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ND has not set a precedent of divestment

| Tuesday, September 8, 2015

William O’Laughlin’s letter (“Heeding Pope Francis’ call,” Aug. 26) was well-targeted on some issues. However, in calling for divestment as a tool for global justice, he is misleading in crediting Notre Dame with having set a precedent by divesting from corporations flourishing in apartheid South Africa. Regrettably, it did not.

Rather, our University adopted the “Sullivan Principles.” Proposed by an eminent member of the Board of General Motors, Rev. Leon Sullivan, the University continued to invest in these exhorted corporations in South Africa so long as they desegregated their premises amidst apartheid. In essence, Fr. Ted Hesburgh and Notre Dame’s Trustees, top heavy with corporate leaders and lawyers, argued that divestment from these companies would consequently shrink the South African economy and inflict disproportionate suffering on the country’s black majority.

These pro-investment convictions ignored the fact that once the workers walked out of the factory gates, they stepped right back into the racist structures of an increasingly brutal apartheid regime. In addition, Fr. Ted and the majority of Notre Dame’s trustees dismissed the pro-sanctions appeals of the entire liberation movement: the African National Congress(ANC), the United Democratic Front, the (black) Congress of South African Trade Unions, the South African Council of Churches, the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference, the Christian Institute and a range of black student organizations. Even the personal appeals of prophetic church leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Denis Hurley and Reverends Beyers Naude, Allan Boesak and Frank Chikane went unheeded. When Rev. Leon Sullivan belatedly called for divestment,having recognized the ineffectiveness of his own principles, Notre Dame’s trustees still would not budge.

By the second half of the 1980s, the global divestment movement along with initial international trade sanctions — and the threat of more to come — had brought the South African economy to stagnation. As a result, unemployed teenagers and workers boosted the mounting ranks of anti-apartheid protesters. At the same time, South Africa’s regional neighbors were no longer under its control. In this context, apartheid’s military leaders let the government know they could no longer sustain the country’s stability.

Consequently, though reluctantly, in 1990 the regime released Nelson Mandela after 27 years of imprisonment, unbanned the exiled African National Congress and entered four years of fraught negotiations with the ANC and broader liberation movement before apartheid was abandoned. Having hammered out a non-racial constitution, one bolstered by a commitment to both civil and social human rights, South Africa’s irenic election in 1994 finally brought the ANC to power under the leadership of President Nelson Mandela. Founded in 1912, the movement had taken almost a century to achieve its vision: to eradicate racism from the country’s statute books.

In short, while the campus Anti-Apartheid Coalition gathered regularly throughout the 1980s on the steps of Notre Dame’s administration building protesting the university’s refusal to divest, and both student as well as faculty referenda called for such sanctions, our Trustees failed to recognize the urgency of forcing the apartheid regime to the negotiating table. Had Martin Luther King lived, he would not have been pleased.

Peter Walshe

professor emeritus

Department of political science

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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