To the editors:
I attended the Convocation for Nelson Mandela's honorary degree Friday, and I was struck by Harvard's apparent loss of institutional memory regarding the South African struggle. I am writing to jog that memory.
When I was an undergraduate between 1975 and 1980, many students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds were active in the South Africa Solidarity Committee (SASC). At the time, Harvard's leaders were totally uninterested in playing any role in the struggle for democracy and racial equality, and were totally unresponsive to repeated requests to consider divesting in companies which did extensive business in South Africa in cooperation with the white regime.
They argued that educational institutions had to stay out of the fray in situations like this and let political matters take their own course. They were even exceedingly slow to adopt the Sullivan Principles, which prodded companies to take moderate actions to reduce egregious discrimination against Africans and black employees.
We held a huge demonstration at the dedication of the Engelhardt Library at the Kennedy School, which was funded by a white South African gold magnate who had made millions out of the virtual slavery of black South Africans.
After I graduated, a number of alumni withheld contributions from Harvard and put them in an escrow fund until divestiture occurred (which turned out to be in 1990, coincidentally the year Mandela was freed and well after the crucial struggles had happened). We also petitioned to elect candidates supporting divestiture, among other things, to the Board of Overseers, and successfully elected both Gay Seidman '78, first woman president of The Crimson and an SASC activist, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu to the Overseers, much against Harvard's wishes.
The struggles for freedom in South Africa, which were so costly to many South Africans, were also supported by a number of students, faculty and employees at Harvard, who engaged in our own struggle with the institution's desire not to be involved. It is too easy now for officials to laud President Mandela as a "royal" leader whose dedicated struggles led to his peoples freedom. We in the U.S. had a real role in supporting the South African racist regime, and Harvard should own up to that. SUSAN C. EATON '79- '80 Sept. 19, 1998