The Swarthmore Ville, 1995
The Swarthmore Ville, 1995 ("Michaels")

bottom & links
The Backlash Against South African Divestment

Jerry Nelson '65 with Walter Pinkus '65
2 June 2015 2500 wds  Rev 18Jun15

This sketch draws on original research by Hannah Jones:

The campaigns to get the College to divest from South Africa and to divest from fossil fuel companies have much in common: long duration, continued attempts to deflect action from whatever might produce political power, and to deflect public discussion from moral considerations or broader issues.  There must, however, be one difference:  the old South African campaign produced a resolution from the Board to bar all future generations from any moral consideration of where to invest the College's wealth, and today, the climate change campaign must remove it.

AUTHOR's FOREWORD Not long after South African police opened fire with live ammunition on a crowd in Sharpeville, killing 69, I had a conversation with a mid-level CIA officer that was remarkable for the case officer's adamant insistence that South Africa would pull the world down on everyone's head rather than accept forced integration of the races.  I entered Swarthmore that summer, knowing there was something very wrong in South Africa, but it would be years before I knew that Israel and South Africa jointly developed atomic weapons, or that an American Vela satellite recorded a nuclear test flash and gamma ray burst off the South African coast (later denied).  I will never know if the Agency was already tracking all of this in 1960, and my Case Officer had gotten wind of it.

Evil works in darkness.  Evil's roots twine deeply.  We will never know the evil we prevented by taking a moral stand against South Africa's Apartheid, and by helping to replace racial hatred with racial tolerance.


Swarthmore students started bringing in speakers on Apartheid in the late 1970s, and, in 1978, the "Swarthmore Anti-Apartheid Committee" was formed and the Board of Managers was petitioned for divestment, which was achieved in twelve years.


A salami of small steps and diversionary distinctions began.  Today, the Board offers to make Swarthmore more energy efficient (better HVA/C); then,  the Board  offered to place future investments only in nice companies (the Sullivan Principles), but not to divest.

What is a nice company?  A nice company has "egalitarian employment practices": no discrimination, no Apartheid, problem solved.  Any black South African who beats the political disenfranchisement, social caste system, wage discrimination, inferior housing, health care deficiencies, closed university admissions and is still qualified will be hired by a nice company because nice companies do not discriminate.  Swarthmore's Board promised to invest only in nice companies.


Divestment formally became a campus-wide issue with the formation of a joint Board, Administration, student, and faculty "Advisory Committee on South Africa" in 1980.

A significant difference today is the involvement of alumni, made possible by the Internet.  This has led to careful control of email lists by the College. So please sign up with your email at

Although alumni are largely the source of the endowment to begin with, the endowment is now the major source of the annual operating budget.  The endowment provided 1/3rd of annual operating costs less than 20 years ago, and provides between half and 2/3rds of operating costs today.   We all want to protect the endowment and donate to it, even as we ask for shifts.

To produce change, alumni should channel their donations through either or both of the funds described here: Give, but make your gift a vote for change.


The Board kept its word.  It was OK to invest in nice companies doing business with South Africa, but four companies in its portfolio weren't even nice. The College divested from them between 1978 and 1985.

In those days, under Thomas McCabe, the College invested in individual stocks.  Today, the college uses eighty financial advisors and money management firms.  Divestment must wait for firms like those to develop investment strategies and baskets of stocks that do not include the fossil fuel industry.  Such special investment services and instruments are beginning to appear, and we must be willing to accept gradualism as the College moves to them.  But as of mid-2015, the Board is stone-walling, and won't even start.


Divestment from South Africa (1978) and fossil fuels (2010) were solely student initiatives.  We can be proud of our students for their values, energy, and contribution to the College and its reputation.

The South African student initiative was given campus-wide status by the formation of the "Advisory Committee on South Africa" (1980).  With students now in the minority, the Advisory Committee became a tool for confining action to the divestment of three "not nice" companies, and then resuming support of white dominance with all other investments as usual.

