The Making of a Movement
Divestiture Across the Nation
The American movement to weaken apartheid in South Africa by reducing U.S. involvement there is now at one of its strongest positions ever. For the first time, the traditionally divided group has found organizational unity and philosophical focus in a single goal forcing divestiture of all public and institutionally held funds from corporations that do business in South Africa.
Alone with this new focus, the movement has found a powerful new driving force. Six progressive national groups have combined to form the Coalition for the Campaign Against Public Investment in South Africa. This umbrella group brings together the Quaker American Friends Service Committee (AESC), Clergy and Laity Concerned (CALC) founded in 1965 by anti-war activists Rev. Martin Luther King and Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the Inter Faith Center for Corporate Responsibility, which represents 200 church groups, the United Methodists at the United Nations, the American Committee on Africa, and Trans Africa.
Last year, almost a dozen cities and states divested from their holdings in companies that do business in South Africa. This year, more than 20 state legislatures will consider divestiture of funds held by state pension plans and similar programs In a series of interviews last week, leading officials at nearly a dozen organizations working for divestiture expressed a common anticipation that, with pressure from the Coalition, next year will be even better than the previous two.
But the national movements, leaders hasten to add, couldn't have gotten this far without constant pressure from student groups, whom they credit as the real leaders of the national movement. Indeed, they say, the current spate of activism across the country is a direct outgrowth of student protests in this country during the late 1970s sparked by the bloody riots of Black high school students in Soweto, the Black township outside Johannesburg.
Outraged by gross disparities in the quality of education for Blacks and whites, thousands of Soweto students rioted for several days in 1976, burning books and vandalizing schools before being brutally quelled by South African police Dozens of Black students were killed in the riots, outraging many students here and prompting a wave of demonstrations against the conditions of inequality for Blacks and whites in South Africa that persist today. "The 1976 Soweto riots really generated an enormous amount of student activity [on U.S. campuses]," says Gail Hovey, research coordinator for the American Committee on Africa (ACOA). After that start, others add, the student movement has sustained its momentum. "Seven years after Soweto, despite the fact that almost two whole sets of students have graduated, the student movement has continued to be active," says ACOA Student Coordinator Joshua Nessen.
National organizations are now pressing ahead on two different, connected fronts. One set of groups, that sees its role as primarily educational, is concentrating on bringing the issue into the public debate. These organizations seem confident that once people understand South Africa, they will favor divestiture. The approach also reflects a reluctance on the part of some groups to take an active stand on the issue.
At the Inter-Faith Center, for example, a largely Roman Catholic organization, a blanket call for divestiture has been rejected as too extreme. The group instead works for a platform in opposition to bank loans to South Africa, new investment in the country, sales to the military or police forces of South Africa, and Krugerrand sales in this country. Krugerrands are gold coins minted by the South African government.
"The campaigns that are undertaken are done so as an educational pursuit," says Max Obuszewski, program associate for international justice there. "All of our members are against apartheid, but some feel they want to retain stock in a company to continue a dialogue," he explains.
At CALC a similar position is voiced by Mike Harrison, Human Rights and Racial Justice Program Coordinator for the organization. "We are primarily an educational group," he says. The national office of CALC relies on local chapters to take specific action on the policies it sets, he says.
Other groups favor a more active stance. At the AESC, Jerry Herman, coordinator of the South Africa program for the committee, speaks of a "fall offensive" that his group will begin this September in conjunction with campus protestors. The AFSC will take the issue to the people where they are in churches, campuses, even businesses," he says. This fall, the AFSC will "take a more aggressive position even to the level of civil disobedience, to promote their cause," Herman says.
Efforts to sever U.S. connections with South Africa have been most successful over the past year in locations where national groups work closely with local groups in a community.
One success cited by many is Chicago. There, in a local effort, CALC and Trans-Africa have effectively stopped the sale of Krugerrands. Capitalizing on local pressure surrounding the recent mayoral election, the two groups extracted pledges from both Harold Washington and Bernard Epton the two candidates for mayor--that after the election, all city funds would be withdrawn from any bank selling the South African made coins.
