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Apartheid Food Services?

DIVESTMENT and the debate surrounding it at Harvard and elsewhere has made clear that many people take no moral stance when economic issues are at stake. But whether divestment from companies operating in south Africa or sanctions work to end apartheid or not, all of us must realize that a moral question exists that overrides economic and professional concerns.

Unfortunately, the University demonstrated its ignorance of this larger meaning by allowing representatives of a South African catering company to tour Harvard dining facilities last Friday. A national organization arranged the visit, while administrators with Harvard University Dining Services approved and led it--an unsettling example of how the most innocent contact with South Africa can show disrespect for the most important of human principles: racial equality.

Last week's tour involved nine officials--one of them Black--of a company that lists itself on its letterhead as the leading catering and food management consulting firm in South Africa. The group toured several American campuses with the help of a Michigan-based association that includes more than 600 college dining services.

However, as complaints by members of Harvard's union for food service workers showed, any visit by a delegation of south Africans potentially can be offensive. Union employees expressed strong resentment that the University would help educate an organization that may promote racism. The union noted that Harvard's stated policy forbids this type of action.

It is not known whether Fedics, the South African group, backs apartheid. But this is not the most troubling question. The most disturbing problem arises from the failure of Harvard officials even to consider whether the large South African company may promote racism or not.

Harvard does not know whether Fedics practices apartheid. One dining service administrator said simply that there was no time during the three-hour tour to ask about the company's policies. In his words, the interchange "was not about politics." The visit and the discussion centered on business and the exchange of professional ideas and information, he said.

But this distinction between "political" and "business" issues appears irresponsible and simplistic. Although past arguments have taken similar positions, the divestment issue shows that this easy disclaimer avoids confronting reality. Although one may doubt whether economic action against South Africa will end apartheid or not, no one can simply ignore the offenses of its government in favor of "professional" interests.

That the American national food service organization did not know much about Fedics when it arranged the U.S.-tour does not absolve anyone. The executive director of the association said that the South African company conducted all of its communication by telephone, and that it began discussing the trip only 30 days before it took place. The director said both these facts are unusual. But still no inquiry was made into the nature of the South African company.

Daniel Steiner, vice president and general counsel, issued no comment, presumably because he was unaware of the incident. It seems that in handling the South African tour, everyone failed to consider the ramifications of their actions. It appears, too, that actions to end apartheid remains a vague concept to many, and that the importance of the issue as a whole has escaped notice by too many Americans--whether for "professional" reasons or others.

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