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On a cool April evening in 1978, more than 3,500 students took to the streets of Cambridge to protest the Harvard Corporation’s decision to reject student demands that the University divest itself of holdings in companies operating in South Africa.
Chanting “1-2-3-4, throw apartheid out the door; 2-4-6-8, don’t support the racist state,” thousands of demonstrators carried candles and kerosene-soaked torches as they marched from Harvard Yard to the Quad and along the Charles River.
Organized by the Southern Africa Solidarity Committee (SASC) in conjunction with the United Front—a coalition of seven campus anti-apartheid groups—the march was the culmination of months of student unrest over Harvard’s holdings in firms doing business in the country.
Events leading up to the march included the signing of a campus-wide divestment petition by more than 3,000, myriad meetings of the Harvard Corporation’s Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR), two open hearings and several Corporation meetings.
By the end of the academic year, the Corporation had condemned South Africa’s apartheid system as “repugnant and inhumane” and put in place a system of guidelines for investment in the country. These rules called for the University to use its proxy votes to urge companies operating in South Africa to “take active steps to oppose apartheid” and to stop investing in banks that granted loans to the South African government.
But The Corporation ruled out complete divestment as a “relatively ineffective means of pursuing ethical ends.”
That decision outraged members of the United Front, who called it “a kick in the teeth, a slap in the face,” and laid the groundwork for a conflict which would last well into the early 1980s.
The events of 1978 mark the beginning of what would become a general reluctance on the part of University administrators to use divestment as a means for expressing political or moral views.
Charles P. Slichter ’45, who was a member of the Corporation at the time, says the University’s actions in 1978 set a precedent for the way it would handle future divestment movements.
“Every decision you make becomes part of a record of thinking,” Slichter says.
A Hard-Fought Battle
Student activism on divestment at Harvard began to take shape in the early 1970s.
In 1972, 34 members of the Pan-African Liberation Movement staged a take-over of Mass. Hall, demanding that the University sell its investments in the Gulf Oil Corporation, which they alleged was supporting the Portuguese colonial regime in Angola at that time.
This Mass. Hall takeover marked the opening tussle in the fight for divestment and led to the creation of ACSR, a committee composed of four students, four faculty members and four alumni whose purpose was to advise the Corporation on the social and political implications of its investment policies.
Following a mid-decade lull, Harvard took up the issue of South African divestment in 1977 with the formation of the SASC, which moved divestment to the forefront of student activists’ agenda.
Students with outside knowledge of South Africa helped the group raise awareness of the issue.
“I was South African and Neva [Seidman Makgetla ’78, co-founder of the SASC] had spent time in Southern Africa,” says SASC Co-Founder Cindy Ruskin ’79.
The movement on Harvard’s campus began in earnest on Nov. 2, 1977, when the SASC passed a proposal urging the Corporation to sell all Harvard’s stock in commercial banks that extended loans to the South African government. The proposal also suggested stockholders’ resolutions that would call for companies to curb operations in South Africa.
The proposal was channeled through ACSR, which was charged with making a recommendation to the Corporation as to the action it should take on its investments in South Africa.
As ACSR formulated its official statement to the Corporation, SASC rallied other student groups, House committees and even some faculty members around the cause.
Ruskin remembers a great rise in common consciousness surrounding the divestment question.
“The issue ended up being very important,” says Ruskin. “It really did polarize the entire campus and it seemed like the whole campus was involved.”
The intensity of these student calls for divestiture pushed the ACSR—for the first time in its brief history—to hold a public forum to take comments on the University’s position on investments in multinational corporations with operations in South Africa.
As weeks became months and the ACSR still had not reached a conclusion, SASC members grew impatient and alleged that the ACSR was intentionally stalling so that the deadlines for proposing shareholder resolutions in many companies operating in South Africa would pass as they deliberated. The SASC also demanded that the committee open its deliberations to the public.
“The administrators were very slow to understand the issues,” writes Seidman Makgetla in an e-mail. “I still don’t understand why.”
As student demonstrators marched in the snow outside an ACSR meeting that March, the body finalized its report to the Corporation on Harvard’s investments in companies operating in South Africa.
The report advocated neither the divestiture of stock in all companies operating in South Africa nor the initiation of shareholder resolutions calling on those companies to withdraw their operations from the racially segregated nation.
But the ACSR report did advise the Corporation to establish strict criteria for American firms wishing to remain in South Africa and means for taking action against companies that failed to comply with the guidelines.
The ACSR also advised the Corporation to establish a policy of non-investment in banks that made any new loans to the South African government, purchased government bonds or refused to release information to Harvard on their current South African loans.
Advocates of divestment argued that the report did not go far enough, and the committee’s recommendations disappointed many observers who had attempted to persuade the ACSR to advocate more far reaching measures against the offending corporations.
At a hearing attended by about 400 people, including then-University President Derek C. Bok, scores of speakers denounced the ACSR’s recommendations.
“The ACSR report does not end Harvard’s complicity in apartheid, nor does it aid in bringing about the destruction of apartheid,” Daniel Rabinovitz ’78, a member of the SASC, said at the time.
Rabinovitz also alleged that Harvard’s refusal to divest was financially motivated and the fact that ACSR did not take stronger action against apartheid “should surprise no one since the number one priority of this University is profits.”
