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Against Apartheid

Students protest University investments in South Africa

By Tina Wang, Crimson Staff Writer

Throughout the 1970s, the University was engulfed in an intense debate over the moral implications of its financial investments in apartheid South Africa.

In 1979, protests also erupted over the dedication of a library at the Kennedy School of Governmen to an apartheid supporter and the rumored demotion of the Department of Afro-American Studies to committee status.

The unrest prompted the University to weigh the symbolic impact of pulling Harvard capital out of South Africa with possible financial losses. Some argued that Harvard ought to use its international stature to take an ethical position against apartheid and questioned the moral validity of the Harvard Corporation’s investment policy at the time.

“Apartheid was something that everybody was against. But the question was what to do about it,” says Harvey C. Mansfield ’53, Kenan professor of government, who participated in the 1979 Faculty debates about Harvard’s investments.

Many students and professors advocated divestment, by which Harvard would withdraw all its investments from corporations operating in South Africa. But others, including some University administrators, contended that Harvard could use its shareholder’s voice in corporations to promote corporate policies that benefited non-whites or corporate disengagement from South Africa.

Then-University President Derek C. Bok, who discussed the matter in two open letters to the University, remained skeptical that divestment was the proper action for the University.

Looking back on the turmoil of the 1970s, Bok, who is now a professor at the Kennedy School, writes in an e-mail, “In writing my open letters, I thought that it was incumbent on a Harvard president to explain in detail the University’s reasons for taking a position on an important moral issue, especially when the position was objected to by a substantial number of students.”

He adds, “the letters were not created to change people’s minds so much as to demonstrate that the University was a morally serious institution that took such issues seriously and had thoughtful reasons for its decisions.”

In spring 1979, students engaged in campus-wide rallies and a boycott of classes to protest investments in South Africa. Faculty members, meanwhile, put forth a strong effort to influence Harvard’s investments, debating the issue in two full meetings and writing an open letter urging the University to participate in anti-apartheid efforts. And after about a decade of unrest and debate, by the 1980s, the Corporation had gradually divested from South Africa.


Since the mid-20th century, the South African Nationalist government had implemented an official policy of racial segregation and white supremacy, forcing over a million South Africans to move from urban to designated rural areas.

Bok vocally denounced this institutionalized segregation, supporting U.S. anti-apartheid efforts. Harvard professors also avoided ties with South Africa. But the Corporation’s holdings of stock in U.S. companies with plants and operations in South Africa prompted student protests throughout the 1970s.

In the spring of the next year, 1978, the Corporation rejected divestment from from South Africa in a meeting. In response, 1,500 students gathered in Harvard Yard, barricading Bok from his Mass. Hall office.

The Corporation responded, “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.”

By the end of 1978, though, the University evaluated corporations for investments based on the benefits they provided nonwhite employees. This policy was proposed by the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ACSR)—a committee formed in 1973 to advise the Corporation on ethical issues.

Amid this turmoil over Harvard’s South African investments, the Kennedy School announced it would name its library after Charles W. Engelhard, an industrialist whose political and financial participation in South Africa reputedly supported the apartheid regime. In their protests for divestment, some students denounced the naming of the library after Engelhard.

The controversy reached a national scale when seven members of Congress wrote a letter to Bok on Dec. 15, made public on Jan. 3, expressing their concern over the library’s name.

“We fear that the recognition of Engelhard at this particular time may be interpreted by the South African government and its supporters as an indication of official acceptance—or at least tolerance—of apartheid by major American institutions,” the legislators wrote.

University officials eventually compromised with protesters by putting a plaque saying that the funds were given in Engelhard’s memory rather than naming the library after Engelhard.

The fight over the dedication of the Engelhard library was not the only development in the protests of the 1978-1979 school year.

In 1979, some students coupled rumors circulating of a possible demotion of the Af-Am department to an interdisciplinary committee with calls for divestment as grounds for protest.

In the 10 years after the Af-Am department was formed in 1969, the University and the department conflicted over its budget and tenuring of its professors. In early April, representatives from the Black Students Association (BSA), the SASC and several other student groups bound together and called for a boycott of classes to bolster the Af-Am department.

The boycott on April 23, 1979 succeeded in cutting class attendance about 50 to 60 percent. About 450 students walked in protest past the river Houses, and about 700 students gathered in front of Pusey Library, where Elizabeth Sibeko, a United Nations representative to the Pan-Africanist Congress, spoke in praise of the protesters.

In a protest earlier that month, on April 11, 1979, over 400 students participated in a SASC-sponsored rally. The students marched to Bok’s office and displayed petitions favoring divestment signed by students and Faculty. Chris Nteta, a member of the African National Congress, Donald Woods, an exiled South African editor and Neiman Fellow, and Dennis Brutus, a South African poet and organizer of the international sports boycott against South Africa, all spoke at the protest, urging Harvard to divest from its holdings in corporations operating in South Africa.

“It has become a popular pastime to say apartheid is immoral and then do nothing else,” Nteta said to a crowd of students in front of Memorial Chapel. “You are comrades, comrades in the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa.”


