Through the 1980s, people around the world rallied behind the Free Mandela movement and pressed universities, corporations and governments to divestment from the Apartheid government and South African companies. Activists focused on Universities because they have investment portfolios that contribute to the annual budget and employee retirement funds. Some Universities investment portfolios are large enough that a decision to sell certain stocks influence a company’s policies. Activists in Europe and North America could not use direct action to fight against apartheid because of distance, but could impose economic sanctions by divesting from companies doing business in South Africa. In England, Sweden and the United States, this movement became popular with college students in the 1980s. Foreign pressure to divest was a crucial factor that led to the economic downturn in South Africa and led to the collapse of the apartheid regime.
The international boycott encompassed all relations with South Africa. Anti-Apartheid activists worked to issolate South Africa economically and socially to show those in power that apartheid was not sustainable in the modern world. South Africa was expelled from the International Olympic Committee in 1970 after refusing to integrate the teams it sent to the Olympics. Many musicians refused to perform in South Africa. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was the chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, was a major advocate for the international boycott of South Africa. Tutu was also a firm believer that South African academia must be boycotted as well, and addressed the United Nations in 1985 in support of sanctions. This meant foreign academics would stop going to South Africa to research and not allow South African academics to present research at international conferences. In 1980, the United Nations passed a resolution requesting all member states to boycott all exchanges with South Africa, including academic exchanges.
The University of Missouri was particularly involved in the anti-apartheid movement. In 1978, Doug Liljegren, the president of the Missouri Students Association, wrote to the board of curators asking them to divest from American companies doing business in South Africa. Later, Missouri students would interrupt board meetings and call for divestment.
In April 1985, a new university president was appointed at the Columbia campus. Peter Magrath was president of the University of Minnesota before coming to the University of Missouri. Protestors were so disruptive at his commencement ceremony it ended early. As he left for his office, a crowd of protestors followed him and invaded the chancellor’s office in Jesse Hall.
When Magrath was with the protestors in Jesse Hall, he agreed to study the issue. So he asked and the board of curators approved the formation of an investment policy task force to study the possibility to divest from American companies doing business in South Africa.
Not satisfied with the partial divestment completed in 1986 — even after the university signed an agreement with the University of the Western Cape — on October 10, 1986, student activists took over the Francis Quadrangle in the center of the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus. Protestors thought the agreement was a way to avoid full disinvestment. To symbolize the strife of non-White South Africans and educate Americans about apartheid, activists created a “shanty town” until February the following year and lived there continually. 58 people were arrested throughout the protest, and some were beaten by counter protestors. The protesters commitment to divestment could not be shaken by the university’s plan for engagement or by violence.
This protest educated students and the community at large. Information about South Africa was not easy to come by. By disrupting board meetings and daily life at the University of Missouri, the protestors made the public confront issues they would not normally.