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Opposites in UT's Anti-Apartheid Movement Reflect, Remember Mandela

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Reuters /Mike Hutchings /Landov

Thursday's passing of Nelson Mandela brought back many memories for Austinites: Mandela was an icon of a student-led anti-apartheid struggle at the University of Texas.

In the mid 80's, students held sit-ins, rallied on the mall, and broke into the president's office demanding divestment in South Africa. KUT’s David Brown recently sat down with two people who were, at that time, on opposite sides: William Cunningham, the former president of the University of Texas at Austin, and Derrick Eugene, a student leader in the anti-apartheid movement.

Eugene, admittedly, had little or no knowledge of what was happening in South Africa when he arrived on campus as a freshman in 1981 – but it wasn’t long before student groups on campus began to open his eyes to the anti-apartheid movement.

“I was simply horrified to learn that something like that still existed, and as a result of continued research and investigation, it propelled me to want to do something,” he says.

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Credit Ken Ryall, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History
In this circa 1984 photo, apartheid protesters on the UT South Mall ask the university to divest itself of financial holdings in South Africa.

That something materialized in a South African disinvestment campaign aimed at the UT Board of Regents. While the University had no direct investments in South Africa, companies that the school invested in did. Then-President Cunningham said financially, there wasn’t much his administration could do. He argued that it would have cost the university approximately $30 million.

“On the other hand,” he tells KUT, “we were very focused on apartheid and the issues that Derrick and his colleagues raised. And of course, over time, between 1986 and 1990 or so, eventually the corporations we had invested in had begun to pull out.”

Listen to the full conversation in audio player above.

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  • From his childhood as a herd boy, Nelson Mandela went on to lead the African National Congress' struggle against South Africa's racially oppressive apartheid regime. For his efforts, he spent 27 years behind bars as a political prisoner. In 1994, he became his country's first elected black leader. Mandela died on Thursday. He was 95.