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In Parliament, a South African minister of justice once called it "the single greatest force that perverts our legal system."
In London, where he is in exile, the renowned South African journalist Donald Woods characterizes it as "the most humane and effective group helping the movement for change in my country."
The "it" in question is the International Defense and Aid Fund for Southern Africa (IDAF), an organization with committees in 10 countries that provides legal assistance to South Africans accused of political "crimes" and financial aid to their families.
The United States branch of the IDAF is housed in the basement of the Harvard Epworth Church in Cambridge. Though the group has no official ties to the University, its president is the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, and Nancy Randolph, special assistant to President Bok, is a member of the board of trustees.
The IDAF was founded in 1956 to help defend 156 Black South Africans accused of treason. Its primary driving force in those days was an English clergyman, Canon L. John Collins, who raised funds in his country and elsewhere to pay for defense lawyers and to support the families of those on trial. In 1961, after one of the longest trials in South African history, all 156 Blacks were acquitted, largely thanks to the efforts of the IDAF.
Since then, however, the government in Pretoria has significantly tightened the enforcement of apartheid laws and repressed any signs of dissent. In 1966, the IDAF was banned and has been forced to smuggle aid into the country through what Gomes calls "cloak and dagger means."
Despite this constraint, the IDAF has continued to exert a strong positive influence in South Africa. During a recent testimonial dinner in Cambridge, Woods spoke in emotional terms of "the hundreds of people I know of" whom the IDAF has helped. And a Black South African studying in this area who asked not to be identified says the IDAF "has saved lives, supported countless families of prisoners, and proved to be a big thorn in the side of the government."
Yet as Kenneth N. Carstens, the IDAF's executive director for the United States, explains, the organization cannot cite specific examples of people it has helped for fear of reprisals against those people, their lawyers and their families in South Africa.
This fact of life makes the task of fundraising extremely problematic, because it is difficult to elicit funds for a cause whose effectiveness cannot be documented, Carstens says. Nonetheless, the IDAF raises millions of dollars a year that make their way to South Africa. But of the 10 national committees--in England, Ireland, Canada, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, New Zealand, India and the U.S.--the American branch contributes the smallest amount, last year about $100,000.
Carstens explains that this is because the U.S. government gives no support to the IDAF. By comparison, the Swedish government contributes over $2 million a year. "The sad truth is that the least sympathetic governments of all are those of the United States and England," Carstens says. "So much for conservatives concerned for justice."
The American committee did receive one federal grant--$25,000 for one year under the Carter Administration. Now it relies on donations from individuals and foundations, including the Chic-age-based MacArthur Foundation.
Still, the IDAF has powerful advocates in Washington. Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate ad hoc monitoring group on Southern Africa, is a sponsor of the organization and has worked closely with Carstens in the past. At Carsten's suggestion, Tsongas and other members of Congress "adopted" political prisoners in South Africa to whom they corresponded and lent moral support.
Gomes believes the IDAF is unique. "There is lots of talk about South Africa with little direction or focus," he says. "The IDAF provides those missing ingredients."
The IDAF, by providing funds for lawyers, serves a "priceless" function, Gomes says. Because most South Africans tried for political crimes have little money, they have difficulty obtaining lawyers, since there is no free public defense in South Africa. The IDAF, says Gomes, offers the necessary financial stimulus.
In addition, by giving financial aid to the families of political prisoners, the organization helps remove a deterrent to dissent. "There is no welfare for the relatives of criminals in South Africa," Gomes explains. "So families are punished along with the prisoner which is the ultimate form of intimidation. We negate to some extent that intimidation through financial assistance."
The effect of these actions is to permit civil disobedience within the apartheid state, says the Black South African studying in this area. "The burden of dissent would be impossible to bear alone," he adds.
Most observers of South Africa consider the justice system to be a sham. But given this fact, both Gomes and Carstens believe the IDAF has successfully worked within the system and helped bring about what Gomes calls "a fair number of acquittals or sentence reductions."
"You have to understand that white South Africans, particularly those of English extraction, find it very important to maintain the illusion of justice," says Gomes. "To the extent that jurisprudence works, we work it."
And Carstens adds that even a life sentence can be considered a victory. "If we manage to get a death verdict reduced to life, we see it as a success, a justification for the task we are undertaking. Every little bit helps."
Still, the vast majority of Blacks tried for political crimes are convicted and given the maximum sentence applicable to their "crime". Gomes admits that if the IDAF made a short run balance sheet of its success and failures, ceasing activities would seem "a perfectly pragmatic action."
But as Carstens puts it, the IDAF is essentially wothwhile. "How can you measure success in these conditions?" he asks, "It's a humane task that we're performing. At the very least, we say to people: 'You are not alone.'"
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