Divestment Dead, Not Forgotten

Nearly a decade has passed since South African Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu issued a strongly worded rebuke of Harvard's investments in South Africa before a packed audience in Memorial Church.

Now, African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela's appeal to end sanctions against South Africa--granted within hours of his Friday speech to the United Nations by the U.S. and other governments--has altered the social and political landscape Tutu helped to mold here not so long ago.

Divestment is dead, but it is not forgotten. The past is debated with fervor, and the future anticipated with refocused energy. An era of divisive politics is over, but the divisions still remain.

The apparent end of apartheid in South Africa means the end of years of controversy for the University--a period marked by protests, sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience. For those involved in the fight over Harvard's policies toward South Africa during the heyday of that country's all-white regime, the scars of a bygone era will be hard to erase.

Dating back more than two decades, students,faculty and alumni engaged in a war with theUniversity's administration over Harvard'sinvestments in companies doing business with SouthAfrica.

The struggle began to peak in 1985, when agroup of concerned Harvard graduates joined forcesto form Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni Against Apartheid(HRAAA). The group's vision, critics often said,could be summed up in a single word: divestment.


Over the next several years, HRAAA memberswould campaign vigorously and vocally for theUniversity to sell off its substantial financialstake in South Africa-related stocks--a stakethat, at the time, approached an estimated $585million.

The HRAAA mission was not unprecedented.Student activists had for years battled withHarvard administrators over the social and moralimplications of the University's investments. Atone point, in 1986, their protest included theconstruction of a shantytown that filled HarvardYard for several months.

What made HRAAA different, though, was itsmembers' determination to fight the University onits own terms, from the top down. By nominatingcandidates for election to the University's Boardof Overseers--one of two top governing boards atHarvard--HRAAA's leaders hoped to force Harvard tochange.

At first, it seemed as though the new group wasdestined to have some impact. In 1985, Gay Seidman'78 became the first of four HRAAA-sponsoredcandidates to be elected to the Board ofOverseers.

But by last spring, HRAAA's efforts had fizzledout and the group had virtually ceased to exist.HRAAA lost its last remaining representatives onthe Board of Overseers when the six-year terms of1973 Law School graduate Consuela M. Washingtonand Duke Professor Peter H. Wood '64 expired.

Meanwhile, Harvard never fully divested. As of1989, Harvard's investments in companies doingbusiness with South Africa totalled about $164million, far less than in earlier years, butsubstantial nonetheless.

Harvard administrators say the reduction waspart of their long-term policy of "selectivedivestment" and had nothing to do with HRAAA'sefforts.

"I don't think [HRAAA] had a great impact onUniversity policy," says Daniel Steiner '54, theUniversity's general counsel for most of the yearswhen divestment was a hot campus issue.

"The basic University policy on South Africawas adopted well before [HRAAA] candidates startedto run for the Board of Overseers," Steiner says."There were a set of criteria that were appliedwhich either led to divestment or to Harvard'sretaining the stock."

For example, Steiner says, in several casesHarvard stopped investing in companies deemed notactive enough in promoting equal employmentopportunity in South Africa.