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Anti-apartheid efforts felt home and abroad

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 3/8/2011, 7:54 p.m.
One hot summer morning, thousands of black...

Harvard University, which held more than $160 million in South Africa-related investments, resisted student calls for divestment throughout the 1970s. “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,” University President Derek Bok said in a statement.

 Around the same time, an alternative to divestment emerged  — the Sullivan Principles. Leon Sullivan, an African American minister and General Motors board member, drew up the set of voluntary ethical guidelines for companies to follow when doing business in South Africa.

The Sullivan Principles were widely adopted by American companies and came to be seen as the ethical standard the private sector should adhere to. But for many, the Sullivan Principles fell short because they never explicitly challenged the legal architecture of apartheid, or the United States’ support of it.

Moved by their initial success in amending the state budget, King and Backman continued to push for full divestment, and this time, sought to shore up broader constituent support. They called a meeting of independent labor, community, and religious groups that were working separately against apartheid, and eventually these merged to form the Massachusetts Coalition for Divestment from South Africa, or Mass Divest.

The next year, with the support of Mass Divest, the two state senators tried again to pass the full divestment bill, but for the second time were met with failure. Determined, King and Backman tried a third time in 1982, and this time their bill passed in both the House and the Senate — only to be vetoed by Democratic Governor Edward King.  But the legislature overrode the governor’s veto—the first and only time during his tenure in office.

The divestment bill prohibited public pension funds from being invested in banks or financial institutions doing business in or with South Africa, and required the state’s $100 million of investments to be sold and, if possible, re-invested in Massachusetts companies.

“I don’t have any question that Massachusetts’ law will have a multiplying effect in this country,” said King about the passage of the state divestiture bill, which occurred on his last day in office.  Massachusetts was the second state in the country to divest, following just weeks behind Connecticut.

Later that month, new Democratic Governor Michael Dukakis took office, and as a supporter of divestment, immediately sold off two-thirds of the state’s investments in South Africa. The next year, another divestment supporter took office — Boston City Councilor Charles Yancey.

Coming into his new political seat, Yancey knew he wanted to get the city involved in the divestment campaign. Boston was considered one of the most racist cities in the country, and supporting human rights in South Africa was critical for challenging that racism at home, he explained in a recent interview with the Banner.

Yancey’s divestment bill succeeded on its first attempt in 1984, and Boston became one of the first cities in the nation to adopt such legislation. The city sold more than $12 million of stocks tied to South Africa — and at a profit.