The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 63.0°F | Overcast

The Aprtheid Colloquium-Goodwil or Malice



Why is MIT sponsoring the Institute Colloquium on Apartheid for Nov. 6 and 7? More specifically, why is an educational institute which holds $150 million in South Africa related stocks, and which has a long record of opposition to divestiture, now sponsoring one of the year's most important educational forums on apartheid? There are two types of answers to this question, neither of which offers an adequate understanding of the upcoming colloquium.

For some, the answer is goodwill. In the midst of great upheaval in South Africa, in which 750 people have been killed by their own government, MIT's administration and its corporation have begun to question their attitudes and policies toward apartheid. This view holds that MIT is in the midst of a period of self-examination, and so this colloquium is being sponsored in an effort to engage the larger MIT community in a dialogue over one of the most difficult issues of our time. Given this search for a new understanding, the outcome of the colloquium is open. Together, the MIT community might decide to continue on a course of obedience to the Sullivan Principles and responsible investment, or we may conclude that it is time to change our stance and pursue a policy of divestment, selective or otherwise.

Where the advocates of the first view see goodwill, the proponents of the second spot malice. Instead of soul-searching, they see sophisticated public relations. Rather than openness, and the possibility of sweeping change, they believe that the conclusion of this colloquium is foregone and the administration is firmly committed to remaining on the road of supporting South African related investments. Further, by securing the appearance of broad participation in the planning for this event, the administration has thereby preempted external pressures from other student groups which call for divestiture.

After several months of work with the Program Subcommittee of the Institute Colloquium Committee; of research into the history of MIT's response to South Africa issue; and of activism in various efforts to press the administration to divest, I have yet to reach any final conclusions as to why the apartheid colloquium is happening. But I do have some thoughts.

The history of MIT's response to apartheid concerns over the past fifteen years leads me to question appearance of broad goodwill or openness from the current administration. In response to the wave of protests and rallies of the early 1970's, the Institute established the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility (ASCR) to review proxy issues brought before it concerning investments in South Africa. At the time that the ACSR was established, it was hailed as the forum in which apartheid concerns would be addressed. Yet over the dozen years of its existence, its positions have been consistent. Never, in any case, has the committee recommended divestment from any company doing business in South Africa.

This is true despite the scores of faculty and students who have come before the ACSR with facts and arguments concerning every aspect of the Institute's relationship to apartheid and South African investments, such as: the strategic importance of American companies in supporting the government there; the power of economic sanctions; the ability to maintain a healthy portfolio without South African stocks; and, perhaps most importantly, minority issues at MIT. Clearly, the absence of change in Institute policies has not been due to any lack of persuasive arguments over the years. Another reason must be found.

Then, during the 1977-79 period, South Africa again became a major issue on campus. This time, MIT's reply was to announce our adherence to the Sullivan Principles as a set of policy guidelines for investment. While these principles have helped to improve working conditions in some American firms in South Africa, even their creator agrees that they have done nothing to alter apartheid. In fact, many argue that these guidelines have been primarily used by American companies for legitimization purposes, and so have actually helped to ensure apartheid's survival rather than its dismantling. Again, the response in the late 1970's was much like that of the earlier period; no fundamental changes occurred, yet the demands to end the Institute's support for apartheid were effectively quelled.

If not goodwill, then is it malice which motivates the administration's support of this colloquium? No, for two reasons. First, because the Institute is not a monolith, and there are some within it who sincerely desire to see an end to MIT's economic support of apartheid. Second, it need not be malice, but a particular conception of MIT's interests which is behind the Corporation's apartheid policies. According to the viewpoint of the high ranking executives of Citicorp, Arthur D. Little, IBM, and others who make up the board of the MIT Corporation, it is quite understandable that MIT's opposition to divestment should be so profoundly resistant to change. This central, unmovable position will not be altered by another speech, rally, or argument. Clearly, the upcoming colloquium shall not be the forum from which a more progressive path is formulated.

It will not be that forum, that is, unless the MIT community regards this as the first step toward divestment and addressing minority concerns, rather than a last, symbolic step which closes these issues down for another five years. If the premise of this colloquium is to be goodwill and openness, then the administration must respond to the issues raised about the Institute's role there, rather than simply provide the setting for them to be presented and then shelved. For if Paul Gray, John Deutch and the members of the MIT Corporation were to actually engage with the positions and facts presented by Williard Johnson, Oliver Tambo and others, then no legitimate defense would remain standing for the pro-investment position. Otherwise, this will be but one more showcase event to preserve the detached position of the insitute's administrators.

(Editor's note: The author shall be a participant of the panel session on "What can and should Americans do?" during the Insitute Colloquium on Apartheid).