David versus Goliath: the Campaign against Barclays Bank 1969-87

Barclays Bank being vilified

In the period 1959-69 there were boycotts of South African goods and sport. Boycotts included not buying South African fruit or playing international cricket. Universities boycotted academic jobs and conferences1. The Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) failed to galvanise the British public into a decisive economic boycott. Students in London did better. They attacked the core business of Barclays Bank. Barclays was South Africa’s principal bank. The student campaign vilified the bank as the paymaster of apartheid. London’s students aimed at turning Barclay’s into a pariah. The campaign was simplicity itself. Initially all students had to do was close their account. Student politicians expanded their campaign to corporate accounts, creating more significant economic damage. Eighteen years later in 1987 Barclays withdrew from South Africa. Apartheid ended three years later in 1990. The boycott of Barclays was a factor in that decision.

The students boycott of Barclays was effortless. Students promoted changing banks as a moral act. This destroyed Barclays’ competitive advantage, their powerful legacy position. Students usually banked with Barclays because their parents did. By linking South African apartheid with high street retail banking, students intuitively raised issues of corporate responsibility for the first time. The students’ campaign illustrated the fact that Barclays South Africa was at the end of a financial umbimical cord, which began on British high streets. In other words, British retail customers of Barclays were sustaining South Africa’s murderous apartheid policy.

Creating isolation by boycotting sport

The boycott by individual students was the beginning. Those Student Unions which banked with Barclays rapidly closed their accounts. This closure campaign quickly spread to a number of British universities. Students in 1969 lived in a heightened polical atmosphere following the student unrest of 1968 against the Vietnam War2. They had the skills and motivation to extend the campaign to university accounts. (It’s important to remember that there were widespread anti-South African academic boycotts in the 1960s. The students’ campaign was pushing on an open door in the senior common room.) Obviously the closure of university accounts added gravitas to the student campaign. The campaign became mainstream.

Barclays may well have calculated that as the 1969 cohort of students graduated, the campaign would peter out. The AAM prevented this with adroit sustained campaigning. The AAM was helped by the South African government who kept apartheid in the news with its brutality3.

South African brutality kept the boycott going

Many students moved on to opinion forming jobs after graduation, taking their political attitudes with them. They fully understood that the Barclays campaign was administrative. No marching, no banners, no reputational damage to their organisations. What could be easier to implement? By the 1980s Barclays had lost the majority of student accounts. The campaign was causing reputational damage with a consequential haemorrhaging of business accounts. Barclays took the business decision to sell their South African business in 1986. The boycott ended in 1987 once campaigners believed the evidence presented by Barclays about their disengagement from South Africa.

So what began with individual students, Student Union funds and university accounts spread to local authorities, charities and other organisations that were susceptible to moral pressure. The concept of corporate responsibility was born. Multi-national businesses now knew that corporate misbehaviour could be targeted wherever they did business. David had slaughtered Goliath, again.

1See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academic_boycott_of_South_Africa

2 www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-14277114

3 http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/political-executions-south-africa-apartheid-government-1961-1989

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