Apartheid foes push for tougher line against US companies in South Africa

Apartheid opponents are applying new pressures on government and business in the United States, capitalizing on public indignation over South Africa's practice of racial separation. Buoyed by congressional willingness to impose sanctions, encouraged by public support for demonstrations, and steeled by increasing violence in South Africa, anti-apartheid groups are making it plain that inch-by-inch progress is not enough.

While these groups endorse the legislation passed by the US House Wednesday, many hoped that Congress would come down harder on US firms doing business in South Africa. For years, they have said divestment is the most effective way to promote change in that country. The growing trend toward divestment is, in some ways, more significant than the action on Capitol Hill, one business observer says.

New developments on divestment:

The Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, author of an equal-rights code of conduct for US corporations in South Africa, has said all US firms should withdraw from South Africa if statutory apartheid in South Africa is not ended in 24 months.

The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a nationwide coalition of religious groups, has presented a list of demands to 12 American corporations doing business in South Africa. It wants the firms to stop selling products and providing services to the South African government and government-owned corporations. It also demands that the 12 companies, as a condition of remaining in South Africa, lobby the government for policy changes there. If these goals are not met by fall, the center plans to hold vigils and demonstrations, and to gear up its campaign for divestment and selective buying.

More states and cities are considering anti-apartheid actions. Divestment laws have been passed in six states and 24 municipalities, including New York City.

But the question always remains, how best can change be brought about in South Africa, where a minority white population has held back basic rights of its majority black population, including citizenship and voting rights? US corporations doing business in South Africa are restating their argument that their presence there is constructive.

David S. Tappan Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Fluor Corporation, said recently in a prepared statement that Fluor has ``provided technical training to well over 20,000 nonwhite workers, upgrading skills which will better equip these individuals for future opportunities.''

William Broderick of Ford Motor Company adds that a rising standard of living for blacks will mean growth in black political strength.

He also dismisses criticism that US businesses are doing nothing to change the political reality for blacks in South Africa, noting that businesses lobbied to make black trade unions legal. And he says Ford and other companies have approached Pretoria with an agenda calling for full black citizenship and for constitutional negotiations to include banned groups such as the African National Congress.

The Rev. Mr. Sullivan, a Philadelphia pastor and a board member of General Motors, says he believes change is ``do-able'' in South Africa but that time is running out. The Sullivan Principles -- which call for desegregated workplaces, equal pay for comparable work, and improved quality of life in black communities -- were never intended to eradicate apartheid. But they are an important catalyst to progress, Sullivan says.

If US firms were to pull out, ``explain to me how that makes reform more possible?'' asks Mr. Broderick. He says Ford has offered job training, education and housing programs, legal-aid services, and recreation opportunities for its workers and their communities. Both Fluor and Ford are Sullivan signatories. Change is necessary, but the negative effects of a US pullout outweigh the positive, Broderick says.

But Audrey Smock of the United Church of Christ's Board for World Ministries disagrees. ``We see the situation in South Africa deteriorating before our eyes,'' she says, referring to rioting and killings there this year. ``There are pleas [from churches in South Africa] for us to undertake much more intensive economic pressure,'' says Dr. Smock, who is active in the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility.

The 12 firms targeted by the center are Burroughs, Chevron, Citicorp, Control Data, Fluor, Ford, General Electric, General Motors, International Business Machines, Mobil, Newmont Mining, and Texaco.

Social programs touted by the corporations are too narrow to bring change, Smock says, noting US firms employ only 1 percent of South Africa's blacks. These companies need to ask the larger question of how their products and services impact African society, she says. -- 30 --

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