Queen’s 23.3 million dollar problem

Despite being thousands of kilometers away, the issue of South African Apartheid divided Queen’s campus

Archive photos of student activism on campus in response to Queen’s South African investments in the 1980s.

From 1978 to 1987, Queen’s University had a problem that wouldn’t go away: $23.3 million of investments sitting in the business assets of Apartheid in South Africa in pooled investments. 

Nine years of sit-ins, referendums and near-endless debate culminated in more than 60 people — including faculty and children — storming into the Board of Trustees meeting on a spring day in 1987. They were demanding Queen’s total divestment from South African Apartheid. 

What made conducting business with South African companies detestable was the country’s history of apartheid — an institutionalized system of segregation and discrimination favouring South Africa’s settler white minority over the Black majority, which carried on until it collapsed in 1991. 

For Black South Africans, Apartheid meant they couldn’t vote, were prevented from having access to health care and couldn’t have romantic relationships with white people. 

This wasn’t the first time protestors barged into a board meeting. In October of 1986, they chanted until the board adjourned out of frustration. But this time was different — they read prepared statements demanding the Board take action after almost a decade of discussion.

“Time and again presentations have been made to you, but time again they have been disregarded,” PhD student Godwin Friday said to the Board in a 1987 Journal article. “You are showing contempt for the students of this University.”

In a few months, the Board capitulated. They partially divested from South Africa, reportedly taking each investment case-by-case, as they chose which were conscionable enough to get a return on. According to a figure reported by The Journal in 1983, 44 per cent of the University’s stock portfolio was composed of companies who operated in South Africa.

Although they were difficult to deal with at the time, Queen’s is remembered as having effortlessly taken the right side of history in present day discussion.

Growing opposition at Queen’s 

Throughout the debate, students weren’t just disagreeing with the administration — there were rifts on how to handle the issue of divestment among themselves. In 1983, the AMS held a critical referendum where 59 per cent of students voted to divest AMS funds within the next two years. 

Ultimately, student bureaucracy prevented the implementation of the vote before the end of the AMS executive’s term. Sensing the thorny politics of Apartheid divestment, the succeeding team decided it would be easier to overturn the decision in 1985. As far as the AMS was concerned, Queen’s was out of the debate.

But other Canadian universities weren’t so sure. 

The same year the AMS decided to scrap their referendum results, 600 McGill students chanted, “Divest now”, in front of the administrative building where their Board made the decision to ready a divestment of $45 million in companies operating in South Africa. Following suit, U of T committed $3.7 million, York voted for total divestment of approximately $8 million and Dalhousie divested about $2 million. 

Back on Queen’s campus, student activists were vocally frustrated with how the AMS was distancing itself from the issue of Apartheid. Brad Hornick, a member of Queen’s Campus Action Network for International Development (CANID), told The Journal in 1985 that if the Board of Trustees really wanted to make money from their involvement with South Africa, “they should open a pornographic bookstore, or  run a prostitution ring. That’s the equivalent of what they’re doing.”

To quell disputes, the AMS Committee on South Africa (AMSCOSA) was created following the overturned 1983 referendum to mediate the debate between students and the administration.

Instead, AMSCOSA created further division when it produced a whopping 60-page report with recommendations for a “positive anti-apartheid stand” that further divided the AMS executive.

The report — created with the input of open forums and over 400 randomized telephone calls to Queen’s students — turned a seemingly normal AMS assembly into a four-hour heated debate. Among the report’s recommendations, AMSCOSA’s suggestion of withholding the Queen’s Appeal fee — the University’s financial campaign to establish a student fund — was the most controversial.

Until the University agreed to withdraw funds in companies operating South Africa, AMSCOSA suggested the thousands of AMS members protest by refusing to pay the yearly $15 fee.

Sixty members-at-large booed and hissed over the statements of the AMS executives who argued for and against apartheid action.

The AMS eventually could only decide on two questions to put forth to referendum from the AMSCOSA report: should campus pubs be able to sell products directly and indirectly produced in South Africa. 

At the time, the Tri-Colour pubs stocked their shelves with Carlsberg beer — a product that was reported by The Journal in 1986 to be produced directly in South Africa.

The referendum results were disheartening, with the majority of students voting to keep all South African-associated products in their pubs.

From the time the 1985-86 AMS took office and finished their term, no progress was made in anti-Apartheid policy. The inaction only inflamed the tension. 

Queen’s Model UN invites South African diplomat

February of 1986 — in its first year — Queen’s Model UN made the contentious decision of inviting South African diplomat Wesley Johanneson to speak to delegates. The decision was made by a steering committee after two hours of debate with a vote of 29-26 in favour of the invitation.

