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Coke Money and the Public Relations of Higher Ed Divestment from Apartheid

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.

Read entire article at Black Perspectives