WASHINGTON — AT&T, bowing to requests from a small group of employees, has agreed to sever virtually all business ties to South Africa, including phasing out its purchases of minerals, cutting off computer sales and refusing to provide special long-distance and data transmission services.
As part of a seven-part program that will be announced publicly on Wednesday, the company also will terminate a contract with Olivetti for the sale and distribution of AT&T products in South Africa, a company official said Monday.
The American Telephone & Telegraph program was described by anti-apartheid activists as among the most significant of a series of steps recently taken by U.S. corporations to put heat on the South African government and distance themselves from apartheid.
"This is a terribly important precedent," said Tim Smith of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, an anti-apartheid group, about the AT&T move. "It's really a full-court press, covering every aspect of their business relationship there. . . . It's going to broaden the debate over disinvestment and put more pressure on a lot of other companies."
Although AT&T has no plants or sales offices in South Africa, Smith and others saw the agreement as particularly significant because of the firm's pledge not to offer anything beyond its basic long-distance service in South Africa.
In addition, the company has promised to stop buying South African platinum and palladium--two precious metals widely used in electronic equipment and catalytic converters. Platinum is the largest single U.S. import from South Africa; the only other major supplier is the Soviet Union.
The AT&T program, negotiated with five employees from Bell Labs, is slated to be announced by AT&T Chairman Charles Brown at the firm's annual meeting in San Francisco on Wednesday.
AT&T agreed to the steps after the five employees filed a shareholder resolution that called for these and other steps. Barbara Wilson, a Bell Labs physicist and spokeswoman for the group, said the five were "amazed at what they (AT&T) offered" and agreed to drop the resolution as a result.
But Edward M. Block, an AT&T spokesman, stressed that the company was not seeking publicity over its decision because its direct investment in South Africa is minimal. "We don't want to be seen as grandstanding," Block said. "I don't want AT&T to look sanctimonious or look like we're taking a cheap opportunity to look good."