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Divestiture: A History

By Damon A. Silvers

Next Monday, March 12, at 8 p.m., in Longfellow Hall at Radcliffe Yard, the ACSR is holding an open meeting. They want to know what the Harvard community thinks. They could take a vote on divestiture this spring. They could pass a resolution calling for divestiture this spring. The ACSR is the appointed conscience of the Corporation, and the Corporation has sworn to respect it. A vote by the ACSR for divestiture could open the door to divestiture by the Corporation.

Harvard has profited through its stock in companies who exploit the cheap labor apartheid creates. There's blood on our portfolio. By selling our stock in those companies, we have a chance to morally redeem ourselves, by making no more profits off of apartheid, and by actively helping to see that South African society peacefully transforms itself.

President Bok and others who feel there are benefits to American investment in South Africa consistently assume fundamental change may not happen, though it is possible, they think, for South Africa to become a just society through piecemeal, apolitical economic change. Both assumptions are false. No racist society has ever become non-racist through economic growth. In South Africa, economic growth has accompanied the growth of racial oppression. In South Africa, there is no non-racist, and hence non-political economic world, and there never will be until there is political change. South Africa will change, as Rhodesia, Mozambique and Angola changed, as Algeria and the United States changed: by political settlement. Black South Africans are organizing, and they have rejected peaceful struggle. Too many innocent, unarmed people have died through peaceful struggle at places like Sharpeville and Soweto. The Blacks will fight, and someday they will win, but the consequences will be horrible if they have to fight, as horrible as Algeria and Angola were when their people had to fight against entrenched racism.

But the result could be as peaceful as the Civil Rights Resolution that happened in my hometown of Richmond, Va., 20 years ago, or as comparitively peaceful as the settlement that created Zimbabwe in 1980. All that is needed is for the white society to give up trying to maintain a doomed social order.

Harvard has a minor role in the tragedy of South Africa, but it is a role we cannot walk away from. We can, in a small but important way, help to see to it that the transition to a non-racist society in South Africa is as painless as possible, that the bloodshed is minimized. The success of the divestiture movement at Harvard has made it possible for Harvard to do something to increase the chance of peaceful change in South Africa.

The divestiture movement has been a success. When it started in 1972, Harvard did not recognize any moral responsibility in making investments. There was no ACSR. Hugh Calkins' statement of last year, that Harvard did not "take ethics into account when making financial decisions," was literally and undeniably true. It took a seizure of the President's office by members of the Black Students Association in 1972 to make the Harvard Corporation recognize there were moral responsibilities inherent in managing $2 billion dollars. But those students made the University recognize its involvement in the outside world, and the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility was born, and it was a victory for the divestiture movement.

In 1977, in the aftermath of the murder of the Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko by South Africa security police and the Soweto riots that followed when the South African police killed hundreds of Black students, the divestiture movement at Harvard was revived with the founding of the Southern Africa Solidarity Committee (SASC). The Harvard Corporation and the ACSR at this time recognized no special problems with corporations doing business in South Africa, but after a year of rallies, pickets and packed ACSR hearings, culminating in a 3000- (yes, that's three thousand) person torchlight parade and day-long blockade of University Hall, not only did the Corporation agree that South Africa as an institutionally racist state was a unique light on the face of the world, but it agreed to divest from all banks that lent for any reason to the South African government or any of its public corporations. The Corporation agreed to demand that all the corporations it invested in obeyed the Sullivan Principles, a series of basic humane guidelines for operations in South Africa. The Harvard Corporation agreed to support shareholder resolutions demanding that corporations behave progressively or pull out of South Africa, and to consider divesting from companies that did not abide by the Sullivan Principles.

However the Corporation, and particularly President Bok, continued through this period to reject the idea of Harvard divesting from companies that do business in South Africa. Though Bok was and is clearly and firmly opposed to apartheid, he claimed it was unclear whether or not the presence of American companies in South Africa was a bad thing. Bok's comments in the spring of 1978 that seemed to defend the idea of American investment in South Africa were quoted in newspapers like the Johannesburg Star and the Rand Daily Mail as the official opinion of Harvard University. The student movement for divestiture had accomplished a great many victories. In forcing the Corporation to face up to the responsibilities that come with a $2 billion stock portfolio, it has completed and overturned the essentially amoral investment policy of the pre- 1972 years, and it had called national and international media attention to the relationship between American corporations and South African brutality. But it also had made the world notice what Harvard did on this question. In particular, it made white South Africa notice that in what might be the world's most prestigious university, in the ultimate brain trust of the most powerful country on Earth, the president of that university was defending American investment in the South African economy. The partial victories of the divestiture movement and President Bok's voluminous and somewhat impassioned defense of continuing investment in companies doing business in South Africa raised the stakes of the divestiture movement.

During the 1978-79 school year the divestiture movement focused around the attempt to name the Kennedy School library after Charles Engelhard, the owner of a South African gold mining concern. The ensuing storm of student protest, that disrupted the dedication of the K-School building, led to Harvard revoking the name of the library. It was a very serious move, as it discourages major donors if the buildings that were to memoralize them for posterity could be renamed after they had signed the check. Nevertheless, the name was changed, and the world heard more about Harvard and South Africa.

Over the last three years, the Harvard Corporation has tried repeatedly to return to the old days of amoral investing. Treasurer George Putnam '49 floated the idea in 1982 that Harvard would invest in banks that gave "humanitarian" loans to the South African government. Last year, Corporation member Hugh Calkins denied Harvard took moral questions into account when investing Each time the Corporation has tried to go back on the commitments it made in 1977-79, the divestiture movement has responded, by packing ACSR meetings, holding vigils and rallies, and most notably last year with the fast for divestiture and the founding of the Endowment for Divestiture. And each time the movement has responded, the Corporation has backed down and the ACSR has moved closer to advocating divestiture. Last year the ACSR split on a straightforward vote on divestiture, 5-6-1 against it. The Harvard divestiture movement has inspired successful and profitable divestments by Cambridge and Massachusetts pension funds, and by universities like Michigan State, which reported that through divestment it made over $2 million. Finally, each time the divestiture movement and the Corporation lock horns, the world listens, and white South Africa listens.

Divestiture by Harvard would warn white South Africa that the American Establishment is not behind them. Divestiture would demonstrate that America's greatest university, whose president has said for years that investment in South Africa is at worst morally ambivalent, now believes that there is no option in South Africa besides profound structural change. Divestiture could help persuade white South Africa that it must surrender as Ian Smith's Rhodesia surrendered, peacefully and without reservation, or face the horrible tragedy of race warfare in which thousands of innocents, Black and white, would die. If Harvard can help in any way to persuade white South Africa that there is no hope for apartheid, shouldn't we try?

Damon A. Silvers '86 of Adams House is a member of the Southern Africa Solidarity Committee.

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