In her third guest post based on her fascinating PhD research into British student activism, Sarah Webster looks at Manchester student involvement in anti-apartheid campaigning.
Anti-apartheid activism at UoM offers an insight into how student activism has changed across the twentieth century. Tactical choices by anti-apartheid activists demonstrate that protest becomes a more acceptable method for expressing student discontent and dissent, particularly after the sixties.
Boycotting South Africa
In the early fifties, students voiced criticism of Apartheid in union debates, speaker events and articles. These activities reflect the dominance of traditional political participation on pre-sixties British campuses. Students criticised, even proposed radical change, but sought that change through institutional routes, not protest. The fifties student press records just 10 protests by UoM students, indicating that protest was very much a last resort. In 1959, UoM students voted to support the Boycott Movement as a union with activists also lobbying local businesses to join the South Africa boycott.
Supporting the boycott represents a shift in the nature of campus activism at UoM. The boycott is a more direct expression of opposition to Apartheid and represents a shift away from passive forms of political engagement towards more active forms of political dissent amongst students. UoM participation indicates that protest was becoming a more acceptable amongst students.
Ten years later at the Springboks Rugby Tour (1968/70) and the sixties student revolt has firmly cemented protest as part of the tactical repertoire of British students. Having marched, sat-in and occupied, UoM students no longer appear to see protest as a last resort. With hundreds of other students, they picketed Springbok games, attempting to dissuade attendees and disrupt the tour. For the UoM anti-apartheid campaign, the Sports Boycott is a turning point. Students still articulated criticism via debates and articles, but also utilised protest more regularly to demonstrate their opposition and press for change.
The UoM student press records UoM participation in Anti-Apartheid Movement marches from the early seventies onwards. Participating in the 16 year boycott campaign against Barclays (largely led by the National Union of Students (NUS), UoM students regularly picketed and occupied the Oxford Road branch in Manchester. Like many other unions, the Manchester University Students Union also utilised less disruptive action, refusing to advertise Barclays’ student accounts, discouraging Freshers from joining the bank and probably declining Barclays’ cheques. It is clear that protest was an acceptable tactic for UoM students to express anger and dissent by the eighties.
Disinvesting from racism
The excellent Anti-Apartheid Movement Archive notes student involvement in multiple campaigns, including decade long battles over British universities investments in South Africa. Led initially by the Southern Africa Liberation Society (SALS), the UoM disinvestment campaign ran from 1972 until the mid-eighties. In 1972, students called on the University to sell all its shares connected with Apartheid. While the University agreed that Apartheid “contravenes the ‘spirit of tolerance’ basic to the University”, it was reluctant to sell its shares. The University Council invented various ways to delay taking action, from referring the matter to an internal committee to insisting on waiting for a governmental report. The University also argued that its shareholder status enabled it to lobby for improved wages and working conditions for all South Africans.
Student activists framed this last argument as ineffective and patronizing. They wanted full disinvestment as called for by the African National Council, hoping that economic isolation might force change in South Africa. Displeased with the University response, students launched a campaign that involved traditional political activities, such as lobbying the University as well as direct action.
Pickets met several University Council meetings across the seventies. On November 19th 1974, SALS planted 1500 white crosses, representing each South African child to have died in last 24 hours, outside the Williamson Building on Oxford Road. A visual reminder for the University Council meeting on November 20th of the human cost of Apartheid. Hoping to ensure meaningful action, 200 students forced their entry into Council Chambers, occupying the space and halting the meeting. Events turned dramatic when Vice Chancellor Arthur Armitage allegedly yelled from a window that he had been imprisoned and then (again allegedly) wrestled with various students in order to leave. Perhaps nervous of the consequences of holding senior University staff and local businessmen, the protesters allowed Council members to leave, but invited them to stay to discuss the disinvestment proposals. Only two members, both teaching staff, remained. Subsequent Council meetings for the term were postponed to avoid further disruption.
Pamphlets entitled The Manchester Connection appeared on campus regularly throughout the seventies with articles bearing the same title appearing in Manchester Independent and later The Mancunion. The Manchester Connection outlined the University’s academic and financial links with South Africa, accusing the University and specific members of the University Council of profiting from racism. To reiterate the point, a banner reading ‘This University supports Apartheid’ hung from the Union in academic year 1972/73.
The University did divest, but slowly and on its own terms. It committed to selling shares in companies with unsatisfactory treatment of non-white employees. Students were unhappy with the slow pace, but the gradual sales should be seen as a victory for the campaign. Persisting across several student generations, the disinvestment campaign succeeded (at least partially) in cutting University ties to the Apartheid regime.
The disinvestment campaign drew on traditional and informal methods for expressing demands and dissent. The campaign indicates that students felt as comfortable protesting as they did lobbying and letter-writing. The history of anti-apartheid activism at UoM shows us how student political engagement shifted from detached criticism to practical political action via protest.
Solidarity beyond protest
As well as demonstrating changes in student activism across the twentieth century, the UoM anti-apartheid campaign reveals the strong sense of solidarity that UoM students felt with other students, recognising their shared experiences and needs. Conscious of their privileges and educational inequality facing South African students, UoM students expressed practical solidarity. They proposed sending books and funds to displaced students. In 1966, they established a South African scholarship fund that would finance study at the University. Funds were raised through individual donations, appeals and sponsored events. UoM students offered this support, partly due to their moral outrage at Apartheid, but also out of a sense of solidarity and commonality as students. Although their experiences were vastly different, there was a sense of connection between all those ‘engaged in the pursuit of knowledge’.
Sarah’s research has focused on the University of Manchester student press. The University of Manchester Library holds a nearly complete collection of the University’s official student newspapers, as well as an impressive collection of other student publications, which provide a rich source of information on all aspects of the student experience in Manchester. Visit the History and Heritage webpages for more information.