A Moment of Crisis
IN THE WAKE of several successes this year, divestment activists at Harvard face a perilous crossroads. The movement is strong, but the University seems intransigent and impregnable on activists' central demand: divestment.
The divestment movement has won support from a number of Black South African leaders and brought Bishop Tutu to the University to speak in January. It has forced Harvard to scuttle its ill-conceived South African Internship Program. And it has forced debate and put the University administration on notice with the successful erection of a shantytown. But so far, Harvard officials have ignored the shanty building and seem determined to ignore students' demands.
The divestment movement has never been so strong nor its demands so crucial, but its ability, or inability, to act decisively in this situation is critical. The choices made by activists, and by the rest of the students and faculty at this university, during the next few weeks could bring successes scarcely imagined a year ago--successes that will be felt here at Harvard and halfway around the world in Southern Africa--but they could also bring the growing student movement to a crashing and terminal halt.
When 200 activists set up a shantytown and an ivory tower at 2 a.m. last Tuesday morning, they demonstrated the resolve, the organization and the experience that the divestment movement has gained in the last 18 months. University officials wisely decided to avoid an open confrontation and to let the shanties stand. But much of that decision has been dictated by the way in which protestors have acted. When University Vice President and General Counsel Daniel Steiner '54 arrived on the scene Tuesday night, he declared the construction to be, for the time-being, a legitimate act of free speech. Of course, the shantytown had already been erected and 200 demonstrators had formed a circle around it.
More important, the successful construction of "the Ivory Tower and the Open University" demonstrated not only the greater discipline and strength of the divestment movement this spring, but also a more penetrating analysis of Harvard's refusal to divest itself of its holdings in companies that do business in South Africa--an analysis which holds promise both for uniting the Harvard community around divestment and for refocusing student activism about divestment toward other problems within the Harvard community.
THE CONSTRUCTION OF an ivory tower, as a symbol of the decision-making process about divestment, and of an open university, as an ideal toward which Harvard should strive, illustrates a problem, a fundamental contradiction, that is at the core of a variety of sources of discontent among students, faculty and the community around the University. As a university Harvard espouses ideals of free discourse and democratic decision-making, but as an institution it is run like a large corporation.
Decisions at Harvard are made by managers with little input from the community they affect and ultimate authority rests in a private and secretive body: the Harvard Corporation. The corporation is comprised of seven affluent white males who, except for the University's President and Treasurer, come to Harvard once every two weeks. These are just the sort of people who own and run companies that operate in South Africa. In fact, two of them, Coleman M. Mockler Jr. '52 and Robert G. Stone Jr. '45, do just that.
The experience Corporation members bring is of maximizing profits and enforcing private decisions on a submissive hierarchy. These are not the sort of people who can reasonably be expected to understand and to address the needs of a diverse community dedicated to scholarship, intellectual discourse and respect for individuals of a variety of creeds and cultures.
Struggling for democratic decision-making within the University can affect important interest group issues like discrimination and minority hiring, but it can also have an impact on the concerns of even the most apolitical undergraduate--basic issues like the academic calendar, the number of shuttle buses and the mandatory full meal plan. Shouldn't the community itself--the students, faculty and staff who live and work at Harvard--make decisions about such things?
What does all this talk of democracy have to do with divestment? Democracy--at Harvard and in South Africa--is at the core of the divestment struggle. Support for divestment within the community has grown substantially in the last year. A recent Undergraduate Council referendum indicated that two-thirds of the student body favors divestment. It is an issue for which right and wrong is obvious. If community organizing can't win this one, it will never win anything. If the community does win on the issue of divestment, students can move on to other issues with strength, having clearly demonstrated that the root problem at Harvard is a governing hierarchy that is deaf to the concerns of community and democracy.
FINALLY, DIVESTMENT is more than just an issue of morality and community at Harvard; it is still of vital importance for bringing pressure to bear on the racist regime in Pretoria. While forces within South Africa are still the primary agents of change, the government of President P.W. Botha has made significant reforms in response to international pressure, most recently announcing the demise of the hated pass laws. The role of international pressure has been crucial both in instigating such reforms and in preventing a more violent backlash against progressive forces within South Africa.
But so far, Botha's reforms have not been fundamental. He is engaged in an attempt to reform the face of apartheid without endangering white political and economic supremacy. International economic pressure may be the last hope to resolve these issues without catastrophic violence. A year ago few would have believed that Botha would go as far as he has. Now we must push him farther.
The critical role of the student divestment movement in pressuring corporations and in creating a national political consensus for Congressional sanctions against South Africa is undeniable. That role is more vital than ever.
And while no one should doubt Harvard President Derek C. Bok's opposition in principle to apartheid, there is a relevant similarity between him and Botha. While proclaiming intransigence, Bok, like Botha, has responded to pressure. Gradually, over the last decade, the University has made concessions in its investment policy and, most recently, even endowed a $1 million fund to help Black South Africans.
We are now at a critical juncture for democracy at Harvard and in South Africa. It is time for students to sieze the moment, to embrace the issue of divestment openly, not silently, and to press that issue aggressively against the University. We may not have the opportunity again.
John Ross is an executive of The Crimson and a longtime divestment activist who has been involved in the planning and construction of the shantytown in the Yard.
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