December 17, 2013

Warwick's Sanctions against Apartheid South Africa

As we celebrate the extraordinary life and achievements of Nelson Mandela it is worth remembering that the anti-apartheid movement was a world wide struggle in which many people were involved, including Warwick University.

In 1974 the United Nations called for a co-ordinated international campaign against the aparthed regime in South Africa, including the "ending of all cultural, educational, scientific, sporting and other contacts with the racist régime, and with organisation or institutions in South Africa that practise apartheid". It also called for economic sanctions, specifically the "ending of collaboration by banks and [...] corporations with the South African régime and with companies registered in South Africa." This had special significance for Warwick, perhaps more than for other universities.

It is well known that when the university was founded it had close links with industry, including the representation of business interests on the governing council. This had led to it being given the name "Warwick University Limited" by the historian E.P.Thompson, which he used as the title of a book he edited in 1970.

One of the companies most closely associated was Barclays Bank, which had generously endowed a chair in management, and one of its directors sat on the University Council (the governing body of the university with a majority of lay members and academics being in the minority; in those days Council had no student members). Barclays was not only the university's banker, with a campus monopoly of branch banking, but also had a close relationship with the vice chancellor Jack Butterworth. Thompson quotes from a letter from a Barclays director that was discovered during the student sit-in in the Registry in 1970:

"I regard the association between Barclays Bank and the University of Warwick as especially close. Not only are we Bankers to the University and the only bank represented on site, but we have endowed a Chair, the Chairman of our Local Board serves on the Finance Committee, and our Chairman the the Vice Chancellor are friends of long standing who, during their time, have been jointly involved in the problems of University finance, i.e., the University of Oxford. I cannot think, therefore, that any university could have a claim on the Bank's favourable consideration of a need stronger than that of the University of Warwick." (p.38)

Barclays Bank also happened to be the largest bank in South Africa and was closely involved in apartheid. It was a high profile target of the growing boycott movement. So Warwick was affected by the call by the United Nations to boycott South Africa, not only as an educational institution expected to take part in the educational and scientific boycott, but also because of its links with Barclays it came within the scope of the economic boycott.

The movement grew throughout the seventies and was widely supported on campus by students and staff, both the AUT and Student Union having adopted policies supporting the UN resolution. In October 1977 the Assembly voted overwhelmingly to call on the University to change its bankers from Barclays.

(The Assembly is a meeting of the whole academic and senior administrative staff that has the right to elect members of the Senate and to make recommendations to Council. In those days it held a regular meeting every term; nowadays it only meets sporadically when there is an urgent issue that enough staff want to discuss.)

Shortly afterwards Senate endorsed the motion as well, but it was not in its power to implement it: that was a matter for the Council to decide. So all the representative bodies for both staff and students were asking the Council formally to make the move.

The Council met two weeks later and agreed "in principle to take steps to withdraw its account from Barclays Bank." However, having investigated the matter, including getting tenders from other banks, at its next meeting in February, the Council decided not to approve the move, despite it earlier having agreed to support the principle. It argued, in effect, that principle should be secondary to cost.

This led to a response from the next Assembly meeting which passed a motion that it "...regrets Council's failure to implement its decision in principle to move the University's bank account from Barclay's Bank and urges all members of Council to vote for the motion to move the account to Midland Bank at the [next meeting]" The strength of feeling of the university community was so strong that this motion was carried by a staggering 85 votes for and none against.

The Council met again in March and, despite efforts by a few lay members from the business community and some local councillors, majority sentiment was in support of the move, and it finally took the inevitable decision by 14 votes to 6. So the university moved its bank account to the Midland Bank (now HSBC) for the remainder of the apartheid years.

The University administration refused to confirm publicly that it had taken the decision in order to support the anti apartheid movement despite the process that led to it. Nevertheless it was a small but significant action that was taken by the whole university acting as a democratic community, from which we can take some pride.

Also three other banks (Natwest, Midland and Lloyds) opened branches on campus in competition with Barclays.


- 2 comments by 2 or more people

  1. Geoffrey Renshaw

    Of course, everybody claims now that they were against apartheid in the 1970s and 80s, just as everyone who lived in the 1930s claimed later to have been against fascism.

    I wonder how much chance of succeeding a similar campaign today would have at Warwick.

    23 Dec 2013, 21:24

  2. Connor Woodman

    Well, we now know how it would fare. With success, just. And of course, thanks only to the hard work of student campaigners: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/08/university-of-warwick-divests-from-fossil-fuels.

    10 Jul 2015, 17:33


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