South Africans at Harvard

Native Intelligence

The words of five white Harvard undergraduates who have lived in South Africa paint a grim portrait of the future of that nation. Giselle M. Benatar '86, Gerald M. Fox '86, Nita Lelyveld '86, Mary J. Menell '85, and one junior who asked not to be identified all agree that change, possibly bloody change, will come. But they disagree on the roles which Harvard and the United States can and should play in causing that change to occur.

Even though "no one believes anymore that apartheid is morally justified" Black majority rule will not develop without a bloodbath, says the junior who asked not to be identified. "I don't think the whites really know what to do. The Blacks right now are so bitter that to end apartheid would be for the whites suicide."

Menell expresses a similar sentiment, saying "the white government has very smartly and deviously polarized and fragmented the Black political groups in South Africa. There are no credible Black leaders because they've all been killed. The government is no more than a group of fanatical fascist pigs who, with a sort of evil genius, realize that if a Black government were to come to power, the whites would have no place in South Africa."

The five agreed that the situation is at the same time both stagnant and volatile. "The politics of that country constitute a powder keg," says Fox. He adds that it is a no-win situation because the Blacks will stop at nothing less than "one man, one vote," and the whites will never grant that to them. The junior who asked not to be identified explains that although there exists a certain level of trust between the two groups because of the high proportion of white families that employ Blacks as domestic servants, trust disintegrates with the realization that not only do Blacks no longer accept their subservient position, but they also feel anger and hatred toward the whites who have oppressed them.

The real dilemma concerning South Africa, according to the five, is that the whites will not initiate any change in the status quo because it could lead to their destruction. At the same time, since the whites are so firmly entrenched in control, no change can occur without their support. Therefore it is essential that foreign powers assert whatever influence they have in order to nudge the whites into permitting reform, they say.

Most of the students agree that although the South African economy is stable enough to withstand total withdrawal of American corporate influence, both the United States and Harvard should divest. "Morally, I support divestiture completely," says Menell. "It's not really a practical question, but the South African government does care what its American ally thinks of it." Fox also argues that divestiture might "frighten" the whites into believing that clinging to apartheid will no longer be tolerated by the world community. He adds that Harvard's divestiture would have little or no effect, but that it would constitute a moral statement that should be made.

But not all of the students support divestiture. "As far as Harvard divestiture goes, I think it's a completely ridiculous idea," says Benatar. "It looks to me like they're trying to re-radicalize Harvard. But they're going to do it at the expense of South African Blacks." She explains that because of Harvard's prestige, other institutions, and even countries might sever ties with the nation. This would lead to an economic depression which would spark a revolution before the Blacks were ready to take control of the government.

The junior says that he has not reached a definite opinion on American divestiture because there are too many issues to be considered. He agrees with the others that the United States could make a strong moral statement against apartheid by divesting, but adds "the Blacks are profoundly affected by even subtle changes in the South African economy. And if America were to divest, there could be increased rioting and starvation. Right now, there's a recession and a drought, and blacks are already suffering." He adds that Harvard divestiture would have few negative or positive repercussions for South Africa, but that it could have drawbacks for the University because it is an issue that has been used to intensify antagonism between the administration and students. "It's like a threat situation, and if Harvard were to give in it would set a very nasty precedent that students could get what they want through economic coercion."

Some feel that economic forces from within South Africa will lead to a more equal distribution of wealth and power. There are not sufficient blue collar workers in the white population, so Blacks are already moving into higher industrial positions, according to Benatar. But this type of equalization will still take too long for many of the Blacks in South Africa, she says.

Menell argues that the only solid reason not to divest is that it would eliminate the leverage and influence which America currently has on conditions in South Africa. Although, she says, the young radical Blacks would call it "bullshit and propoganda" American dollars are funding "some very exciting things" like housing and education for the Blacks.

But the students are uncertain about what measures the United States or Harvard can realistically take. Benatar says that the most important thing for South African Blacks is increased education, a natural area for Harvard to assist in. "The illiteracy problem has to be dealt with on a more personal level. For people to go down there and try to educate Blacks on an individual basis would have far greater positive effects than just turning the screws," she says. adding "rather than divest. Harvard should investigate ways in which it can further aid in the education of South African Blacks."

Menell suggests a range of actions that the United States could take including economic sanctions and diplomatic ostracism, but says that any real change must begin within South Africa itself.

The most radical prescription comes from Fox, who suggests that the United States divest completely and channel millions of dollars into the country through the African National Congress to help them in their struggle for power. "I'd be perfectly happy if every Black in South Africa got up tomorrow morning and killed every white because that's the only way apartheid will end," he says. "Of course you'd have chaos for awhile, but the country would survive. Since that won't happen, the United States should financially support any legitimate Black uprising."

Some of the students say that while change may not be immediate it certainly is inevitable. Because of this, they say that United States policy towards the country is of the utmost importance. "A lot of the Blacks are disillusioned with capitalism, because they feel that America has not done anything for them, so they tend to lean toward socialism and the Soviet Union. They are beginning to see the United States as hypocritical," the junior says.

The students interviewed feel that Harvard's most important role concerning South Africa is inherent in its primary function: to educate. The most important thing Harvard can do, they say, is teach its students all of the political and economic dynamics of the country. Says Benatar. "They really don't have much of a curriculum here on South Africa at all. If they're going to become involved with it, the University must provide more information about the country. Some one up there in the Harvard administration should know better."

Ultimately none of the students sees change in South Africa without violence. "I've become pretty disillusioned," says Lelyveld. "The torture and repression in the country are very real. The more I look at the problem, I can't see any way to end it without this horrible bloodbath. And when it comes, which it will. I just hope we're on the right side."