Lessons on Divestment from Denis Goldberg

Denis Goldberg died last night. A Rivonia triallist with Nelson Mandela he spent 22 years in jail for his part in the fight against apartheid.

When he was released from jail he ran the ANC’s campaign for divestment from South Africa. That was possibly the most significant part of most Western countries’ contribution to the end of apartheid.

I met him in 2013 when he came to Edinburgh, just as the campaign for divestment from fossil fuels at Edinburgh University was getting to the crunch point.

The advice he gave me was decisive. He told me a story about being at a US College, waiting to speak to the Board of Governors. It was a predominantly African-American college and there was a real willingness to divest.

He recounted how, before he went in to make the case for divestment, he spoke to the Director of Finance. The Director of Finance said to him “look, we agree with you. We want to divest, but we’re required to get the best return on our investments. It’s called the ‘fiduciary duty’ and we would be breaking the law if we decided to divest.’

Denis told me that at that point he realised that he’d been making the wrong case all along. He’d been making the argument that apartheid was evil. Which it was.
The argument he needed to make was that South Africa was a bad investment. And it was a bad investment because of apartheid. An authoritarian regime facing a rebelling population was a poor investment opportunity.

He told the College Board that they would be in breach of their ‘fiduciary duty’ if they continued to invest in South Africa. There and then they made the decision to divest.

The moment the argument was won at Edinburgh University was the moment we applied this lesson to our campaign to divest from fossil fuels.

It wasn’t that fossil fuel companies were going to make the planet uninhabitable, it wasn’t that they’d conspired to hide this fact. It wasn’t that they were regularly involved in workers’ rights abuses, or human rights abuses.

It was based on an observation about the value of fossil fuel companies. Oil and gas companies are valued, in no small part, on the reserves they’ve identified. Those reserves can’t be burned because they would push us through planetary boundaries and into climate breakdown.

So the divestment decision was based on the fact that we couldn’t burn the fossil fuels on the balance sheets of the companies without breaking international agreements to halt climate change.

And that was a lesson learned from Denis Goldberg.DenisGoldbergRJL