Ten years ago it was only a tiny handful of churches urging American corporations to stop investing in South African ventures. Today it has become a formidable coalition of 40 religious and educational institutions wielding their combined $39 million worth of stock as a tool of international political pressure.
On March 10, the organizations launch their joint campaign to bring 32 shareholder resolutions before annual meetings of 29 major corporations. The drive is coordinated by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) , a related movement of the National Council of Churches.
The resolutions will press the companies either to cut back their South African investments, halt new loans, or publish reports on their operations in that country.
The ICCR sees its campaign as a tangible way to express opposition to South Africa's policy of racial separation, apartheid, and to urge political equality for that country's nonwhite majority. "We want to show South Africa that America will not do business as usual with them," explains ICCR director Timothy Smith.
Already this year several corporations have adjusted their investment policies as a result -- or at least partly as a result -- of past shareholder pressures:
* The First National Bank of Chicago, one of the Midwest's largest, recently decided to stop all over-the-counter sales of the South African gold coin, the Krugerrand. In 1978 the bank sold about 70,000 Krugerrand (worth about $40 million at today's prices). The bank's action will not, however, and wholesale purchases. The ICCR will present another resolution on that matter this spring.
* American Express, which claims to have had an operational policy for years of not lending to the South African government or its agencies, agreed to put that policy into writing. The company also agreed with ICCR negotiators that its trade financing will be reviewed to ensure it does nt strengthen apartheid.
* General Motors and the Ford Motor Company have agreed to publish a report of sales to the South African military and price. Ford also has agreed to make a full report on its labor relations in South Africa. In a labor dispute last year, the company fired 700 black employees who walked off their jobs in support of another fired laborer. (The company says the action was taken to protect the 700 from prosecution under South African law, and that all 700 have since been rehired.)
Not all ICCR resolutions have been successful or well received by corporations. Last year, for example, ICCR got little support for its resolution that GM halt all sales to South African military and police. Mobil Corporation also has reacted strongly against ICCR initiatives stating that its continued sales to the South African government is a requirement of good citizenship in that context.
Some corporate executives, many of them sympathetic with ICCR opposition to apartheid, do not agree with the logic of those resolutions that call for a total halt of trade with South Africa.
"There are things you can do in South Africa that will actually benefit blacks and Coloreds," explains James Langton of Bank of America, "like a loan we were considering last year that would provide electric power for Soweto."
Other corporations to receive South Africa-related shareholder resolutions this year include Bank of America, Mobil, Exxon, Sperry-Rand, US Steel, Eastman Kodak, Wells Fargo Bank, and J. P. Morgan. Most resolutions will be voted upon in meetings in April and May.
Filers of the resolutions include the United Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in the US, American Lutheran Church, American Baptist Churches, Disciples of Christ, Vassar College, and Wesleyan University.