The ACSR later concluded that divestiture of Harvard’s holdings in all companies operating in South Africa would immediately cost the University between $5.7 and $16.5 million and between $5 million and $10 million annually. But University administrators denied that financial concerns played a role in their decision.
The next phase in the divestment battle came as the campus awaited the Corporation’s decision about the University’s South African investment policy. HUPD beefed up security as some students staged a four-day, round-the-clock vigil, camping out in front of University Hall, and others went on a hunger strike.
Other protesters took a more strong-armed approach.
Three days before the release of the report, more than 1,000 students participated in a rally, during which they confronted several deans in the Yard,
And after Bok refused to speak with student demonstrators, they blocked his entrance to Mass. Hall and threw themselves in front of the police car that was driving him along Mass. Ave.
As the Corporation met to discuss the ACSR’s recommendations, about 400 students demonstrated outside its offices under the watchful eyes of the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) to protest the University’s alleged compliance with apartheid.
Demonstrators listened to a speech by Themba Vilakazi, an exiled member of the African National Congress, who told the assembled crowd, “the African people have decided not to beg anymore, but to fight.”
Bok, who attended the meeting, says he sympathized with students’ concerns, even if he disagreed with the divestment initiative.
“I think the point they raised was a legitimate one,” Bok says. “Apartheid is a perfectly frightful regime and I understand why some students were concerned about it.”
Student dissent only increased after the Corporation released its decision.
Like the ACSR, the Corporation decided to advocate a case-by-case analysis of “Harvard companies” operating under the apartheid system to decide which ones it believed should stay and which it felt it should ask to leave the nation.
But unlike the ACSR, the Corporation did not advocate the immediate sale of all stocks and bonds of banks that were lending money to the South African government. Instead, the Corporation decided to discuss with those banks the moral issues involved in loaning money to the segregationist government before deciding whether to divest.
One day after the Corporation handed down its decision, hundreds of students staged a “sit-out” and picketed outside University Hall, forcing the building’s closure for the day.
“We were furious at the time,” says Ruskin. “They dismissed us.”
Concerned about the actions his presence might incite, President Bok relocated to a new office about 250 yards away from the student protesters.
Bok said he moved from Mass. Hall because his attempt to enter his office earlier in the week had produced an incident he did not wish to be repeated.
“After the incident, I’ve been a little bit afraid that my being there may provoke a reaction that may endanger students,” Bok said. He added that his decision to temporarily relocate was not out of concern for his own welfare.
In an interview on WHRB and a speech at the Quincy House senior dinner, Bok defended the Corporation’s position on divestiture, saying that divestiture is not a particularly effective method of producing political change.
“Making a statement by withdrawing is the easy way out,” Bok said. “If you want to maximize your influence with companies, you have to hang in there and try to convince them.”
Looking back from today, Bok maintains that divestment would not have hastened apartheid’s demise and says he feels the University “absolutely” made the right decision.
Although student demonstrations were not successful in prodding Harvard to divest from South Africa, the University did alter several of its investments that spring.
Just days before releasing its decision, the Corporation decided to support a resolution by shareholders in Kodak calling for an end of Kodak sales of photographic equipment to the South African government.
The University also sold more than $600,000 worth of stock in two banks which were lending money to the South African government. But University officials claimed that the sale was purely financial and that one of its investment firms—not the University—had initiated the action.
In a statement to the press, the ACSC said the University’s failure to acknowledge the ethical factors of the transaction “in the face of mounting student and faculty pressure is further evidence of the University’s unwillingness to take a clear, public and forthright stand against apartheid.”
Also in the wake of the student protests, Radcliffe—whose investment portfolio was separate from Harvard’s—decided to reexamine its own relationship with firms in South Africa. As a result, the school sold $480,000 worth of stock in the Bank of America, which had loaned money to South Africa.
SASC’s demonstrations drew a great deal of attention to the issue of divestment—an issue of contention at colleges across the country at that time—and led to deeper evaluation of the matter.
“We had an impact on campus and off,” says Ruskin. “The idea that people cared about what we had to say was astounding to me.”
But perhaps the greatest legacy left by the South African divestment movement was one of anti-divestment sentiment within a frustrated and fatigued administration.
While schools such as Ohio State University, the University of Wisconsin and Hampshire College voted to divest themselves of stock in all corporations operating in South Africa, Harvard stuck firmly by its reluctance to use divestment to make political statements.
In a 1979 open letter to the Harvard Community, Bok said that divestiture is unjustifiable because it is “legally questionable, widely disputed on its merits, and very likely to prove ineffective in achieving its objectives,” solidifying Harvard’s stance not only on the South Africa question but on divestment in general.
Last spring, after 64 Harvard professors signed a petition calling for the University to withdraw from its investments in Israel—estimated at more than $600 million—University President Lawrence H. Summers said Harvard did not intend to divest from the beleaguered state.
Summers later said such petitions calling for divestment because of Israel’s actions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.”
Earlier this year, administrators also opposed the suggestion of divesting from arms manufacturers involved in the war with Iraq.
While both of these proposals garnered some attention, neither of them proved to be as divisive as the 1978 divestment movement, which incited an entire campus and called the nation’s attention to the issue of divestment in apartheid South Africa.
—Staff writer Jaquelyn M. Scharnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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