But discontent over Harvard’s investments in South Africa was not confined to student-led protests.

In two open discussions and an open letter, signed by 140 professors, the Faculty pressured the Corporation to divest from South Africa.

In the full Faculty meeting in March 1979, Professor of Government Michael L. Walzer said that Harvard should use resolutions and proxy votes to push for corporations to withdraw their operations from South Africa.

Assistant Professor of Afro-American Studies Selwyn R. Cudjoe added that “the carrot should be pulled out before it even begins to grow.” Cudjoe argued that capital from countries like the United States allowed South Africa to develop the technology to systematically implement the system of apartheid.

“Harvard University, by providing capital for the Union of South Africa, is implicated in the continued misery of Africans,” Cudjoe said. He proposed that the purpose of a university was not just to pursue knowledge but to “transmit values.”

The Corporation defended its investment policy by outlining ethical standards already in place for evaluating investments in South Africa at the Faculty meeting. A. Michael Spence, an ACSR member, specified that corporations that withheld products and services from the government, the military or the police that implemented apartheid and adopted employment practices that benefited nonwhites in South Africa met Harvard’s standards for investment.

According to Spence, divestment “will not be effective in influencing the behavior of companies” and “diminishes our ability to support responsible make the companies change their policies.”

In a full Faculty meeting in May, more than half of the professors who spoke questioned the morality of investments in South Africa.

Wallace T. MacCaffrey, professor of history, said the University’s current standards of investing in companies were “small but measurable actions, aiding black South Africans.”

Other professors called on Harvard to use its public and international stature to take a moral position against apartheid through divestment.

Tahi L. Mottl, assistant professor of Afro-American Studies, urged Bok to make “an unambiguous public statement” on South Africa.

Karl W. Deutsch, Stanfield professor of international peace, said the University should divest because it is considered “a flagship in the U.S. and the rest of the world.”

Some professors, such as Mansfield, supported University policy, doubting the effectiveness of the short-term symbolic effect of divestment.

“I was very much against divestment. I thought it was an invasion of the University’s primary duty, to ask questions, and not take positions. This is part of the politicization of the University, which began in the late ’60s,” Mansfield recalls.

The debate over Harvard’s investment even reached members of Congress. Rep.-elect William R. Ratchford, D-Conn., told The Crimson that Harvard’s divestment from South Africa-related stock could influence national and international governments against apartheid.

In late spring, the Faculty circulated a letter that endorsed a gradual, five-step policy to force corporations to pull out of South Africa. The letter, signed by over 100 professors, urged Harvard to stop investing in corporations operating in South Africa, and to support or initiate shareholder resolutions calling for corporate withdrawal. According to this letter, if these efforts fail, Harvard should adopt a policy of selective divestment.


Bok was reluctant to yield to student and Faculty pressure. He wrote two letters addressing divestment from South Africa in which he explained his support for University policy.

In an open letter in March, Bok wrote that the purpose of a university is not “to reform society in specific ways,” but to transmit knowledge and protect its financial stability. In his second letter in April, Bok doubted the effectiveness of divestment in promoting the end of apartheid, and supported the Corporation’s position that the best way for Harvard to influence corporate behavior was “to vote as a shareholder.”

Bok’s open letters played an important role in the debate on Harvard’s South Africa-related investments.

According to Morton Keller, co-author of Making Harvard Modern, Bok was well aware of the moral implications of Harvard’s investments, but he also felt it his duty to protect the financial stability of the University.

“Derek Bok was very much double-minded about it,” Keller says. “Part of him responded favorably to the idea that there should be a moral dimension [to Harvard’s investment policy].”

“Part of him opposed it in the sense that his primary responsibility was to see that the University was affluent and solvent,” Keller continues. “And to get into the business of deciding what was moral and what was immoral in the way of investments was going down a dangerous road.”

The Corporation never launched full and immediate divestment, though it sold stocks in companies that did not contribute to anti-apartheid efforts, which included protesting to the government and training or promoting black employees.

“I don’t think it is correct to say that the Corporation changed its mind,” Bok, who led the Corporation in the late 1970s, writes in an e-mail. “We were asked to sell all of the stock of all the scores of companies which did any business in South Africa. We never agreed to that demand. We did decide to sell a few stocks, amounting, I would guess, to only half a dozen companies or so.”

Mansfield says that the University did realize its moral responsibility in its financial investments.

“They ended up accepting the premise of divestment advocates, namely that the University had a moral responsibility not to invest in companies that were complicit in apartheid,” Mansfield says.

“It certainly made our investment managers aware that they could be confronted with moral objections. I imagine that has remained,” Mansfield adds.

Whether or not this debate left a lasting mark on Harvard’s investment policy, the controversy did illustrate the passion of students for ridding Harvard of its ties to apartheid.

“I don’t believe that the dispute over South Africa substantially changed the University’s investment policies,” writes Bok. “The fact that we have had no comparable disputes about investments since then has more to do, I think, with the fact that no investment issue since South Africa has caught the attention of students nearly as widely or as intensely.”

—Staff writer Tina Wang can be reached at

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