AFTER MORE THAN a decade, the anti-apartheid, pro-divestment movement at Harvard and around the country has finally achieved critical mass. Activists here and at hundreds of campuses nationwide have made this spring the most active in more than a decade and have focused attention on the issue at the collegiate, municipal, and national levels.
The movement has tapped two converging sentiments, one rooted in the early years of the civil rights movement and one rooted in an eighties concern for the free market and business ethics.
South African apartheid has emerged as the human rights issue of the eighties, largely because the issues at stake are so similar to those in America 20 years ago. The problems of minorities in the United States, though significant, no longer lie purely in the legal realm. The plight of Blacks suffering under the Afrikaaner yoke has emerged as an important cause for American liberals because the issue--unlike most in America--is literally black and white.
Divestment has caught fire precisely at a time when the cult of the dollar has reached its height and arguments for the inherent morality and justness of capitalism ring most shrill. The movement urging Harvard to divest of its $580 million in South Africa-related investments is an important step towards infusing the free market with a needed dose of democratic decision-making and morality.
Amidst the rallies, sit-ins, and shouting, however, many of the original arguments for divestiture have been reduced to mere slogans, easy prey for those who still believe that constructive engagement by American firms can erode apartheid from within.
Proponents of divestiture, likewise, have proven all too willing to rest on the simple argument that South Africa is immoral and that we should wash our hands of any injustice. The pro-divestiture case is far more compelling when argued from a practical standpoint and as part of a wider program of activism that includes federal sanctions on trade with South Africa.
South Africa, with its pretentions to Western values and its close strategic alliance with the U.S. and Western Europe, has shown its deep concern for its credibility in the West. Clearly, the most effective way for the United States to force reform or any change in South Africa is to threaten and carry out removal of all political, corporate, and economic support for the system.
Those who believe that any gains can come of constructive engagement by corporations and the U.S. government are arguing against 40 years of history, a history of declining Black living standards almost matching the rise of U.S. investments, a history of increasing violence and instability. Ironically, divestment by Harvard and others, and disinvestment by U.S. corporations may be the only move which could prompt real reform and stop the South African government from allowing itself to self-destruct in a blaze of bloody revolution.
The argument for working within the system, though superficially attractive and easy to swallow, is morally vacuous and ultimately disingenuous when viewed against the backdrop of decades of stagnation and movement away from real record in South Africa. A policy like constructive engagement that claims to be working for reform while the system becomes more oppresive, more violent, more abominable, is a policy that has been coopted.
President Bok, although he claims to be speaking as a private citizen, effectively placed the Harvard name in support of anti-apartheid legislation, authored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54 (D-Mass.), during his testimony last month on Capitol Hill. Bok told a Senate subcommittee that economic sanctions are necessary because "the Afrikaaner government shows little evidence of moving to dismantle the system of apartheid."
Despite the fact that both economic sanctions and divestment target U.S. corporate involvement and effective support for the South African government, Bok stubbornly clings to the fiction that Harvard's continued investments in South Africa-related companion can lead to some meaningful change in South Africa. If he is concerned enough about apartheid to lend his name to anti-apartheid legislation, he should not balk at a prime opportunity to enlist something far more powerful to help the cause: Harvard's millions.
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