From Sitting In to Camping Out: Student Protest, Shanties, and the Struggle Against Apartheid South Africa Public Deposited

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  • February 26, 2019
  • Beeninga, Timber Grey
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Curriculum in Global Studies
  • In the early morning hours of May 11, 1985, public safety officers at Cornell University drove a bulldozer to the front of the main campus administration building to demolish fifteen wooden shanties built by student anti-apartheid activists. The cardboard, plastic, and plywood structures symbolized the impoverished living conditions of black South Africans who were suffering––and dying––under apartheid. Unwilling to allow the officers to destroy the shanties, the Cornell students wired their bodies to the structures, and waited. The officers arrived and cut the wires with bolt cutters and forcibly disentangled the students so that the demolition could continue. However, the students, who were fiercely committed to the cause of divestment, fashioned a human chain around the shanties and resisted the bulldozer’s advances. The public safety officers conceded for the day, and the shanties remained standing. With each day that the shanties stood, students organized, strategized, held public forums, and even slept within the provisional walls (Martin, 2011). This thesis will explore how the construction of the shanty––and the fight to keep them standing––became a symbol of anti-apartheid resistance on forty-six American university campuses in the late 1980s. The shanty tactic pressured university administrations to consider the moral implications of economic relations with apartheid, specifically university endowment investments in companies and banks operating in South Africa. Before exploring the significance of the anti-apartheid shanties within the greater durée of American student activism and construction protests, a historical overview of apartheid is provided for context.
Date of publication
Resource type
Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Funding: None
  • Jarvis, Lauren
  • Bachelor of Arts
Academic concentration
  • Global Studies
Honors level
  • Honors
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Graduation year
  • 2017
  • English

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