Image of students protesting

Recently students across Manchester united in an empowering march for Reclaim the Night’s forty-fifth anniversary. Attendees protested in solidarity for women, sex worker, trans and non-binary victims of violent misogyny. Speakers talked of their experiences furthering the campaign for safer streets and for GMCA to cut ties with organisations harming women and sex workers. This march is part of a long history of student collective action for social justice. The students of Manchester Anti-Apartheid protest exemplifies this tradition and perhaps we can learn something from this movement to inform the activism of today.

In response to South African Apartheid (the systematised policy of racial segregation from 1948), students at the University of Manchester (UoM) decided to voice their opposition. Initially, this took the form of traditional pre-sixties on campus political participation. Students criticised Apartheid in debates, speaking events, and articles. While critics were often radical in their proposals, they pursued mostly moderate institutional change. Furthermore, my research of the student press of the fifties reveals that there were mentions of ten protests by UoM regarding this issue, suggesting protest to be a more fringe method. Perhaps protesting was regarded as a method of last resort.

However, 1959 represented a turning point after the SU voted to support the boycott movement. Activists pressured local business to join the boycott of Apartheid South Africa. Though students did still detail opposition in student press and debates, this represented a tactical shift toward increased activity and directness in student political participation. Students also lobbied for the setting up of the South African scholarship fund and services in 1966 to aid those affected by Apartheid, an act of solidarity towards those oppressed by the South African regime. Ten years after the SU decision, was the 1969 – 1970 Anti-Apartheid campaign surrounding the Springboks Rugby Tour, which demonstrates the shift in response. Instead of the scarce student protests seen in the fifties, the sixties saw it become an integral tool of student political expression. Examples of protests include marches, sit ins, picketing, and other attempts to dissuade or disrupt the tour’s attendance. The student press reveals that marches against Apartheid occured regularly from the 1970s. These actions, as well as promoting opposition to the institutional racism of Apartheid, showed that popular support and moral outrage could be locally mobilised to push for change targeting those aiding or accepting Apartheid.  

One notable target was Barclays, which the National Union of Students (NUS) and the SU sustained a sixteen year boycott due to its financial support of Apartheid. The SU discouraged students from joining Barclays, declined Barclays’ checks, and refused their advertising. This was further implemented with disruptive measures like pickets and occupations of the Oxford Road branch. Barclays withdrew from Apartheid South Africa finally in 1986 due to public pressure, of which the students at UoM played their role. 

Students also pushed UoM leadership to disinvest and sell their shares in companies connected to Apartheid. This campaign was initially led by the Southern Africa Liberation Society (SALS) that ran from 1972 to the mid-eighties. The University Council initially showed reluctance in disinvesting, but eventually agreed that Apartheid “contravenes the ‘spirit of tolerance’ basic to the University”. Delaying methods took the form of internal committees, waiting for a government report, and claiming their shareholder status allowed them to lobby for better rights and conditions. Students were not convinced by these arguments and deemed the arguments as patronising and ineffective.

In conjunction with the aims of the African National Council (ANC), NUS, and UoM SU acted. Protests demanded the full disinvestment from the Apartheid regime to prevent the financial support, with the hope that this would force systemic change. The disinvestment campaign involved student discussion, lobbying, and direct action. Students distributed pamphlets entitled “The Manchester Connection” outlining UoM financial links to Apartheid. Additionally, articles in the Manchester Independent and The Mancunion were published to raise awareness and hold the University accountable. Notably, students picketed several University Council meetings in the attempt to make the University leadership team recognise their individual responsibility.

The 19th and 20th November 1974 involved one of the most evocative of Manchester’s student Anti-Apartheid protests. Students planted 1500 white crosses for each South African child that died in the last twenty four hours in front of the Williamson Building on Oxford Road. This was meant as a reminder to those in the University Council meeting of the human cost of Apartheid and an attempt to force them to recognise what their financial involvement symbolised. Direct action continued to escalate, as demonstrated in the University Council meeting where two hundred students forced their way into the council chambers, occupying the space and stopping the meeting. Scuffles broke out between the Vice Chancellor, Arthur Armitage and a few students, only deescalating once protesters allowed Council Members to leave. Only two members of the Council stayed to engage with the students, both teaching staff, and subsequent Council meetings for the term were postponed.

Conflicts and slow gradual disinvestment suggests that student protests’ are limited, yet they successfully promoted the cause and achieved their aims for UoM to fully disinvest from Apartheid. So, as students now push for social justice, the Anti-Apartheid movement provides an important example of the achievements and challenges of active student political expression. Furthermore, it exposes that solidarity and support can motivate and mobilise students because at the core of successful movements was the desire to help those being oppressed.