First Person: November 6, 1996
FROM SIT-IN TO SOWETO
A journey to Cape Town recalls the author's role in the divestiture movement
BY KNEELAND YOUNGBLOOD '78
In August 1995, along with other members of a Presidential energy-trade commission, I visited South Africa. I was there to acquaint executives of its nuclear industry with the United States Enrichment Corporation, a government-owned company on whose board I serve, which sells low-level uranium to utilities throughout the world.
As our plane approached Cape Town, I gazed upon Cape Point, the southernmost tip of Africa. This rugged promontory at the confluence of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic is a spectacular sight, and the mix of mighty waters beneath us provoked a reflection of a more personal sort. Some 17 years before, as a senior at Princeton, I had taken part in a sit-in in Nassau Hall protesting the university's investments in corporations that did business in South Africa. More than 200 of my fellow students and I were seeking to dramatize the plight of black South Africans and to draw a link between the capital invested by U.S. corporations and the perpetuation of apartheid, a system of racial segregation condemned by the entire civilized world.
The sit-in, which began on April 14, 1978, and lasted 27 hours, capped 67 consecutive days of demonstrations by students opposed to the university's investment policy. I had participated in many of those marches and had been one of more than 2,000 signers of a petition calling for Princeton to divest. The sit-in, however, significantly raised the stakes for those involved. The administration had the power to expel students for taking over a campus building, and the decision to take this drastic measure weighed heavily on all our minds. As I sat with my fellow protesters on the worn brick floors in Nassau Hall, I pondered the fact that I had been recently accepted to medical school and that expulsion could seriously jeopardize my plans to become a doctor.
I also worried about the effect my actions might have on my parents, who were sacrificing so much to send me and my four siblings to college, all at the same time. I had decided to join the sit-in only after several long telephone discussions with my folks, who, trusting my judgment even if not entirely understanding my motivations, had reluctantly given me their permission.
Even though more than 200 of us took part in the sit-in, we remained a significant minority of the student community. The protests had forced many to come to terms with the university's policy toward South Africa, however, and students had made their choices accordingly-some by sitting in, some by marching, and some by not protesting at all. I respected each decision that was thoughtfully made. My own decision was strongly influenced by Adhimu Changa '78, who with other leaders of the People's Front for the Liberation of South Africa possessed a compelling command of the issues, in contrast to what I saw as the university's failure to communicate its position or to respect opposing views.
Our sit-in was at best a mixed success. We elevated the dialogue among members of the campus community, but the Board of Trustees made only minor changes to the university's investment policy, and Princeton continued investing in corporations involved in South Africa.
Upon landing in Cape Town, our group was greeted by Pik Botha, the former foreign minister of South Africa, who now served as its energy minister. I was struck by the irony of a man who had been an outspoken advocate for apartheid welcoming the U.S. Secretary of Energy, Hazel O'Leary, a black woman, as she headed a delegation of men and women which included many other African-Americans. For a black person like myself who had once protested apartheid, shaking hands with him was an odd yet satisfying experience.
Later that day I met F. W. DeKlerk, the last leader of apartheid South Africa. For years I had despised him as a symbol of white supremacy, although my attitude toward him had begun to change in the last months of the old regime, when he had worked with Nelson Mandela to effect a peaceful transition to majority rule. In our conversation he spoke passionately about the need to fully integrate black South Africans into the political, business, and social life of the nation. In describing the change in white attitudes toward apartheid, DeKlerk talked frankly about the influence of the outside world, including the economic isolation it had imposed on South Africa. His words further vindicated my actions as a student.
The highlight of my trip occurred a few days later. I was in the lobby of our hotel when I noticed a great commotion. Trained as a physician, I was concerned that there had been an accident, so I ran over to see if I could help. Then I noticed amid the crowd, and seeming to tower over it, a man of regal presence. It was President Mandela. He saw me, and to my astonishment he waved aside his bodyguards and approached like an old friend. Mandela was aware that our trade commission was in town, and I assume he must have known, somehow, that I was a member. I was speechless with excitement and completely humbled as he smiled and then embraced me. It was a magnificent moment for me personally but also, it seemed, for the many thousands of others who had sacrificed, in ways large and small, to make South Africa free. We talked for some minutes about the trade commission's objectives; during our discussion, like DeKlerk, he made it clear that international activism had been vital to the toppling of apartheid, and also to his release from prison. I felt another, greater surge of pride for the difference that I and my fellow protesters had made.
With the passage of time, I better understand what had been the university's position on investing in companies that did business in South Africa. Yet I can never wholly agree with it. I serve as a trustee of a $50 billion pension fund, and my fiduciary responsibility holds me to a standard that subordinates my personal views to the need to maximize the fund's financial return. As fiduciaries of its endowment, Princeton's trustees had been in the same position. But I believe that, collectively and as individuals, they could have done more than they did to pressure South Africa by working aggressively with other institutional investors to bring about change. In my view, they could also have sought alternative investments that would have provided a comparable economic return for Princeton.
I realize that many who opposed us in 1978 would still disagree with this position. But my discussions with the leaders of the new South Africa confirm my belief that economic sanctions played a significant role in ending apartheid. As a student, I believed that taking part in the Nassau Hall sit-in had been the right thing to do. As an adult, I know it was.
Kneeland Youngblood, a physician and entrepreneur in Dallas, Texas, is the president of Youngblood Enterprises, a health-care private-equity firm, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.