Harvard and South Africa

THE 3500 protesters who marched through Cambridge on the night of April 27, following the release of the Harvard Corporations' decision on its South Africa investments, bear clear witness that the Harvard community will not accept that reprehensible decision. The United Front acted swiftly and decisively to organize a series of antiapartheid demonstrations, and the group deserves high praise for marshalling impressive and peaceful demonstrations, the largest at Harvard in five years.

Despite the United Front's efforts, however, the Corporation's decision--which calls for a case-by-case review of the more than 60 company portfolios with South African operations--is wholly unacceptable. No amount of well-crafted verbiage can reconcile the decision with the United Front's three minimal demands, or even with the weak recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR).

In its report, the ACSR did little more than present the alternatives the Corporation may choose to adopt in dealing with portfolio companies operating in South Africa. It made recommendations that fall far short of any reasonable, justifiable stand against companies supporting apartheid, focussing on the support U.S. firms give the apartheid system through the labor practices they employ in South Africa. While racist labor policies certainly constitute a significant aspect of American corporate complicity in apartheid, they divert attention from the larger issues of U.S. corporate involvement.

Instead of committing itself to any set of criteria for gauging the support Harvard's portfolio companies give the apartheid, the ACSR report only suggested that such criteria be established in the future, and that the right of companies to stay in South Africa be judged against such guidelines on an individual basis. This crucial evaluation is therefore to be carried out by non-existent staff with non-existent resources employing non-existent criteria. The report amounted to little more than an abdication of responsibility by the ACSR, freeing the Corporation to adopt any course of action it desired.

Therefore it comes as no surprise that rather than assuming a leadership role in the struggle against apartheid, the Corporation has chosen to continue its indirect support of the Vorster government, once more affirming that Harvard places concern for profits ahead of concern for human lives. At the very least, the Corporations' should cease to justify its decision on the basis of moral concern for the "tragic and deplorable situation" in South Africa. An explanation in terms of financial considerations would be no more palatable, but it would not be quite so insluting to the community's intelligence.


With all of this in mind, it would still be a mistake to regard the demonstrations as futile efforts, even if the Corporation's decision seems unalterable. The week of protest--the initial demonstration, the week-long vigil, and the torchlight parade--should provide added encouragement for similar movements at other schools. Because of the media attention such large demonstrations receive, public awareness of the anti-apartheid movement is bound to increase.

And clearly, with regard to students, "persuasion" is an empty word. While calm dialogue with administrators is useful, and should continue in the future, it is only naive for students to expect much to come of such exchanges--at least as long as administrators bring to them the kind of defensive, uncommunicative attitude that characterized Presidents Bok's walk through the demonstration of April 24 and his address to Quincy House seniors the following Monday. While it is impossible to predict the shape of Harvard's anti-apartheid movement in the fall, students must not acquiesce to the April decision, for to do so would be a tacit acceptance of Harvard's South Africa policy.

Finally, Harvard students should recognize their strength on this issue. More than half of all undergraduates marched together on the night of April 27, united in their opposition to a decision they find repugnant and inhumane. In the future, however, the organization spearheading the movement against Harvard's South African investments should be closer in concept to a single body. For all of the protests of the past months to have full impact, the movement must continue to grow. This requires unswerving attention to a single goal: Harvard, and U.S. dollars, out of South Africa.