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Sullivan's Principles: Camouflage or Catalyst?

By James L. Tyson

The steel and blue glass of the Zion Baptist Church shines out from the grey of North Philadelphia. Its beige brick walls lighten the burned out buildings nearby, and a steel cross towers over bent and broken street lights. Zion attracts one of the largest congregations in the area, a district infamous for its high crime, poor housing and racial problems.

The church is a testimony to the work of its pastor, Rev. Leon Sullivan, and symbolic of the hope and faith of the people of North Philadelphia. Both Sullivan and the church have created what could only be called an ecumenical empire supported by corporate funds and dedicated to providing jobs and better housing for the people of North Philadelphia. The list of the church-sponsored organizations range from the Zion Investment Associates that built a million dollar apartment complex known as Zion Gardens, a shopping center known as Progress Plaza, and an industrial complex known as Progress Industrial Park; to the Progress Aerospace Enterprises, Inc; to the Zion non-profit Charitable Trust, which is raising $6 million for the development of housing, a shopping center and tutorial assistance for youth in the area. These local accomplishments pale, however, next to Sullivan's Opportunities Industrialization Centers (OIC's). Located in 140 communities across America and parts of Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, and Kenya, also assisted with corporate backing, the centers train the unemployed in skills such as auto body repair, carpentry, computer operation.

But Sullivan is best known at Harvard, other universities, and the corporate world as the creator of guidelines for non-discriminatory labor practices known as the Sullivan Principles. Endorsed by 135 of the 300 U.S. corporations doing business in South Africa, the principles guarantee for black South Africans desegregation in all company facilities, fair employment practices, equal pay, the initiation of training programs to prepare blacks for supervisory and administrative jobs, an increased number of blacks in management, and improvement of the quality of employees' housing, transportation, education, recreation and health facilities. Sullivan says the principles are designed, at the very least, to start corporations thinking of the needs and lives of their black South African employees.

In the two years since Sullivan drew up the principles, they have compelled 75 per cent of their corporate signatories to remove all "visible signs of apartheid in the working place," Sullivan says. These companies have now desegregated their washrooms, dining halls and work areas, a step Sullivan says is revolutionary in itself and responsible for the endorsement of the principles by ten South African companies that employ 50,000 blacks. Pointing to 30 American companies that are intransigent and slow in desegregating their plants in South Africa, Sullivan says he will give them one more year before he launches a campaign to "embarass and chastize" those companies and to praise those that have made the first steps toward desegregation.

Sullivan readily admits that his principles and the small advances that they have brought about are far from a major force against apartheid. But he stresses that the principles are only the "first step a corporation must take to ensure the destruction of apartheid in South Africa." They represent the slow erosion of apartheid through the desegregation of U.S. firms and increased education for blacks. All these, Sullivan says with a glint in his eye, will be sponsored by U.S. corporations. Sullivan believes corporations should become the chief progressive force in South Africa, sponsoring special educational programs for black South Africans to develop the "educational infrastructure"--an area Sullivan emphasizes must be developed if blacks are ever to have the self-respect and acquire the jobs and power necessary to bring down apartheid.

Advocates of the withdrawal of U.S. corporations from South Africa and the divestiture of Harvard's investments in those corporations believe Sullivan's principles are worthless, a cosmetic alteration of apartheid's horrors that corporations uphold only to legitimize their business in South Africa. They believe, furthermore, that Sullivan's faith in the willingness and ability of corporations to bring about progressive change and social justice is unfounded. Noting that U.S. corporations employ less than one-tenth of 1 per cent of the black population in South Africa, Mary Nolan, associate professor of History, says the principles are a "face-saver or fig leaf for the corporations that in no way change the fundamental problems of apartheid, and are being used counter to Sullivan's own intentions." "Corporations are active in South Africa for cheap labor," Nolan says, adding, "it is simply unrealistic to believe they will take steps that would imperil their profits or the system of apartheid."

