On June 17, 1985, recent alum Perry Chang wrote a handwritten note to then-president of the College David Fraser. The note read:
“Dear President Fraser: I would be interested to receive a response to the letter I handed to you at Commencement. I have enclosed a copy of that letter, which I helped draft. Hope you are having a pleasant summer. Sincerely, Perry Chang.”
The letter enclosed, written by Chang and a few other students who had graduated in 1985, was a call for divestment from companies doing business in South Africa under Apartheid.
“Many of us wear armbands today to remind both College officials and our friends, family, teachers, and fellow students about the deteriorating situation in South Africa and what role the College might play in improving the situation … during the past four years at Swarthmore we have become more and more familiar — through films, course work, symposiums, and even late-night discussions — with the apartheid system of South Africa,” Chang and others wrote.
They then urged President Fraser to take two specific actions. First, to contact the College’s Ad Hoc Committee on Ethics and Investments, created a the year prior, and urge them to support a new provision. This provision reconsidered the College’s policy since 1978, which established that the College would maintain investments in South Africa as long as they followed the “Sullivan Principles,” which the Swarthmore Anti-Apartheid committee considered to be a cover for companies wanting to stay in South Africa. The second thing the students urged was for Fraser to publicly support the proposed Anti-Apartheid Act of 1985 being considered by Congress.
“We believe the time is ripe for action on the apartheid issue,” the last paragraph of the letter reads. “In South Africa, things grow worse every day. Over here, the “Free South Africa” gains steam, in college campuses and in the halls of Congress. Both the situation in South Africa and the movement here cry out for us to act now. As students here for the past four years, we have waited patiently as the College has put this issue through the slow mechanism of its formal committees. We are running out of patience.”
Chang and others ended with a concrete consequence for the college if it did not divest.
And we suspect that, should the Ethics and Investments Committee effort go nowhere over the summer, next year many of us will likely support the establishment of an “alternative endowment” — a pool of alumni contributions which will not be released to the College until it divests — and younger students who remain at Swarthmore will likely lose faith in the College’s established mechanism for change and opt for a different mechanism. The time for you and the College to act is now.”
On June 28, 1985, President Fraser sent a letter back to Chang. In his letter, he outlined his dismay for the situation.
“Dear Perry: I welcome the chance to make a personal reply to the letter that you and your classmates gave to Gene Lang and me during the Commencement ceremonies. In the letter you raise important issues of what the College’s and our government’s responses should be to the dreadful system of legislated racism that was built up in South Africa forty or fifty years ago, and continues largely in place despite some recent marginal improvements … The College wrestles with a variely of issues including whether it should be a locus of debate or a debator, whether to use its investments as a polítical or moral statement would compromise its fiduciary responsibilities, and how the College might use its investments most efficiently in effecting change in South Africa.”
Fraser also outlined recent discussions in Washington on Apartheid.
“I spent Wednesday in Washington with a group of college and university presidents debating these issues and cross examining Senator Paul Sarbanes and Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker (who have, as I suspect you know, markedly differing views). Crocker argues that the oppression of blacks ín South Africa is lessening, and that our leverage is greater if we are ‘constructively engaged,’ and that forces are already in place that will lead to the dismantling of apartheid in the relatively near future. I find myself unconvinced that our engagement has cause much improvement in the situation of blacks in South Africa, because I do not see that the situation has improved much. I have a harder time judging the validity of his assertion that things will now improve fairly rapidly — I worry that the Botha government is changing things about as quickly as the Afrikaners will permit and that in the present climate only revolution will bring rapid change.”
Despite this, Fraser explained that he was not personally yet convinced that the College would do better to follow total divestment, and that he looked to the committee of guidance. He did accept the second demand, and publicly expressed support for the passage of the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1985, however warning that this did not commit the college itself to a particular stand.
In 1986, the Anti-Apartheid Act passed in congress and the College board of managers reached a decision to proceed toward full divestment. Full divestment was reached in 1990. Apartheid legislation in South Africa was outlawed in 1991.
The process, though, was a long and halting one; Chang and President Fraser’s exchange is a mere slice. Next issue, I’ll outline the actual process of the College’s progress toward apartheid divestment.
In many ways, this process can be seen as analogous to the current movement for divestment from fossil fuels: in April of 1985, before the Committee came to a decision, the College held a referendum in which 79% of the students who voted called for total divestment to replace the Sullivan principles. Mountain Justice held a similar referendum last year. Then and now, divestment is no easy process — hoops must be jumped through; drawbacks must be considered. Even so, morality in investment has been a question the College has been struggling with for decades and will, I predict, for years to come.
*Chang and Fraser’s letters are courtesy of the Friend’s Historical Library