Coke Money and Apartheid Divestment in U.S. Higher Education

Anti-Apartheid Rally, June 14, 1986, New York City (Library of Congress)

Philanthropic gifting to US higher education amounted to an astronomical $52.9 billion in 2021. Higher education has enjoyed a long marriage with foundation money, a relationship that scholars have investigated, for example, by examining the connection between the Ford Foundation and the institutionalization of Black Studies. However, in the last forty years, higher education institutions have also increasingly accepted corporate philanthropy—defined as corporate gifts and direct donations from alumni, wealthy C-suite executives, their families, and foundations—a practice that turned universities, or UniverCities, into the ideological and pragmatic bedfellows of Corporate America. The Coca-Cola Corporation’s ties to Emory University during the height of the 1980s student divestment movement against South African Apartheid demonstrates how US corporations, using universities as one of their stages, masqueraded as agents of Black solidarity while undermining the economic isolation demands of the African liberation movements.

The Black-led US student anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and 1980s was characterized by its successful demand for the divestment of higher education (the selling of stock) from US corporations that did business in Apartheid South Africa.  Many students militated around the problem of corporate connections to higher education during this early era of neoliberal ascendance and won sweeping total divestments from Apartheid-affiliated companies. Another type of corporate connection that caught the attention of Howard University and Morris Brown College students during the divestment era was the practice of corporate gifting. Students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), who felt the looming presence of white foundation money in their education, asked, what does it mean to accept this Apartheid-tainted money? Did total divestment also mean cutting the ties with South Africa-related corporate philanthropy?  For students the implications were troubling. This was because at schools like Emory University in Atlanta, the university administration-corporate donor relationship, under threat by the national student divestment movement, sought to suppress divestment organizing and deradicalize anti-apartheid politics.

In the mid-1980s, Atlanta activists organized city and state-wide initiatives to target Apartheid-complicit companies directly, especially Coca Cola for its South Africa operations. The Georgia Coalition for Divestment launched the “Coke Sweetens Apartheid” campaign under the directorship of Tandi Gcabashe, the daughter of Chief Albert Luthuli, an African National Congress (ANC) leader who famously called for the international boycott of South Africa in 1959. The 1986 Coke Boycott Campaign won the support of major apartheid opposed organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee, the American Committee on Africa, the New Afrikan Peoples Organization, and the War Resisters League.

Despite a national sweep of campus divestment militancy demanding the severance of university ties to Apartheid between 1985 and 1986, conversations about divestment at Emory University were nearly non-existent. Student editors of the Emory Wheel asked “why is there no interest in divestment here?” Editors hypothesized that there was not enough political will to attempt divestment given Emory’s “close ties to certain corporations doing business in South Africa.” Indeed, the ties between Coke and Emory ran deep. A student-faculty investigation committee uncovered that “the university holds more stock in the CocaCola Company, a corporation that does business in South Africa, than any other company.”1

Emory students organized an anti-US intervention group called No Business As Usual, and pressed the Emory Student Government Association (SGA) to create a South Africa Education Committee for raising apartheid consciousness on campus. The SGA organized vigils, film screenings, and hosted Mpho Tutu to deliver a speech to the student body. But the demonstrations were infrequent and turnout was low. Instead, Emory students spent most of their time fighting the conservativism and liberalism of their peers, as their protests devolved into intellectual debates about the efficacy of divestment.