Other opponents of the principles say that Sullivan's unfamiliarity with the profit motives of multi-nationals give him an unrealistic faith in their willingness to improve the conditions of blacks in South Africa. Still others say that Sullivan, as a member of the G.M. board of directors, has "sold out," or created what are fundamentally ineffective principles in exchange for a secure position in the corporate world.

Sullivan says, however, that he "could care less whether G.M. is making a profit in South Africa or not." He claims the principles should not be seen so much in terms of the degree they have helped blacks, which he admits is very limited, but to the degree they have altered how corporations view their responsibilities in South Africa. "This is the first time corporations in South Africa have publicly recognized their responsibility to react to the social situation in South Africa," he says. But "the fight will not end with these principles," he says, adding "they must not be used as a camouflage for corporate activity" or spell the end of corporate efforts to help black South Africans. "I will not allow the corporations to endorse the principles and then hide behind them--their responsibilities to black South Africans must go well beyond these principles."

But Sullivan places firm responsibility on investors, universities, and citizens to pressure the corporation to carry out progressive measure in South Africa. Sullivan claims that universities, churches and other institutions should encourage corporations to establish scholarships and fellowships for black South Africans and use either shareholder resolutions or divestiture to coerce corporations into aiding black South Africans politically, socially and economically. "If institutional investors find that corporations are hiding behind the principles, or that they are not doing anything beyond the principles to help blacks, they should selectively divest."

The Harvard Corporation views the principles as a cornerstone of the case-by-case review of the argument for the retention of the University's more than $250 million investments in 65 companies. Both Lawrence F. Stevens '65, secretary of the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR), and his liason on the Corporation, Hugh Calkins '45, believe corporations satisfy their moral and ethical responsibilities in South Africa when they fully implement the principles.

But by asserting that his principles should not be seen as a goal for corporate activity but one step toward increased corporate efforts at ending apartheid, Sullivan throws light on a Harvard investment policy which hides behind the principles and views their implementation as the primary and ultimate responsibility of firms, in South Africa. And by pointing out that investors should doggedly pressure companies to support social advancements in South Africa, he questions the Corporation's and the ACSR's dedication to the case-by-case review. This review has died but for two ACSR meetings last semester, guarded requests for information on practices from intransigent firms, and hushed criticism of firms that refuse to provide information on their treatment of black workers. Sullivan stresses that the endorsement of his principles by an investor or corporation is a commitment to a conscientious, relentless, long-term effort to ensure that U.S. economic power is directed toward increased social justice in South Africa. Harvard's relation to the principles, and to a humanistic concern for black South Africans, is one of endorsement but not one of commitment. If a company or investor is unwilling to make the commitment to this "nonviolent revolution," Sullivan says, it should divest, or withdraw from South Africa. It definitely should not attempt to couch its inaction and legitimize its self-interest through a hollow dedication to the Sullivan principles.

Predictably, the Harvard Corporation looks very highly on Leon Sullivan. Stevens says "he is one of the few people that has resorted to direct action in response to his rhetoric" on the issues of apartheid and corporate involvement in South Africa. He is "very much one who works within the system," Stevens says, adding "He'll get his foot in the door and once he's done that he'll stick his leg in too." Sullivan's efforts show he is an activist that works with the tools the economic system gives him. His social programs in North Philadelphia, OICs nation-wide, and the principles in South Africa show that he is able and philosophically amenable to coercing corporate power into turning an eye off profits and onto the needs of the unemployed and needy. Critics equate Sullivan's view of his principles with that of the corporations which use the guidelines to their advantage. But the corporations hype their endorsement of the principles, implying that they are an end in themselves, while Sullivan sees them as a first step in an ongoing process.

"It's important that the people at Harvard don't think I'm a patsy to the corporations," Sullivan says, clicking open the door to his blue, vinyl-roofed Volare. "And if they do, they can just ask the people around here," motioning to the greyness of North Philadelphia.

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