Fighting Climate Change Through Divestment: What We Can Learn from South Africa

Written by: Julian Mocine-McQueen, Campaign and Partnerships Manager

In a way it’s hard to believe. But in 1988—when scientists were sounding the first warnings about climate change—the nation of South Africa was still legally divided. Black South Africans couldn’t move freely—they had to carry passes, they were relegated to desolate Bantustan reservations, their leaders were murdered by the police like Steve Biko, or locked away like Nelson Mandela. 

For a long time, neither the U.S. government nor U.S business responded. This country considered South Africa’s white-led government an ally, and our corporations made lots of money there. But that began to change. People in communities, on campuses, and in churches, synagogues and mosques around the country stood up. The US became home to a massive campaign to get businesses to divest from South Africa. 

There was nothing easy about the divestment campaign. It took incredible effort. People had to persuade boards of trustees to sell stock, even when those trustees said it would cost them money. On campuses, students occupied dean’s offices. They boycotted recruiters from companies that supported South Africa’s oppressive government. They staged giant rallies. And they went to jail—by the thousands. But they kept stubbornly at it, and more quickly than you might imagine, it started to work. 

By the mid 1980s, 155 campuses—including some of the most famous in the country—had divested from South Africa. Twenty-six state governments, 22 counties, and 90 cities, including some of the nation’s biggest, took their money from banks that did business in the country. Pension funds shed their apartheid-tainted stock. 

And it worked. One of the biggest victories in the movement came when students were able to convince the University of California to withdraw $3 billion in investment from the apartheid state. Nelson Mandela has said that the University of California divestment was a turning point in the fight against apartheid. And it would never have happened without the courage and dedication of students. 

At Green For All, we are working to build a new economy—one that is healthy and inclusive. We want to build an economy where more people from more walks of life can work in jobs they’re proud of. An economy that doesn’t pollute our air and water. An economy that doesn’t accelerate climate change, but instead, slows it and helps us respond to it. 

If we’re going to succeed in creating our vision of what the economy should look like, we need to put our money where our mouth is. A divestment from fossil fuels takes dollars away from the stuff that is literally killing us—oil and coal—and frees it up for investment in the industries that will create a healthier, more prosperous future for us all. 

We know divestment works. We’ve seen students drive divestment campaigns before. We can do it again to stop the pollution that's causing climate change. We can get campuses to divest from the fossil fuels that are killing us. Our children and grandchildren are counting on us. To learn more about the student movement for fossil fuel divestment, click here:

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