Action on divestment was left to a student-faculty President’s Advisory Committee on South Africa that made recommendations for how the university might proceed with apartheid investments. Committee conversations were dominated not by students, South African exiles, or anti-apartheid organizations but by African American politicians and businessmen such as former US Ambassador to the United Nations under President Jimmy Carter, Donald F. McHenry, and Coke executive Carl Ware. McHenry, who was also a Coca-Cola director, argued before students at the 1985 annual Woodruff lecture that more investment in South Africa rather than less was the best way to assist the struggle. McHenry’s remarks paralleled Coke’s recent decision to launch a venture capital investment offensive in South Africa to fight apartheid and expand the company’s foothold in the country through a combination of investment and philanthropy.2

McHenry’s liberalism was also racial and had important consequences for maligning the Black Power orientation of some South African liberation movements before US audiences. McHenry cited the growth of the student-led Black Consciousness Movement, the Soweto Uprisings, the formation of the Azanian People’s Organization, and the National Forum as examples of rising Black hate. He noted that the “impatient and angry” youth viewed the “moderate” ANC, “with a background of nonviolence,” as “uncle Toms.” By pitting Black Consciousness students like Tsietsi Mashinini against the ANC, he deployed fear of youth-led violence and a vengeful Black takeover of the country. By the end of the speech, McHenry had moderated the ANC and retrofitted its goals to match those of Coke and the US government, while also espousing that the Congress no longer supported divestment.

Months later, the Emory Advisory Committee on South Africa held a meeting with Carl Ware, the Vice President of Urban Affairs at the Coca-Cola Corporation. Ware explained Coke’s vision for South Africa’s future which looked like a racially integrated state rooted in free enterprise. Like McHenry, he argued that disinvestment was “not effective.” Instead, investment in the form of development aid or corporate giving was more useful for “not reinforc[ing] the status quo.”

The meeting coincided with a public announcement that Coke was planning to give $10 million to new foundations for business, housing, and education development in South Africa. Coke appointed ANC leaders, Allan Boesak and Bishop Desmond Tutu, to the board that oversaw the Equal Opportunity Funds. The venture was a new frontier of future profit for Coke because it granted the corporation rapport with the favored liberation party, positive brand association to millions of South Africans who encountered its foundations, and protected its ongoing business interests inside the country.3

By May 1986, the Advisory Committee submitted its final recommendations to Emory President James T. Laney and advised against pursing total divestment. The Committee’s reasoning echoed Ware and McHenry’s language about divestment’s ineffectiveness from prior discussions. Instead, the body suggested that a “special relationship be established” between Coke and Emory on the South Africa issue. Beyond a call for more communications, the details about this proposed relationship were not covered in the report. But the Committee was steadfast in its faith that “Coca-Cola will be an exemplary corporate citizen in word and deed in its opposition to apartheid.”

This “special relationship” between universities and US corporations dulled action on apartheid divestment during the mid-1980s, a period when the political will for total divestment from South Africa soared. These types of corporate connections in higher education motivated administrators to avoid complete divestment beyond Emory–at Yale, Harvard, and a dozen other universities that never severed their ties to the Apartheid state. As African American corporate managers at Coke aimed to liberalize anti-apartheid politics by mischaracterizing the efficacy of divestment, they promoted pathways for impressing free enterprise on South Africa.

This corporate counter-strategy demonstrated the extent to which campus divestment organizing had so thoroughly spooked Coca Cola’s leadership when faced with the debilitating threat that the tactic posed. Corporate America, daunted by the prospect of institutional divestment, leveraged its financial connections to universities to insulate itself from the strength of grassroots anti-apartheid protest. Divestment is still a powerful lever for organizing against corporate-driven imperialism and its devasting implications domestically and internationally. Despite the intensification of corporate money in higher education over the last four decades, fearless students continue to fight for university divestment to Free Palestine, to Abolish the carceral state, and to Go Fossil Free. They are the inheritors of student anti-apartheid radicalism, poised to scrutinize these ever-expanding university-corporate connections and cut their strings.

  1. “South African Representative Condemns Divestment,” The Emory Wheel, Jan 31, 1986.
  2. “Visit by Donald F. McHenry, Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations;” Donald McHenry Notes
  3. Katheleen Teltsch, “Aid Set for Blacks of South Africa,” The New York Times, March 24, 1986.
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Amanda Joyce Hall

Amanda Joyce Hall is a postdoc at Northwestern University who writes about worldwide opposition to South African apartheid. She tweets from @amandajoycehall