Why Disinvestment Is Immoral

There is only one firm statement that I can make on disinvestment — I will have nothing to do with it. I will not, by any written or spoken word, give it any support whatsoever.

There are obviously two sides to this question. On the one side are South African industrialists, capitalists — very big money and very small money — the overwhelming majority of white South Africans, and a substantial majority of black South Africans. On the other side are some highly-educated and sophisticated blacks, a small minority of white South Africans, and a considerable number of righteous and self-righteous people of the West, who entertain the opinion that the weakening of the South African economy will bring freedom and happiness to the suffering and oppressed people of our country.

I find myself uncompromisingly on the side of the industrialist capitalists, big money (almost entirely white), small money (almost entirely black), the overwhelming majority of whites and the considerable majority of blacks. I belong therefore to a very mixed constituency.

I am not very interested in money, though I would not like to be without it. I am not writing this article for money, though I shall be paid for it. I am writing it for a simple — and to some perhaps a naive — reason. I am writing it because I think I ought to. I would much rather be writing something else.

For whom, then, is it being written? Primarily for the righteous people of the West. Not for the self-righteous, because I do not think I have the ability to persuade such people that they are wrong or misguided. I am writing for those in the West who are concerned to see a more just order in South Africa, and who are concerned to know what they can do about it. I am not writing for any person who has ulterior aims of his or her own, or who is trying to further some personal cause, or who is trying to win the support of black American voters.

Why am I totally opposed to disinvestment? It is primarily for a moral reason. It is my firm belief that those who will pay most grievously for disinvestment will be the black workers of South Africa. I take very seriously the teachings of the Gospels, in particular the parables about giving drink to the thirsty and food to the hungry. It seems to me that Jesus attached supreme — indeed sacred — significance to such actions. Therefore I will not help to cause any such suffering to any black person.

I am told that this is a simplistic understanding of the teachings of the Gospels. Let it be so. That is the way I choose to understand them.

I am also told that I am ignoring the views of those black South Africans who support disinvestment. Most of these black South Africans will not be the ones to suffer hunger and thirst. Many of them are sophisticated, highly educated, safely placed. I also know sophisticated and highly educated black men and women who will have nothing to do with disinvestment. I choose to associate myself with them.

I am told that, though I believe my views to be moral, they are in fact immoral because I will not take the side of those black people who want disinvestment. This is a new interpretation of morality to me, that I ought to adopt certain views because some influential black people hold them.

I do not hold these views because they are acceptable — or not acceptable — to either black people or white people. I do not consider that the welfare of black people or the welfare of white people are the supreme considerations. The supreme consideration to me is the welfare of my country, and therefore the welfare of all its people.

There is an often-heard declaration: “We do not mind suffering. We are used to suffering.” But this again is often the declaration of those who will suffer least. To put it briefly, my conscience would not allow me to support disinvestment. For I must ask myself — and my readers who are concerned to do what is right — how long must the suffering it would cause go on before the desired end is achieved? A month? Two months? A year? Five or ten years perhaps?

No one can confidently answer that question, though one can say at once that disinvestment will take time to bite deep. South Africa’s business community will muster every resource to save the economy from destruction. That it has its own interests to consider is, of course, to be taken for granted.

That is the kind of economic world in which we live, the kind that is to be found throughout the West. It is supposed to have some kind of correlation with freedom and with the encouragement of initiative, and with the rule of law.

The alternative to it is the world of the centralized economy, which not only controls enterprise but ends up by controlling literature, the arts, the press, the rights of free assembly and free expression, and almost everything else. Both of these worlds have their credits and their debits. I choose the world of the free economy.

I have no doubt that some supporters of disinvestment hope that it will not only cause such severe damage to the economy, but will also increase endemic unrest to such an extent that armed revolution will take place, and that the present government will be overthrown by force of arms.

In the first place, let me say that the black people of South Africa, even if they so desired, could not, unaided, wage a successful revolution.

Yet who is likely to come to their aid? In the present state of West-East relations — and that means, to a large extent, US-USSR relations — it is hard to see any answer to this question. Of course it could happen, but only as a result of the greatest political miracle of our century, that a joint US-USSR task force said to the South African Government: “Abolish apartheid immediately, and grant a universal franchise to all your people, or we will enter and utterly destroy your military power.”

Suppose that a deep-biting investment campaign were followed by more far-reaching sanctions, and suppose that South Africa were completely isolated from the world. Suppose that the West succeeded in thus creating an economic and political vacuum in the south of the continent. I have no doubt that the USSR would embark on another African adventure. The West should be warned that its isolation campaign could have disastrous consequences for itself.

In 1934 the white Parliament of South Africa passed one of the most enlightened laws of those times, the Children’s Act. The Act was a recognition that punishment was not the proper treatment for delinquent children. Punishment failed totally to treat the causes of delinquency. Punishment could change behavior, but it was not a true reformatory instrument. And lastly, punishment could in some cases change behavior for the worse.