Four days before the election, Chicago's major Krugerrand seller, the First National Bank of Chicago "just caved in," says Norman Watkins, a worker at the Chicago branch of CALC. Weighing financial balances, the bank decided to forego its commission on the nearly $10 million in Krugerrands that it handled each year. "There is now no major bank in downtown Chicago that sells or handles Krugerrands," Watkins says.
But in other successes for the divestiture movement, it appears that local organizations did much of the work and were helped by national groups only indirectly. In Massachusetts a group called MassDIVISI, a coalition of local groups, spearheaded a recent successful lobbying effort to secure legislation in the Massachusetts House. The House voted to completely divest all state pension funds from companies operating in South Africa. Officials of the organization dismiss the importance of national groups in the success, saying it was primarily a local effort.
At Williams College, still in the process of divesting from two companies--the Dresser Corporation and Numont Mining Corporation--that conduct business in South Africa, students and officials alike stress that debate on South Africa policy is conducted entirely by members of the Williams community. "I believe that the students who favor divesting from South Africa do so because of their own beliefs entirely, there is no outside involvement," says Raymond C. Blyer, public information director for the college. Williams is divesting from the two corporations because they did not answer requests for statements of compliance with the Sullivan Principles, a minimum set of fair labor practice guidelines formulated in March 1977.
Nevertheless, there is some coordination--at Williams and elsewhere--among supporters of anti-apartheid actions. While advocates of divestiture at Harvard fasted last month, several students at Williams also staged brief "sympathy fasts." Students at Columbia University also staged a candlelight vigil in support of the Harvard hunger strikers at the time. Columbia's Board of Trustees is currently considering the recommendation of the Columbia Faculty Senate that the university divest from all companies conducting business in South Africa.
Members of the Campaign Against Public Investment, the national umbrella coalition, say that in the future these local efforts will have far more support from the national groups. In addition, a major focus for their activities is just now coming to the legislative forefront, they point out: a debate on corporate divestiture from businesses operating in South Africa should occur in the House of Representatives sometime next year.
The cause of the expected debate is a bill now pending in the City Council of Washington, D.C. Introduced by Councillor John Ray, a Democrat, the bill calls for immediate divestiture of the $30 million that the city's pension funds now invests in companies operating in the apartheid state, Washington, D.C.'s pension funds total more than $330 billion.
"The bill will pass, we've got a strong majority," says Margaret Gentry, special assistant to Ray.
Under the District of Columbia's unique local government procedures, however, any member of the House of Representatives has the opportunity to challenge any law passed by the City Council. Should the divestiture bill pass the City Council, Virginia Republican Stanford E. Parris has vowed that he will do just that. And "even if it doesn't pass [the House] at all, it will be a very important step," Hovey says. The American Committee on Africa, she adds, will be "watching the progress of the measure very carefully." Indeed, most of the divestiture groups contacted said they saw the upcoming debate as a crucial step in the national movement for divestiture.
But the divestiture issue may actually emerge in the House as early as this summer. In a unanimous vote last month the House Banking Committee approved House Resolution 2957. The bill directs the U.S. Director of the International Moneta's Fund (IMF) to oppose all loans to South Africa because of the "economic inefficiency of apartheid." The IMF is an international banking organization funded mainly by the U.S. that supplies billions of dollars annually to Third World nations. Backers of the measure hope to schedule a vote of the full House on the bill before the August recess.
In other actions in the House, the Banking Committee's subcommittee on financial institutions is currently considering legislation even more radical in its provisions on South Africa policy. House Resolution 1693, introduced by Rep. Steven Solarz (D-N.Y.) stipulates that the United States forbid all bank loans to South Africa from this country, ban all imports of Krugerrands to the United States, and require that all subsidiaries of U.S. companies operating in South Africa abide by the Sullivan Principles. Observers are confident about the future of the first bill, but less sure about the outcome of a vote on the second. "We are pretty sure that the first bill [H.R. 2957] will pass, but prospects for the second look muddy," said a source on the Banking Committee who asked not to be identified.
Despite the success in recent months and positive prospects in the near future, next year will be a crucial one for the national divestiture movement. "We've grown tremendously over the past three years," AFSC South African coordinator Herman says. "But we need more."