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Students Favor Divestment but Shun Boycott of Products : Scope of S. Africa Protests Questioned

April 16, 1986|DAVID G. SAVAGE | Times Education Writer

Outside the student store on the UCLA campus sits a wooden shanty, a symbol of the oppression of blacks in South Africa. On its side, in bold letters, is a sign that says, "We will not rest till they divest."

Students at UCLA and at other campuses have recently renewed their drive to force universities to sell their stock in American firms that do business in South Africa.

But inside the student-run complex, the campus store does a brisk business in the products of these same American firms.

The University of California's $2.4-billion stock portfolio includes some of the most familiar corporate names, including Coca-Cola, Nabisco, Eastman Kodak, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Revlon, Johnson & Johnson and Beatrice, a conglomerate whose products range from peanut butter and popcorn to motor oil.

Student protesters have insisted that dropping these stocks from the faculty pension funds would make a moral statement against apartheid, the policy of strict racial segregation in South Africa, and would strike an economic blow at companies that operate there. But, with few exceptions, college students have not taken direct action by boycotting the products of the targeted companies.

"There's been virtually no boycott activity, although a number of these companies are very concerned about a possible boycott," said Christopher Coons, research analyst for the Investors Responsibility Research Center in Washington, a nonpartisan group that tracks the divestiture campaign.

At UCLA and UC Berkeley, where protests against South African investments flared up last week, student leaders have debated taking action against these companies but decided against it.

"We passed a resolution last year not to sell any of these products in the store, but we found that was a bit too much," said Pedro Noguera, UC Berkeley student body president. Enforcing the rule would have meant a ban on the sale of some textbooks, he noted, since their parent corporations have South African sales operations.

In response to renewed student protests, UC Berkeley Chancellor Ira M. Heyman closed a separate campus store that sold computers, including those manufactured by IBM, which operates in South Africa, and Apple Computer, which does not.

At UCLA, student leaders carried on an extended debate last fall about what to do about Coca-Cola, which had 5% of its worldwide sales in South Africa in 1984, according to the Washington research group. Settling on a compromise, the UCLA students decided to offer Dr. Pepper as "an alternative beverage" at each soda fountain and vending machine. However, this plan was thwarted in February when Coca-Cola announced it was buying out Dr. Pepper.

"Basically the board was split on whether it was appropriate to boycott these things," said Deborah Howard, a UCLA graduate student and chairwoman of the board that runs the student stores and cafeterias. "Some said Coca-Cola is an exemplary citizen in South Africa by offering scholarships and special housing to blacks. Others said no company should be there. Some people were also strongly opposed to any boycott because it would endanger students' jobs.

Unsure About Coke

"In general, all of us supported divestment, all of us wanted to take action against apartheid, but on Coca-Cola, there was a deep split," Howard said.

The UC Board of Regents found itself similarly split last year. In June, the regents voted down motions calling for total divestiture of its pension-fund stocks with South African ties and instead decided to review each company to judge whether it was being a "good corporate citizen" there.

Stock Purchases Frozen

Since then, the regents have put a freeze on stock purchases of the Nalco Chemical Co. and decided to sell $12.3 million worth of bonds in the Eaton Corp.

Nationwide, 39 colleges and universities have divested themselves of all stock in companies with South African operations, and 61 more have undertaken a partial divestment, said Coons of the Washington research center. About $411 million worth of stocks and bonds have been sold.

But Coons questioned the effect of these stock sales.

"Divestment is largely a symbolic act because most of the divestments are so small in size that they have no effect per se on the price of the stock," he said.

Some Impact Seen

But several cities and states, by passing "selective purchasing laws," have drawn a response, he added. New York City said it would no longer buy products from Motorola as long as it made two-way radios in South Africa, "and that company pulled out. That was a clear and direct impact of the city's action," he said.

Student leaders, while not dismissing boycotts as a useful means of protest, question whether they could organize an effective boycott.

"It wouldn't have much impact if one person does it or few. It needs to be an orchestrated campaign," said Noguera at UC Berkeley. "There would have to be some coordination by a central office."

Leaders of the New York-based American Committee on Africa, a central organizing office for the divestiture campaign, say they have not seen much interest in boycotts.

"There's not been much action, not in the same way as divestment," said Robert Knight, a researcher for the committee. "But it is a logical next step. These companies are vulnerable to student pressure. Students spend a lot of money on these products."

At UCLA, students continue to buy the products in question without much regard for the corporations that make them.

"For a while, we would ask everyone if it was a Coke they were buying," said Paul Rayber, a UCLA senior and a cafeteria cashier. "Usually, they had no idea what we were talking about. Unfortunately, most people around here could care less."

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