Investing in Apartheid

South Africa

As a Harvard law student who spent the summer in Southern Africa, I am writing to protest Harvard University's recent decision against divestment. President Bok argues in his open letter of explanation that divestment is a bad tactic against apartheid in South Africa. I have never found either of these justifications for continued investment in South Africa to be analytically persuasive, and after a summer of meeting and talking to South Africans of differing political persuasions, both within and outside of the opposition movement, I am more firmly convinced than ever that Harvard must immediately divest from all corporations doing business in South Africa.

A familiar argument against divestment is that corporations can do more against apartheid by staying and pushing for change from within. While this tactic can be very effective in some situations, it is completely inappropriate for South Africa at this time. Again and again the South African government has demonstrated that it will not bow to pressure on certain key issues. President Bok may believe that if American corporations only educate and improve the living and working conditions for enough Blacks in South Africa then change will evolve, but the South African government has flatly denied the possibility of Blacks ever getting enfranchised. There are educated Blacks in South African with comfortable living and working conditions: they still can't vote, and various ministers in the South African government have made it perfectly clear that the recent Constitutional dispensation is not a prelude to universal democracy. Seventy percent of the population of South Africa are excluded from political participation, and the stated policy of the government holds no promise of hope at all. Under these circumstances to think that pressure from within will have any effect is to fly in the face of all the facts.

Another meaningless assertion by President Bok in his letter is that Black South Africans are divided on the question of divestment. Almost everyone I met in South Africa who opposed apartheid endorsed boycott and/or armed struggle as the only tactics available with any chance for success. I am sure there are others who would oppose divestment, but Harvard cannot be guided by some vague estimate of internal support for such action. First and foremost, it is a South African crime for any citizen, at home or abroad, to advocate divestment. Any evidence on this question would therefore have no statistical value at all. The recent survey of Black workers in South Africa was either very naive or very cynical in this respect, and furthermore, it failed to take into account the views of those South African Blacks who are unemployed. Clearly there will be disagreement among South African Blacks on tactics which are most effective, but the fact that some Blacks oppose divestment is no more of a mandate for Harvard than the fact that some Blacks advocate divestment. A decision would be better made on the merits of divestment as a weapon against the apartheid government.

Harvard cannot rely on calculations of effect in its divestment decision because there are too many unknown variables. Bok cites opposition to divestment from those who fear losing their jobs, but in the same breath he argues that Harvard should not divest because divestment will have no effect at all on South Africa. Even if American corporations divested entirely, he says, others would take their place. This argument is like Bok's later argument that Harvard couldn't really divest because then it would have to refuse tuition from students paid by dividends from companies doing business in South Africa. In law this line of reasoning is known as reductio ad absurdem. In politics it is known as the oldest excuse for inertia. Who knows what the immediate effects of Harvard divestment would be for South Africa? The psychological/political element, if considered at all, is vastly underestimated I think, and even if the economic effects are slight, the example set by Harvard will have lasting value both in South Africa as during the Olympics, and although no one would argue that denial of the broadcast rights to South Africa hurt the regime economically or in any "substantial" way, the news was front page for weeks and the effect was tremendously successful.

I am reluctant to address the self-sacrifice point made by Bok because it seems so absurd, but for the sake of tho roughness I want to state my conviction that the wizards who run the Harvard corporation could mastermind a divestment plan that would incur no financial loss to the University. Bok wonders why divestment is more forceful than the university's statements against apartheid. How much force is there in Harvard's expressed abhorrence of apartheid when in its financial dealings it is supporting the apartheid regime, which has promised never to eliminate the racial discrimination it stands for? Harvard's credibility on this issue is weak, and the old adage "Put your money where your mouth is" seems fitting.


Besides all the arguments about tactics, Bok claims there is a more fundamental dispute about the proper role for a university in the outside world. Bok conceptualizes divestment for the purposes of this argument as an action against the corporations doing business in South Africa. If, as Bok claims elsewhere, there will be other international companies to take the place of Americans in South Africa, then there will also be other American shareholders to take the place of Harvard. If Harvard divests from corporations solely because they do business in South Africa, that is an action against South Africa, not the corporations. And if it is not the role of the University to take some responsibility for its investments, then it is not the role of any corporation to take responsibility for its investments. Is that the precedent Harvard wishes to maintain? Withdrawing from a corporation is as respectable a form of expression as voting on shareholder resolution. If shareholder resolutions don't work adequately, withdrawal is a logical sequitur. Yet Bok characterizes divestment as some kind of revolutionary act of terrorism.

On the one hand Bok argues that it would be irresponsible for Harvard to wash its hands and "simply turn away from the injustices of South Africa." On the other hand he argues that it is not the proper role of the university to intervene or participate in any way in the politics of the outside world. The only consistency in Bok's many arguments is that they all come out against divestment. Why? Bok defends the university's assets as "resources essential to the accomplishment of a vital public mission." What could that mission be that it does not include the eradication of racial discrimination? Bok's live and let live arguments about freedom of speech and the importance of the University's neutrality in preserving its independence all ignore the particulars of the issue at hand. When Bok suggests that "We cannot expect individuals and organization to respect our right to speak and write and choose our members as we think best if we insist on using institutional sanctions to try to impose on them those policies and opinions that we consider important," he is using a domestic liberal context to frame his argument. Imposing on South Africa our views on apartheid is not something anyone disagrees with, as Bok hastens to point out elsewhere in his letter. It is not improper because apartheid is not something we, the University, happen to consider important as a private internal matter. It is a violation of international law and human rights recognized not only by Harvard but by the United States and the world community. The principle of non-interference or live and let live is not applicable. There is no disagreement on this issue and therefore no danger of corporate retaliation.

If a university is to lay any claim to station at the frontiers of civilization, then it has an obligation, as part of its public function, to oppose racial discrimination, wherever it occurs. Against its most entrenched form, in South Africa, Harvard must take its most drastic action. Even is divestment will not immediately help South Africans, Harvard can clear its own name of complicity and Harvard can set an example for others. There is no excuse.

Jessica Neuwirth is a third year student at the Harvard Law School