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When Yale activists targeted apartheid

Amid the outpouring of love and admiration for Nelson Mandela following his death yesterday, a young person—or one with a short memory—might be surprised to learn that Mandela, his cause, and how Americans should respond to it were subjects of great controversies less than 30 years ago.

It was during my time at Yale that one such controversy boiled over, surrounding the question of whether the university should sell its stocks in companies doing business in South Africa. Activists, including a large and vocal group of students, called for total divestment from such companies. The university—which was quick to condemn the country's apartheid regime—preferred a policy of "selective divestment," retaining stocks in companies that agreed to certain principles for operating there.

In 1986, the student campaign culminated in the construction of two wooden shanties—symbolizing the shantytowns where blacks lived in South Africa—on Beinecke Plaza. Activists dubbed it Winnie Mandela City in honor of Nelson Mandela's wife. (Mandela himself was then in prison.) The shanties became a rallying spot for student protests and education about South Africa. Yale administrators had them torn down (managers on the maintenance staff did the work, as Local 35 members refused), but they were soon rebuilt. They stood until May of 1988, when an alum at his reunion set fire to them.

Yale did eventually divest itself of South African holdings in the early 1990s; whether the student campaign was responsible is hard to say, but it was a notable return of campus activism after a decade-long hangover from the turmoil of the '60s. Elizabeth Juviler ’90 posted some of the photos above on our Facebook page, then sent some more when I asked if we could post them here.

Writes Juviler: "We defended [the shantytown] against numerous attempts by the administration to dismantle it, and eventually the administration of Benno Schmidt, in his first months as president, saw fit to suspend five Yale students—including me, Lou Weeks, Phoebe Bell, and John Ritter—for our part in supporting the struggle mentioned here. On the day we were suspended, the US Congress approved sanctions against South Africa."

Juviler's photos instantly transported me back to that time, though my memories of it were less than proud. I sat out the campaign, demurring even from wearing a red armband over my commencement gown, because I was apparently more concerned about being thought a predictable, politically-correct poser than I was about apartheid. We get no do-overs, but I wish I'd let youthful idealism win out over youthful self-consciousness.

Thanks to Elizabeth for the pictures. Readers, what do you remember of that time? Share in the comments.

Filed under apartheid, South Africa, Nelson Mandela
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