In 1978, Michigan State University made a decision to divest from companies doing business with apartheid South Africa.
An upcoming conference commemorating the decision’s 40th anniversary, “Campus Activism for Justice, from Southern Africa to Michigan,” will educate attendees about the social climate that influenced the university’s choice.
“It was a student and faculty-led movement on campus in opposition to state-sanctioned racial oppression in Southern Africa — Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe as well as South Africa — that culminated in a decision by MSU’s Board of Trustees to divest from corporations who had investments in Apartheid South Africa,” said John Metzler, outreach coordinator for the African Studies Center.
It all started in 1972, when five MSU students and faculty decided to form the Southern Africa Liberation Committee, said David Wiley, professor and member of the conference committee who was on campus as the divestment campaign unfolded.
Eventually, on March 31, 1978, the MSU Board of Trustees voted to divest MSU's holdings of all U.S. companies operating in South Africa — including the Michigan firms General Motors, Ford, Dow Chemical Co., and Kellogg, who, as major donors to MSU, strongly objected to the action.
This instrumental decision kick-started widespread campus boycotts involving companies like Coca-Cola with a presence in apartheid South Africa. This led to the divestment campaign being heard outside of MSU, even in the halls of Michigan’s Legislature.
In 1986, the Michigan Legislature adopted H.B. 4516 to divest the $4 billion state employees’ pension fund of any companies operating in South Africa. This was passed only after a “Hands Around the Capitol” demonstration, which saw demonstrators from Greater Lansing, the Shrine of the Black Madonna in Detroit and state employees surround the Capitol building demanding that the Senate pass the bill to divest, said Christine Root, who is also on the conference committee and at MSU when these events developed.
All three bills eventually were passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Republican and Democratic governors.
“Fortuitously, this 40th anniversary comes during the MSU designated Year of Global Africa. This September conference will be the first signature event of the fall semester,” said Metzler.
The Sept. 27 conference will be opened at noon with a presentation on contemporary issues in South Africa by Somadoda Fikeni, an MSU alumnus with a Ph.D. in political science.
Fikeni, in addition to being a senior academic administrator at the University of South Africa, is a leading political commentator on contemporary political issues in South Africa and is a contributing consultant to the BBC.
Her presentation will be followed by keynote speaker Phumzile Mazibuko, South Africa Consul General in Chicago, at 6 p.m.
Three panels, which begin at 9:15 a.m., and an open mic session are planned for Sept. 28.
“We encourage all the folks who participated in the struggles in the ‘70s and ‘80s, both at MSU and in the Michigan Legislature, to join our conference and commemorate this historic event,” Wiley said.
MSU Apartheid Anniversary
Conference Free, open to public Thursday, Sept. 27 Panels begin noon at MSU International Center Room 201 427 N. Shaw Lane, East Lansing Keynote address at 6 p.m. MSU Main Library, Green Room 366 W. Circle Dr., East Lansing Friday, Sept. 28 Panels begin 9:15 a.m. Open mic at 3:15 p.m. MSU Main Library, Green Room 366 W. Circle Dr., East Lansing www.rcah.msu.edu (517) 355-0210