With one committee co-opted and neutralized, the students had to form another.  The "Ad Hoc Advisory Committee on Ethics and Investments" was formed in 1985 (year seven) to set the goal back on total divestment.  The original 1978 "Swarthmore Anti-Apartheid Committee" remained active, and was joined by an activist "Swarthmore College Divestment Coalition".

Both movements, theirs and ours today, had sit-ins prior to Board Meetings, 32 days for us (19 March to 20 April 2015) and 21 days for them, with Haverford and Bryn Mawr students as well as faculty participating.  Our 2015 sit-in received national press coverage:

Sit-in results were meager.

Our Board offered diversions: if you care about climate, you can put all your new donations into a little green investment fund which the Board will start with one of its 80 money management firms (no fossil fuel stocks, promise!), while they put their two billion dollars elsewhere, and we both agree not to do anything politically effective, moral, or just.  But we got more than the South African activists.  The 1985 Board of Managers announced their offering was the formation of a new committee!  (It was the "Ad Hoc Committee for Ethical Investment Recommendations".)  In response, the anti-Apartheid students sat in, occupied the President's office, disrupted the next Board meeting in Dec 1985 and again in March of 1986 (supported by a faculty member).


Only now (March, 1986) was the Board presented with any deadline for action.  Today, Swarthmore Mountain Justice was quick not only to set up deadlines which the Board could choose to meet, but to create alternate channels of alumni investment around those deadlines. ("The Escrow Fund", explained further here )


Making it impossible for the Board to hold a meeting seems to work better than sit-ins.

With two successive meetings disrupted, with at least one faculty member joining the disrupters, and with demands for deadlines being raised, the Board cleared their meeting room and came out later in the day (1 March 1986) with a pledge to divest fully, but, of necessity, in stages.  The stock market crash of October 1987 made the need for prudence and delay acceptable to all, and indeed ushered in 15 years of sub-standard performance for the College's endowment, however invested.  Thus it was three more years (1989, year 11) until the Board of Managers could present its first plan for complete divestment from South Africa, which they thought could be accomplished in less than a year (by 1990, year 12).  Remember that the first divestments were made between 1978 and 1985 and the stock market crash in 1987 affected all equity investing.  Some statements about "divestment" and "returns" must be normalized by market performance.


Being late on an obvious moral issue is an embarrassment for any institution. 

In 1978, Swarthmore students were among the nation's leaders on South African divestment, and we can thank our students again for being national leaders on fossil fuel divestment in 2010, acknowledged in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Enquirer.

Today (6/2015), the Board of Managers has thrown away five years of national leadership on a moral issue which will soon be more obvious and anguishing than South Africa's injustices. 

The United States government delayed even longer on South Africa than our Board of Managers.

Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC) remained on the US terrorist list until 2008, years after his release from prison (1990), Nobel Peace Prize (1993),  and presidency (1994).  When ANC members applied for visas to the USA, they were flagged for questioning and were required to obtain a waiver to be allowed into our country.  The US Department of State had to issue that waiver.

"This is a country with which we now have excellent relations, South Africa, but it's frankly a rather embarrassing matter that I still have to waive in [issue special waivers to] my own counterpart, the foreign minister of South Africa, not to mention the great leader Nelson Mandela," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Embarrassing shades into pathetic.  In 2002, former ANC chairman Tokyo Sexwale was denied a visa. In 2007, Barbara Masekela, just off her post here in Washington as South Africa's ambassador to the United States (2002 to 2006), was denied a visa to visit her ailing cousin and didn't get a waiver until after the cousin had died.

Swarthmore tried to lead on Apartheid.  We are trying to lead on climate change.  We thank our students of the 1980s and today.  The Swarthmore College Board of Managers belittles the College that it was unable to lead on Apartheid, and is unable to lead today on climate change and the degradation of humanity's only habitat.  After climate change has become severe, pervasive and irreversible, after we are left looking sillier than a nation that called Mandela a terrorist as the world everywhere hailed him, no one will care what our endowment was.


