We wanted to share blog post from Jordan Long, a student at Sewanee: The University of the South. Jordan is a leader with the Sewanee Coalition for Responsible Investment and grew up in South Africa. In this post, she reflects on the role divestment played in the apartheid struggle and the connection with the current climate movement. Jordan raises some good points about how we talk about “divestment” that we agree with. Here at GoFossilFree, we’ve never asserted that divestment alone ended apartheid (our 350.org staff in South Africa would have been the first to correct us!), but that it played, in the words of Desmond Tutu, a “key role” in ending the brutal regime in South Africa. Just like in the case of South Africa, divestment and other strategies can (and must) go hand-in-hand.
It Worked in South Africa
by Jordan Long
“It worked in South Africa,” I have heard this sentence more times than I can count since the publishing of Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article. In the fantastic piece, Bill turns climate change into the cause célèbre of our generation, and calls for colleges, universities, and religious organizations (really everyone) to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Divestment is of course the act of liquidating an asset, in this case stock, usually done as a sign of protest against an ethical issue. For many people, Bill’s article was the first time they heard of divestment and for others, myself included, the topic was all too familiar.
Like anyone living in South Africa in the 90s and 2000s, apartheid and the struggle end, including the divestment movement dominated the stories of my childhood. Like the Civil Rights Movement in America, ending apartheid was the unifying experience of a generation, and the stories of their efforts were the hero-tales we grew up on. Divestment was one of the most successful tactics employed by activists. For those unfamiliar, the apartheid government of South Africa was one of the last bastions of colonialism in the 20th century, and in the 1990s students across the globe joined in the fight to bring freedom and equality to South Africa. Students lobbied their schools, took to the presses, some even building mock shantytowns to put a face to those effect. Colleges and universities responded to the immense outcry of their students and rid their endowments of any investment tied to South Africa. This was of course a protest of the apartheid government, an action representing the solidarity students felt with those affected.
Divestment was innovative and inspiring. The movement in many ways, created a global solidarity against violations of the kind we hadn’t seen before. More importantly; it turned the business community back on itself. At the time of divestment, investments in South Africa were yielding returns of nearly 15% at their peak. A number that not even fossil fuels can match, and yet divestment movement told the corporate world that we would not value profits over people.
This kinship between the two movements, ending apartheid and ending fossil fuel dependence, was obvious to me. It was what motivated me to help start the Sewanee Coalition for Responsible Investment at the end of last year, yet, as I’ve progressed in my work at Sewanee, its been difficult for me to hear so many people speaking of South African divestment as if it was divestment and not the activists—the heroes of my childhood stories—that deserved the credit.
I’ve struggled with the idea that maybe by using South Africa like this, we were perpetuating a western perspecitve and undermining the work of a nation. By extension, I had to ask if we running the risk of undermining the value of the activists in our own movement? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, and its clear to me that this is anyone’s intention, and that I’ve been just as guilty of using this type of rhetoric as anyone else. The parallels between the two movements are powerful and inspiring, and of course we want to look to examples that succeeded. We look to South African divestment, not in a look what we’ve done way, but in the spirit of look what we can do.
It is powerful rhetoric, but we walk a fine line when we employ it, a line between valuing the tactic and valuing and giving credit to the people driving the movement. Divestment can do a lot, but it can’t do everything, and at the end of the day it’s only as powerful as the people behind it. It is a technique not a movement. South African apartheid displaced 600,000 people, claimed 7,000 lives and defined a generation and a country. Climate change and the fight to preserve our environment have the power to do much more damage, and the work of activists is positioned to cause global change. If we say things like “divestment ended apartheid” we are, in a way, downplaying the power of the giants that inspired people to be better. It Mandela, it was Tutu, and it was the thousands of colleges students demanding change that ended apartheid. It was solidarity with the idea of equality for all. When apartheid is taught in South African schools it is taught on the periphery, never the focus of the movement. And that’s the way it should be with our efforts to end fossil fuel dependence.
When I think of what ended apartheid, I do not think of dollar signs and profits lost, I think of the faces and the words that brought a people to their feet again. I think of two men who inspired our country to be better, and moved a generation of people across the world to stand for a better future. Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and the thousands of others who sacrificed everything for equality—they demanded better of us. It would be an insult to say divestment did more than they, and it would be an insult to say divestment is doing more than you, me or someone like Bill McKibben.
Like Mandela and Tutu, Bill McKibben is demanding better of us, and so are the thousands of students standing in solidarity against the fossil fuel industry. He is inspiring a different type of thinking, and the impact of that cannot be quantified by something as pedestrian as returns. Money is powerful but it pales in comparison to the power of knowledge. And that is what’s truly what’s revolutionary about this movement—we are creating a new kind of knowledge, a knowledge that is fundamentally reshaping the way we live our lives. What we accomplish in the coming years will affect our lives far beyond the impacts of divestment.
Don’t get me wrong, the connection is there, and we should use it to strengthen our movement but not to define it. At the end of the day, we are the folks spending countless hours lobbying and petitioning, dedicating our lives to this fight. We are the movement, and it is our work that will change minds, change policy and ultimately change the world we live in.
Importantly, like the work of South African activists, our work doesn’t end with divestment’s success. When colleges across the country rid their portfolios of the dirty energy; we will find our selves faced with even greater challenges, and as was the case in South Africa, new leaders will rise to meet these challenges, and it is those individuals we will remember above all else. Envisioning a better future isn’t an easy task, making it happen is another thing all together, but I know we can do it. Our environment is our problem.