Sladich commits the well known fallacy of appealing to authority when he cites 94 other U.S. universities that have policies of selective divestment. Among the universities cited, he mentions Harvard and Yale. … Who is surprised that they have opted for investment? At any rate, the fallacy remains; it doesn’t matter how many prominent universities are maintaining the policy of selective divestment, the rightness or wrongness of such policies remains in question. … Sladich’s letter was unconvincing. I continue to maintain that divestment is the better course. I think divestment is a politically and morally sound position which should be pursued by Gonzaga University” (ibid.)

On October 5 school deans and cabinet members decided to delay making any recommendations on divestment until the spring of 1990. However, this action seems to have prompted the Gonzaga Student Body Association (GSBA) to get involved. That fall (1989) the GSBA Senate met in the Crosbyana Room to discuss plans for a divestment resolution. According to coverage in the Bulletin, Gonzaga had approximately $3 million invested in South African companies (10.20.1989). This resolution was ultimately passed unanimously (Gonzaga Bulletin 10.20.1989). The resolution read:

“Due to the on-going human rights violations and oppressive policies of the government of the Republic of South Africa, we, the undersigned members of the Gonzaga University community, consider this university’s current practice of investment int hat nation to be morally and ethically reprehensible. Therefore, we hereby petition the Board of Trustees to divest all funds currently held in South Africa in compliance with the ideals set forth in the Mission Statement” (ibid.).

In a letter to the Bulletin Cindy Runger, GSBA Student Affairs Vice President explained that “The join resolution serves as a student plea to Gonzaga’s Administration and the Board of Trustees. Conservatives argue that divestment only hurts blacks. These complaints and outcries from the conservatives carry some very serious assumptions. Apartheid is morally wrong; and anyone who invests in corporations which participate in economic and political systems which deny the human rights of its citizens is morally wrong. Therefore, in order for it to live up to its standards, Gonzaga must divest” (ibid.).

After more than four years of efforts on the part of many students, the Gonzaga Board of Trustees voted to divest from any companies doing companies doing business in South Africa, $3 million dollars in total.

Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu was heavily involved with the movement to end the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa. In 2012 Gonzaga invited Archbishop Tuto to speak at commencement and awarded him an honorary degree. His speech to Gonzaga’s graduates was moving. Archbishop Tutu has gone on to link the divestment movement in the 80s to the current fossil fuel divestment movement see this 3-minute video.

Below are images of the Gonzaga Bulletin‘s coverage of Apartheid divestment.

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