With the frenzy attention of the local and national media, the AMS and Kingston Police Force organized additional security to prevent what one media liaison for the Model UN called “an international incident at Queen’s”, according to a 1986 Journal article.

On the day of his speech, Johanneson had to wait 10 minutes in silence as a group of 75 students got up and marched out of Grant Hall yelling, “racist”.

In his speech, Johanneson condemned the North American media for dealing with South Africa and the issue of Apartheid in “simplistic, black-white terms.”

PhD student Eben Otuteye joined a group of protestors congregating around the stage in Grant Hall.

Later described at a court testimony, Otuteye came forward and allegedly attempted to spit at the diplomat. He was promptly arrested and charged for assault with the treat of possible deportation, according to the corresponding issue of The Journal.

In his testimony, he said the officers threatened that he “could be shipped back to Africa.”

The then-Queen’s Afro-Carribbean club raised over $1,700 to assist Otuteye’s legal fees, as the PhD student argued he didn’t commit assault because he had no intention of hitting the diplomat. Spitting on the ground was a form of insult where he was from in Africa. Likewise, the AMS, professors and concerned groups appealed to the Crown Attorney to have the charges dropped. 

When they were dropped later that summer, the court went up in cheers as the decision was made, leading the presiding judge to comment, “the courtroom is not a theatre.”

This courtroom drama buoyed the spirits of pro-divestment activists, who were otherwise facing unpromising prospects. That May, the Board of Trustees had deemed divestment ineffective and inappropriate while still condemning Apartheid. 

Gordon Fleming, the chairman of the Board’s investment committee, referred to the endowment fund’s “clearly superior performance” and suggested a South Africa-free portfolio would only do as well as the market, which was “not good enough”.

“Many people I’ve talked to are annoyed the board is spending so much time on this issue,” The Journal quoted him as saying. “There have to be 100 issues like this in the world. If it’s Apartheid today, what will it be tomorrow?”

They adopted then-Principal Smith’s guidelines on the issue. This included plans to divest from companies with large fractions of business in South Africa, and whose products directly enforced apartheid while offering info for students wishing to voice their concerns with the Federal government. They also proposed a committee on the feasibility of a research unit on investing in South Africa.

Administration’s response

Meanwhile, the University said they would offer support and scholarships for Black students from South Africa as an alternative way to protest Apartheid.

It was up to Senate that Fall to decide if the divestment issue would survive the year. Following an hour-long emotional debate and in a surprising vote, Senate favoured a motion asking the Board of Trustees to divest from countries doing business in South Africa.

The student protesters were re-energized as a result. The AMS circulated postcards by students to petition Walter Light to move on South Africa. While protesters rallied outside Richardson Hall in October, they planned to dump roughly 4,000 postcards on Light’s desk. 

A month later the AMS built a mock South African shanty town in the JDUC to push the Board further.

Divestment realized

Finally — in January 1987 — the Board partially divested about $5.3 million. It was concentrated on four companies: Exxon, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, Mobil and International Fragrances and Flavours. However, it was peanuts compared to what many of the activists were demanding. This dissatisfaction only grew when the Board invested $800,000 in another South African company the following month.

As a result, protestors stormed the Board meeting in May of 1987. 

“I don’t like a bunch of grubby hoodlums barging in demanding what we should do,” board member Julia Clarke was quoted as saying in The Journal. “If they want to communicate with the Board, they should do it through their representative.”

The Journal ran an editorial similarly chastising the protestors.

“The spectacle of name-calling, heckling, chanting, and dramatizing infuriated and alienated those Board members who may have been sympathetic to the committee’s arguments,” it read.

While the Board was no longer prepared to move any further solely off of student opinion, students felt powerless in the wake of the board’s decision. 

In a surprise turn of events, Principal Smith urged the board to change its position and divest from South Africa. It was enough. 

On September 3, 1987 Queen’s divested, ultimately succumbing to faculty and delivering on roughly a decade of student advocacy. The faculty vote appeared to be the critical event that caused the change of opinion. 

“In my view, the faculty is the centre of the university and without the support of the faculty, we can’t have an excellent university,” Board member Allan Broadbent said. 

While the AMS President Anthony Carter was “elated”, there were some lingering hard feelings.

Thirty years later, Apartheid is gone, along with many of the protestors and actors on campus that debated divestment. Meanwhile, the new divestment debates on fossil fuels and Israel haven’t claimed the same energy or widespread commitment that South Africa did.

But the memory of it still lingers in both movements, along with the frustration Light expressed at protesters that stormed into his board meeting. 

“You don’t want to listen,” Walter Light said. “So just talk.

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