THE SUMMER'S DEVELOPMENTS in South Africa should radically change the debate here over Harvard's $400 million in South Africa-related investments. As the violence becomes more widespread, the body toll mounts, and the South African economy implodes, U.S. foreign policy towards the country is becoming increasingly irrelevant there. U.S. government sanctions against South Africa and corporate disinvestment from the country are concepts once abstracted from brutal reality. If that is the case, then Harvard's policy of "intensive dialogue" with portfolio companies operating in South Africa is twice abstracted from reality, now so irrelevant to South African conditions as to be utterly absurd. If Harvard continues to argue that the University's current policy can make a difference in South Africa, its words will sound more and more like an apologia for the status quo than a realistic program for change.
To be fair, if Harvard does surprise us all by divesting its stock, few could argue that the message would be heard amid the din of repression and revolution in South Africa. A Harvard divestment, even following similar actions by dozens of states, cities, trusts, and universities (now including Columbia), would, as divestment opponents have argued, not be a major catalyst for change, either in the U.S. or in the apartheid state.
It has always been a singular conceit of the University--and its critics--that Harvard can make a difference whenever and wherever it wishes. In the case of South Africa today, or even in the case of U.S. policy toward that country today, Harvard simply is not that important. But if Harvard cannot have a "policy" on South Africa, that does not release it from the obligation to register an "opinion" on the matter. If we decide to remain involved in South Africa, whether through "intensive dialogue," proxy votes, or any other means, we are registering an opinion that we at least partially condone the apartheid system. If we divest, we will not, as the so-called pragmatists will undoubtedly charge, be engaging in mere moral handwashing. We will be taking an honorable stance in the face of what is a clear and irremediable evil. When events careen out of control as they have, divestment is both the most and the least Harvard can do.