A Conflicted Relationship

Harvard supported South Africa through investments, but partially divested under protest

At a speech at the Institute of Politics (IOP) in 1985, South African Bishop and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu issued a plea to the richest University on earth.

"You know something, we're going to be free," Tutu said. "And when we get to the other side of this liberation game, we would like to be able to say 'You know something, Harvard University was with us.'"

Today, as the University convenes a rare out-of-season honorary degree ceremony to honor Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president and first president since the end of the apartheid system, Tutu's wish has been fulfilled-though it took some prodding.

Throughout the '80s, Harvard professors for the most part avoided involvement with South Africa in protest of apartheid, and then-president Derek C. Bok was a vocal supporter of work by the U.S. to prompt reform in South Africa.

But the University was slow to pull its own investments out of companies doing business in South Africa, insisting that through its proxy votes, it could more effectively fight apartheid than by purging stocks from its portfolio. But after a decade of protests, Harvard did adopt a policy of selective divestment, and by the end of the '80s was almost completely out of South Africa.


Now, after the abolition of apartheid in 1993, Harvard is reinvesting in South Africa, and Harvard's professors are turning their interest toward the country as well.

Every Word Heard

In spring 1972, three years after a student takeover of University Hall jolted Harvard into the age of campus unrest, a group of black students from Harvard-Radcliffe Afro and the Pan-African Liberation Committee took over Mass. Hall, headquarters of the central administration. Demanding that the University sell its investments with Gulf Oil Corp., which allegedly aided the Portuguese government fighting rebels in Angola, the students stayed in the building for six days before finally leaving.

The Mass. Hall takeover marked the opening skirmish in the fight for divestment. In 1973, the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR) was created to advise the Corporation on ethical issues, partly in response to the takeover.

Following a mid-decade lull, the divestment movement quickened in 1977 after protests at Stanford University spread to other campuses.

The next spring, in one of the largest protests at Harvard during the '70s, 1500 students crowded into Harvard Yard on April 24, blocking President Bok from his Mass. Hall offices after a Corporation meeting decided against divestment.

Justifying its decision, the Corporation released a statement explaining that "We oppose divestment under normal circumstances not merely--or even primarily--because it costs the University money, but because it is an ineffective means of pursuing ethical ends."

Nevertheless, later that year the University adopted its first guidelines on investment in South Africa. By 1985 these rules, which were reviewed periodically, called for the University to use its proxy votes to urge companies operating in South Africa to "take active steps to oppose apartheid."

It also forbade investing in banks that made loans to the South African government and companies that provided "significant quantities of an important good or service used in the direct enforcement of apartheid." The policy also promised a divestment of stock in companies that refused to disclose the extent of their operations in South Africa.

But these moves did not appease student activists, who called for complete divestment. Under the leadership of the Southern Africa Solidarity Committee (SASC), a group formed in the fall of 1977, divestment moved to the fore-front of student activists' agenda in the mid-eighties.

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