One hot summer morning, thousands of black students left their classrooms to protest what they thought was a racist curriculum. The high school students marched peacefully, but soon found police armed with deadly weapons, blocking their path.
The police opened fire on the youth, even as they ran away. While the government downplayed the number murdered in the massacre, some estimate nearly 600 young people were killed that day.
The 1976 massacre in Soweto, South Africa shocked the world, as it revealed the true brutality of apartheid. Reports and images of the violence quickly reached Boston and did not fall on deaf ears—just a decade earlier, Americans had dismantled their own system of institutionalized racism.
Instead, the horrors of apartheid galvanized Boston activists, ready to tackle racism abroad. But nearly 8,000 miles away, South Africa was physically out of reach to these Bostonians. But they did the one thing they could from a distance — bring down apartheid’s financial allies in the United States.
After the Soweto uprising, longtime activist and state Representative Mel King (I-South End) initiated hearings about the Commonwealth’s investments in South Africa. At the time, Massachusetts had about $300 million of public funds invested in companies doing business there.
When a state commission report released two years later revealed that Massachusetts invested more of its public employees pension funds in South Africa than at home, King and white state Senator Jack Backman responded by filing a divestment bill that called for full divestment of the Commonwealth’s pension funds.
But they were fighting a tough battle. Up until this point, American and European governments had firmly rejected international calls to put economic pressure on the apartheid regime. In 1962 the United Nations General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution calling for economic sanctions against South Africa, but Western nations boycotted the measure.
King and Backman’s bill failed to get enough votes in 1979, but the pair was able to pass another provision to the state budget barring any new purchase of stocks in companies doing business in South Africa.
For King, South Africa’s distance from Boston didn’t diminish its importance. “Our humanity dictates that we should be in human relations with everyone on the planet,” he said in a recent interview with the Banner.
Local activists saw divestment as an important tactic on two ends. It was a non-violent move to put pressure on the apartheid government, and one that could be done from afar. But it was also a way to preserve jobs in the Commonwealth.
“Massachusetts workers are increasingly being threatened by ‘runaway shops’ — firms which leave Massachusetts unless they get wage cuts, speed-ups, and local subsidies,” read a pamphlet from the early 1980s. “South Africa is an attractive environment for such firms because of the extremely cheap labor, illegality of free trade unions, toleration of brutal working conditions, etc.”
But divestment also had its opponents. Some argued that withdrawing funds would hurt black South African workers — even though Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu advocated the tactic. Others argued that divestment simply could not bring down apartheid.
Harvard University, which held more than $160 million in South Africa-related investments, resisted student calls for divestment throughout the 1970s. “We oppose divestment under normal circumstances not merely — or even primarily — because it costs the University money, but because it is an ineffective means of pursuing ethical ends,” University President Derek Bok said in a statement.
Around the same time, an alternative to divestment emerged — the Sullivan Principles. Leon Sullivan, an African American minister and General Motors board member, drew up the set of voluntary ethical guidelines for companies to follow when doing business in South Africa.
The Sullivan Principles were widely adopted by American companies and came to be seen as the ethical standard the private sector should adhere to. But for many, the Sullivan Principles fell short because they never explicitly challenged the legal architecture of apartheid, or the United States’ support of it.
Moved by their initial success in amending the state budget, King and Backman continued to push for full divestment, and this time, sought to shore up broader constituent support. They called a meeting of independent labor, community, and religious groups that were working separately against apartheid, and eventually these merged to form the Massachusetts Coalition for Divestment from South Africa, or Mass Divest.
The next year, with the support of Mass Divest, the two state senators tried again to pass the full divestment bill, but for the second time were met with failure. Determined, King and Backman tried a third time in 1982, and this time their bill passed in both the House and the Senate — only to be vetoed by Democratic Governor Edward King. But the legislature overrode the governor’s veto—the first and only time during his tenure in office.
The divestment bill prohibited public pension funds from being invested in banks or financial institutions doing business in or with South Africa, and required the state’s $100 million of investments to be sold and, if possible, re-invested in Massachusetts companies.
“I don’t have any question that Massachusetts’ law will have a multiplying effect in this country,” said King about the passage of the state divestiture bill, which occurred on his last day in office. Massachusetts was the second state in the country to divest, following just weeks behind Connecticut.
Later that month, new Democratic Governor Michael Dukakis took office, and as a supporter of divestment, immediately sold off two-thirds of the state’s investments in South Africa. The next year, another divestment supporter took office — Boston City Councilor Charles Yancey.
Coming into his new political seat, Yancey knew he wanted to get the city involved in the divestment campaign. Boston was considered one of the most racist cities in the country, and supporting human rights in South Africa was critical for challenging that racism at home, he explained in a recent interview with the Banner.
Yancey’s divestment bill succeeded on its first attempt in 1984, and Boston became one of the first cities in the nation to adopt such legislation. The city sold more than $12 million of stocks tied to South Africa — and at a profit.
“Today’s divestment legislation is one more hammer blow against the chains of apartheid, South Africa’s official policy of white racial supremacy and discrimination,” Yancey said in a 1984 statement following the bill’s passage. “We can all take pride in the knowledge that Massachusetts was the first state in the country to pass a South African divestment law and that Boston’s ordinance is one of the strongest such measures in the nation.”
Soon, continued student pressure also pushed local universities to divest. And in the next years, King’s prediction came to pass, as many other states and cities across the nation followed suit. In 1986, despite President Ronald Reagan’s veto, the U.S. Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which banned new investments in South Africa, sales to the military or police, and certain forms of trade. By then, Sullivan had abandoned his own Principles, claiming what critics had long charged — that they didn’t go far enough.
Massive international divestment successfully destabilized the South African economy in the later part of the 1980s, including tremendous capital flight and skyrocketing inflation. The weak economy forced South Africa’s reigning National Party to negotiate. By 1991 Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and by 1994 he became the first black president after the country’s first free and fair elections.
Looking back on his landmark legislation 17 years later, Yancey says that he is “very proud of what the city did,” and that it gives him “great hope for the future.”
While much work remains to abolish racism in Boston, he says, “If we can take on apartheid, certainly we can take on issues at home.”