US firms in South Africa band together against apartheid

They have arranged private meetings with South African business leaders, held an unannounced meeting with a leading critic of the South African government, and condemned apartheid -- South Africa's system of racial discrimination. The US Corporate Council on South Africa, a group made up of the chief executives of many American companies with South African operations, has sometimes operated in a hush-hush fashion. But it has used very public means to denounce apartheid.

The council, which has about 100 members, ran ads recently in South African and American newspapers that reproduced an anti-apartheid message signed by 91 South African executives.

The council's chairmen -- Roger Smith, chairman of General Motors and W. Michael Blumenthal, chairman of Burroughs Corporation -- said in a joint statement recently that the council is ``deeply concerned about present conditions in South Africa.'' The council sees an urgent need for reform and the eventual elimination of apartheid, they said.

Mr. Blumenthal said US firms want to stay in South Africa to support efforts for change. Some say the council, established last summer, is a sign many US companies are poised to mount a more active campaign against apartheid.

But opponents of United States commercial involvement in South Africa (about 260 US firms operate there) say the council was formed to derail the divestiture movement, an effort to prompt local governments, pension boards, and universities to trade away stock in companies with South African operations. Many US firms -- including some members of the council -- are lobbying against pending divestiture proposals.

``These companies are concerned about their image because they're seen as allies of racism in South Africa,'' said Richard Knight, a spokesman for the American Committee on Africa, an anti-apartheid group in New York City. ``I don't think they would have done anything if not for the [anti-apartheid] demonstrations in the US and violence in South Africa.''

While Blumenthal has referred to meetings with South African business leaders, he has released no details. In January, Blumenthal and Smith held an unannounced meeting with Bishop Desmond Tutu, the black South African Nobel Peace Prize winner, during his visit to Detroit.

During their meeting, Bishop Tutu disagreed on how best to end apartheid but in public speeches during the visit, he said he would not oppose the disinvestment campaign because it was putting pressure on US corporations and the South African government. Tutu told a rally that US corporations were in South Africa to make money and US business leaders should not ``insult us'' by saying they are in South Africa to help blacks.

Smith and Blumenthal, who head companies based in Detroit, also say the group is forging an alliance with anti-apartheid business leaders in South Africa.

The formation of the council is significant, according to Meg Voorhes, senior analyst at the Washington-based Investor Responsibility Research Center, a group that reports to investors on public policy issues.

``When I've talked to South African business leaders, they've said they'd appreciate it if their counterparts got involved,'' said Ms. Voorhes. ``They've said American chief executives have more clout than managing directors'' of American operations in South Africa.

Voorhes said US firms have led the corporate charge to eliminate discrimination in the workplace. But an anti-apartheid activism based solely on public statements won't have a major impact, according to Voorhes.

Spokespersons with companies affiliated with the Corporate Council say that because the group is in its formative stages more anti-apartheid activity will be undertaken in the future. ``It's true that not much has been announced yet,'' said George Schreck, a spokesman for General Motors. ``New members are coming in. Once we are better organized we will begin to work more closely with business leaders in South Africa.''

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