Two universities 8,660 miles apart were under protest by their students for the same reason. On one campus, students demanded freedom and were met with smoke bombs and rubber bullets. On the other, students demanded accountability and joined a movement. The common enemy was apartheid and the role universities played in supporting it.

Apartheid was a set of laws in South Africa that segregated every level of society. Apartheid laws limited where South Africans could live, work, go to school, whom they could marry and stripped non-Whites of the right to vote. One of the most egregious of the apartheid laws was the Population Registration Act of 1950, which required everyone to carry an identification card stating their racial group. Classifying each person into a racial category at birth was the mechanism for the rest of the apartheid laws. The system led to the daily abuse, dehumanization and deprivation for anyone who was not White in South Africa.

Apartheid, or “seperateness,” was a system of laws meant to prevent people of color from owning property and travelling freely through South Africa.

To reinforce apartheid in the minds of non-White people, the apartheid government created a racially segregated higher education system. So-called “coloured” people, or people with ancestry from more than one race, were only allowed to go to the University of the Western Cape in Belville (UWC), a suburb of Cape Town. By making a university for Coloured people, the government hoped they would buy into the racist system. For the students, having a university degree opened up new opportunities in government and professional careers that would not be possible with only a college degree or by matriculating from high school.

The University of the Western Cape in 1985. Copyright the Cape Times, courtesy of the South African National Library.

Because of the work of committed activists, the University of the Western Cape became a center for the fight against apartheid. Richard van der Ross was the first person of color to head a South African university when he became rector in 1975. At UWC, anti-apartheid protests rocked the campus daily. Professors fought against apartheid, even when it meant losing their jobs. Over time, the university became know as “The Struggle University” and “as an intellectual home for the Left” by local press and international supporters.

Inspired by the imprisonment of anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, student activists around the world became conscious of apartheid. As part of the boycott strategy  student movements across Europe and North America demanded their universities divest from companies doing business in South Africa. The goal was to isolate South Africa from the world economy, international politics, sports, culture and academia. In 1985, the University of Missouri was one of the hotbeds for protests and student organizing, where students occupied the newly elected university president’s office. The protestors demanded the President Peter Magrath divest from American companies that do business in South Africa.

University of Missouri students protest in Fall 1986. Copyright Columbia Missourian

Magrath agreed and worked with the university’s board of curators to make a plan for divestment from American companies doing business in South Africa. After several months of public hearings by a university investment policy task force, Magrath proposed and the board approved a phased divestment policy.  In addition, the board’s policy called for developing a link with an “appropriate” South African university. After months of negotiation, this resulted in the University of Missouri South Africa Education Program (UMSAEP) and was the first faculty exchange program between an American and a South African university.

Activism at places like the University of Western Cape was one of many factors that contributed to the downfall of apartheid. In 2003, Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.” University of the Western Cape academics used their knowledge and position to further the struggle against apartheid, and the University of Missouri was there to support them in any way they could.

Today, the University of the Western Cape is one of the leading universities in Africa and one of the only historically oppressed universities in the top 10 South African universities. The University of Missouri South African Education program is still strong today, with yearly faculty exchanges, joint research and a joint appointment at the University of Missouri and the University of the Western Cape.


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