“My first act of political activism was when I was at Occidental College. As a 19-year-old, I got involved in the anti-apartheid movement back in 1979, 1980, because I was inspired by what was taking place in South Africa.” – Barack Obama

South Africa’s political history offers a striking example of using divestment to mobilise social change. The moral imperative to end apartheid injustices drove individuals and businesses across the world to sell off stocks from investment institutions and retirement and mutual funds from businesses linked to the South African government. Protest divestment movements from the 1960s through the 1980s galvanised American students to pressure their universities to divest their South African holdings. Many corporations heeded the divestment call. By 1990, more than 200 US companies, including UN bodies and the European community had severed ties with South Africa, resulting in a loss of $1 billion of investment.

Apartheid kils

Photo: Kari Gregg Projects

Masses of South Africans mobilised against the apartheid regime, particularly in townships. Students played a profound role in the struggle, leading the uprisings of 1976 and proving to the world that learning institutions are hubs of revolutionary power. The social activism of both South African and US students helped to bring the apartheid government to its knees.

But what made the divestment so effective?

Protest divestment is a form of resistance in which stakeholders sell off assets from corporations in order to enact positive social change. The simple act of selling stock can effect real social change. In addition to using traditional forms of protest, many in the anti-apartheid movement called on universities to divest stocks from companies conducting business in South Africa. Boards of trustees for major universities, such as Occidental College, Harvard University and the University of California, voted to divest completely from South Africa. This generated negative publicity for those companies and contributed to the economic sanctions that were imposed on the country and the drastic weakening of the South African currency.  

Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu advocated for divestment during the anti-apartheid struggle and does so today. He has called for an anti-apartheid-style boycott and divestment campaign against the fossil fuel industry for driving global warming.

desmond Tutu
The call for Cape Town to divest

Since December 2016, meetings have taken place between Divest-Invest and the Cape Town City Council. But there has been little progress. The City has not demonstrated local government leadership by freezing its investments in the fossil fuel industry and committing to selling off its current holdings within five years. Given that Cape Town is seeking to become more resource-efficient and resilient, it is hypocritical for the municipality to retain its investments in fossil fuels, which worsen the impact of climate change.

Cape Town’s current water crisis is an opportunity for the City to step up and show strong political will in halting catastrophic climate impacts. We are calling on Cape Town to join C40 Cities already leading the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement. Over the past five years, global divestment commitments have exceeded $5 trillion in assets from 688 institutions and 58 399 individuals across 76 countries.

350Africa, together with partners, is building on the call started by Divest-Invest to establish a local group to ramp up pressure on the City of Cape Town to shift its investments and stand proud with nearly 100 other cities and local governments that have committed to divest from fossil fuels.

We are calling on the public to amplify this call. Apply pressure on the City by signing the petition, which makes clear demands for Cape Town to:

  • Disclose the value of fossil fuel assets in the municipal budget
  • Stop investing funds from the municipal budget in fossil fuel producers
  • Divest current holdings in those companies over a five-year period.

It’s time for the City of Cape Town to be on the right side of history!