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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

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From the Archives: A closer look at Notre Dame's South Africa divestment debates


The fervor for divestment at universities such as Notre Dame has historically sparked pivotal debates about the role of academic institutions in global ethical issues. This fervor is once again at the forefront as contemporary student movements call for the divestment from fossil fuels, echoing one of the largest and most coordinated divestment campaigns in history — against apartheid South Africa. Just as past students rallied against the moral contradictions of investing in apartheid, today’s advocates argue against supporting industries contributing to environmental degradation. In this two-week series, we first explore the South Africa divestment movement at Notre Dame, drawing clear parallels between past and present. We underscore the ongoing quest to align institutional investments with ethical convictions.

Divestment and Dissent

Nov. 2, 1978 | Kevin P. Ceary | Dec. 7, 1978 | Terri Walsh | Feb. 11, 1988 | Matthew Cleary and Patrick Kusek | Feb. 21, 1990 | Michael Allen | Researched by Thomas Dobbs

In the first student opinion piece in the Observer on divestment in South Africa, Kevin P. Ceary ‘81 sharply criticized Notre Dame's reluctance to divest from apartheid South Africa. He expressed strong disapproval of the University's stance, writing, “Because Notre Dame is an institution nurtured with a Christian tradition, one would expect Notre Dame to pioneer the withdrawal of investments from a corrupt society,” highlighting his profound disappointment in the University’s ethical inconsistency.

Terri Walsh ‘91 sharpened her criticism by focusing on the economic exploitation at the core of South Africa’s success, which heavily relied on an oppressed black labor force. She advocated for a reevaluation of Notre Dame’s investment policies to consider more than just financial gains, stating, “The economy of the Republic of South Africa is undeniably a very successful one. It is also undeniable that its success rate is directly attributable to the black labor force in South Africa.”

In contrast, a 1988 opinion challenged the effectiveness of divestment, suggesting that it would not significantly impact the South African government and could even worsen conditions for the black population.

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Observer Archives, Feb. 11, 1988.

Matthew Cleary ‘91 and Patrick Kusek ‘91 argued for strategic engagement rather than withdrawal. They proposed, “Instead of divestment, America should invest in South Africa. If America’s trade grew to the point at which South Africa depended upon our goods, then we could pressure them in much the same way that OPEC ran an oil embargo against the United States,” advocating for maintaining economic ties to encourage change.

In 1990, Michael Allen offered a pragmatic perspective on the U.S. presence in South Africa. He suggested that U.S. companies should not divest because doing so “would lose any direct chance of making life better for blacks in South Africa because it would lack the foundation from which to launch any kind of initiative.” Allen maintained that retaining investments could provide leverage for improving conditions and influencing policy within the country.

Students protest in favor of divestment

Oct. 14, 1985 | Mark Pankowski | Nov. 12, 1985 | Theresa A. Guarino | April 17, 1989 | John Zaller | Researched by Lilyann Gardner

Throughout the 1980s, Notre Dame students, in conjunction with the Anti-Apartheid Network, set out to challenge the University’s administration by calling for an immediate divestment from U.S. companies doing business in South Africa during the previously ongoing apartheid.

On October 14, 1985, as part of National Anti-Apartheid Protest Day, over 400 students organized the largest rally at the Administration Building. They wore black armbands, held signs and chanted “Divest Now” to protest against the inaction of University President Father Theodore Hesburgh and the financial decisions of the Board of Trustees.