It was because I held these beliefs strongly that our Minister of Education, Mr. J.H. Hofmeyr, made me the Principal of Diepkloof Reformatory in 1935. It was then the largest institution for delinquent boys in the whole of Africa. What I believed then, I believe now.

Punishment is no proper treatment for erring children, nor is it the proper treatment for erring countries. Those who think they can make us good by punishment are deceiving themselves. The United States seems to be at last giving up the idea of punishing the USSR into goodness. Why then do they think it would work with South Africa?

This is perhaps a moral argument, but it has a pragmatic side to it. The (Afrikaner) National Party would not respond to punitive measures. When the time eventually comes that it realizes that its days of supremacy are drawing to a close; when at last it decides that it has to behave differently; when it decides — to put it unequivocally — that it has to behave in a more civilized manner, in a manner more acceptable to the nations of the West, that is not the time to use punitive measures.

I hold the belief — which is thought by some (or many) to be naive — that the (Afrikaner) National Party has at last decided for moral and pragmatic reasons to do better. Now is the time therefore for the nations of the West to bring the greatest moral and pragmatic pressure to bear on us. That excludes sanctions such as disinvestment. Re-education and punishment do not go together.

I would not write this if I did not believe that the Afrikaner Nationalist is ready to behave better. He is emerging from a morass, and he cannot be expected to come out white and shining. He cannot be expected to become an angel tomorrow. He is in fact attempting to return to the West.

When the Voortrekkers moved north in the 1830s they were trekking away from the West. They wanted to have nothing more to do with it, especially with its ideas of equality of all people before the law. Now, after 150 years, they (the majority of them) wish to return. It would be a supreme irony to punish them as they turn.

The Afrikaner Nationalist often proclaims that he is a man of Africa. He did some queer things for a man of Africa. He forbade racially-mixed marriages, and he embarked on the foolish task of separating himself from the other men of Africa. He made it a criminal offense for certain men of Africa to love or marry certain women of Africa, and broke many hearts and lives in doing so. This “man of Africa” notion is a poetic myth, and it should not be accorded undue respect.

What the Afrikaner Nationalist must now do is to return to the rule of law, and to set about the dismantling of apartheid. The nations of the West, and in particular the United States, must not underestimate their moral power to influence us in this direction.

Nor should the people of the United States be self-righteous. They should thank God every day for their Constitution, their Bill of Rights, and their Supreme Court. In 1954, in the famous case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ordered the white people of America to do better, and the Court declared that separate could not be equal.

At Little Rock, Arkansas, Governor Faubus used his state militia to keep a handful of black children out of a “white” school. But President Eisenhower federalized the militia, and ordered them to ensure that the black children got in. We in South Africa can only marvel at such things.

Americans must remember that we have no such Constitution, no such Bill of Rights. We are proud of our Supreme Court, but it does not have these august powers. Many of us have been fighting for years for a more just order, but what we have failed to do in many years, the United States Supreme Court can do in a few minutes. And now you want to punish us, too.

I have a last word to say to those fanatical divestors who think they can bring the South African government “to its knees.” They will not succeed. The Afrikaner Nationalists may at times behave like fools, but they do not behave like cowards.

But still more importantly, if the self-righteous bring our government “to its knees,” they will have to bring the whole country to its knees, for if the Afrikaner Nationalists are ever brought to their knees, it will have to be by the gun. And if they are brought to their knees, agriculture, industry, railways, ports, will all be brought to their knees. We will become one of the begging nations of the world, and the West, having broken us, will have to feed us. Russia will give us guns; America will have to give us food.

I do not argue with black, or indeed white, South Africans who advocate disinvestment. One cannot argue with passion.

Just as I am coming to the end of this article I receive my copy of the South African Anglican newspaper, Seek. It contains an “Open Statement on South Africa” by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, the Right Reverend John M. Allin. I am going to quote some of his words.

After expressing the grief of the Church over recent events in South Africa, Bishop Allin said:

Real reform must go forward in South Africa. The years of oppression must be redeemed. South Africa must be healed and become a land of hope and justice for all her sons and daughters.

As Christians, we cannot condone or participate in actions that will bring any nation into full-scale civil war. We cannot abandon our fellow human beings by walking away from them or condemning them to international isolation. . . .

We must continue to help our government realize that the best and most effective engagement in South Africa is unofficial and personal, reflected in constant contact, in commerce, in intellectual and cultural exchange.

It is the creative engagement of constant argument. We expect our government to argue actively, forcefully and publicly for the value of the ideals and principles upon which our nation was founded.

I cannot close with wiser words than those. As I read them I am inevitably reminded of the woman to whom Jesus said: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” Legend says of her that she became a holy woman.

Well, I can’t promise that. But there is one thing that I can promise. If the nations of the West condemn us, they will only hinder the process of our emancipation from the bondage of our history. But if they stay with us, rebuke us, judge us and encourage us, the chances are that we shall do better.


  • Alan Paton

    Alan Stewart Paton (1903 – 1988) was a South African author and anti-apartheid activist. He wrote Cry, The Beloved Country and Too Late the Phalarope.

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