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The cold, hard face of power

December 18, 2013

The recent passing of Nelson Mandela brought my mind back to 1978, and (well, let’s tell it how it was) I was pretty clueless.

I was in my senior year at Harvard College. In my undergraduate years, I had not paid much attention to political issues; I was more involved in theatrical productions, the campus radio station and the other (um) pursuits that concerned a young man of college age in the late 1970s. (And, oh yes, I was also trying to keep my head above water academically. That too.)

But there was a certain fervor on campus that year, something that was starting to boil over, something happening that I didn’t know or understand much about. Something about South Africa, and apartheid and money.

Harvard University is fueled by its massive endowment and by the income derived from its investments. For some time, student activists had been trying to persuade the university to divest—that is, to pull its investment money from any companies that did business in South Africa. In this way, they hoped to exert economic pressure on South Africa’s apartheid regime to change its repressive and discriminatory policies.

Opinions ran strong on all sides. Divestment advocates felt that Harvard could make a strong and influential moral statement by divesting. Some opponents maintained that mere moral considerations should have no effect on investment decisions. Others feared that divestment would remove Harvard’s ability as a shareholder to affect corporate policies for the better, while still others were active supporters of the South African government, seeing it as a bulwark against Communism.

In response to the controversy, the Harvard Corporation (which runs the day-to-day affairs of the university) announced a series of open meetings where people could give testimony about the situation and make suggestions about what Harvard should do. One of these meetings seemed to me an ideal opportunity to learn more about the issues involved, and so, on an impulse, I went.

The meeting was crowded, and the vast majority of the speakers (all but one, in fact) were pro-divestment. But the most affecting testimony came from a black South African journalist, a Zulu man from Soweto named Obed Kunene, who was at Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship. His statement, describing the day-to-day realities of life for blacks in a South African township, brought the situation alive for me in a way that news reports had not. As Kunene spoke, I was watching the men on the dais, the men of the Harvard Corporation, when I was suddenly struck by a stunning realization:

They didn’t seem to care.