The current divestment movement cannot succeed because divestment is forbidden.

The Board points repeatedly to its "long-standing" policy to "manage the endowment to yield the best long term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives".  Divestment requests must be rejected, the Board is following the rules.

This policy was first put in place in 1991, the year after the program of divesting Swarthmore's holdings in entities doing business with the Apartheid regime of South Africa was completed.  Given the short time between the South Africa divestment and formalization of this new policy, it is hard to call the policy anything but a "poison pill" reaction saying "we'll NEVER get forced into THAT again!"

As Walter Pinkus '65 puts it, It is irrelevant to the current situation that you are following an investment policy that has only been in place for the most recent twenty-four of the College's 150 years.  That policy should never have been put in place to begin with, because it is a denial of the values held by the College's founders and their successors, values confirmed by their prominent actions in almost every major reform movement in American history, including abolition [of black slavery], African-American history, Indian rights, women's rights, prison reform, humane treatment of the mentally ill, and temperance (Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College).

History unites the South African divestment campaign and the fossil fuel industry divestment campaign, and all our alumni who ever worked for either of them.  We are united  by the 1991 backlash against South African divestment which now sits as a roadblock to fossil fuel divestment:  "We cannot divest. We must follow [our own] rules."  It is a comforting barrier that steels the spine of those too spineless to take a moral stand based on personal conviction. 


"Swarthmore seeks to help its students realize their full intellectual and personal potential combined with a deep sense of ethical and social concern."

The College's Mission Statement is widely cited:
COLLEGE CATALOG, 1.1 Objectives and Purposes
.... Swarthmore seeks to help its students realize their full intellectual and personal
potential combined with a deep sense of ethical and social concern.

We have lived it.  Our mission statement is not just words.

In 1991, the Board of Managers passed a resolution which they cite today as binding:   "Investment Committee manages the endowment to yield the best long term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives."

That resolution is a poison pill for social consciousness, moral action, and a life lived to high standards of personal integrity.  Mission statement or poison pill?  Students, alumni and faculty must reverse an aberrantly wrong choice by other members of the community.


After the President's Climate Commitment Fund released moneys for it, the dinner, its sweep of tables, was assured, and everyone looked happy to be in a new place, and to be there together.

The alumni of the late 1970s and 1980s flew into Swarthmore, more than had ever registered on the Webpage.  After dinner, the Chairman of the Board of Managers didn't know whom to call, so many of the old activists mounted the stage together, forty years after their South Africa campaign started.  The Board presented a framed resolution to the old students.   The resolution replaced what everyone called the 1991 "poison pill" barring considering moral action or social justice in any investment decision.  Instead we had what some called the President's Prerogative and others, The Leadership Clause:

     RESOLVED: It is the sense of the College Community that final decisions of social
     justice reside with the President.

President Valerie Smith assured us she understood our traditions, and promised everyone time to talk all issues to death before she decided anything.

The evening's greatest surprise was praise of the Board's Investment Committee when those who had fought hardest for fossil fuel divestment spoke at the event's close. Sitting in on presentations by private equity fund VCs, getting a taste of derivatives and hedging, and visits to money managers to see how potential investment baskets, even the ones used in the slow but ongoing divestment program, to see how they are constructed while investment strategies for running them are back-tested --- all that had produced something more than a technical understanding of what it takes to turn a big ship. 

Across the room, for one night, everyone understood that excellence flows from funding which must not fail, but Swarthmore leads because it has always looked beyond money.

Afrikaaner houses in Capetown, South Africa, from slave trade days.

Afrikaner houses in Capetown, South Africa, from slave trade days.

resource & document list

Resource 1, Petition:
Resource 2, Two Plans for college donations.
Resource 3, document:
"We Divest for Social Ostracism and Public Humiliation" 
Resource 4, YOU ARE HERE:  "Why We Can Never Divest Again
Resource 5,
document "Fossil Fuel Divestment FAQ"
Resource 6, document   "Swarthmore Chooses Excellence in the 1800s.