Senior representatives of the South African government, the ANC, the Dutch Reformed Church, Inkatha, the US state department and US businessmen met at a closed door meeting in New York last week, days before three of the largest American companies withdrew from South Africa.
The conference, organised by the US Council on International Business, came the week after the Reverend Leon Sullivan’s call for a total trade embargo against South Africa and the week before the Ford Motor Company, Citicorp and ITT announced their intentions to disinvest. It was addressed by a range of political leaders, including Thabo Mbeki, the ANC chief international spokesman, Tom Wheeler, the South African consul-general, Charles Freeman, deputy assistant secretary of state, Oscar Dhlomo, Inkatha general secretary, Johann Heyns, a Dutch Reformed Church moderator, and Professor Sample Terblanche of Stellenbosch University.
The keynote speaker, who was introduced by Sol Marzullo, head of the Mobil Oil Corporation and chairman of the Sullivan signatories in America, was Sunday Times editor Tertius Myburgh. Sources here – both in the anti-apartheid movement and in Washington &ndash say Sullivan’s announcement might have affected the timing but not the substance of the corporations’ decisions to withdraw from South Africa; and the conference organisers denied any link with the Sullivan announcement, saying it had been scheduled long before. Proceedings of the conference have been kept confidential, but reliable sources say Mbeki addressed the question of economic relations between the US and South Africa in a post-apartheid society.
According to a source, he said South Africa was and would continue to be – crucially linked into the world economy. While supporting a general sanctions position, he invited US businessmen to discuss their South African involvement with the ANC. He also asked South African businesses to take stronger positions against the government, including refusing to pay army conscripts and declining government contracts. More than one source said Wheeler was harshly criticised by American businessmen, who “were really talking the language of human rights”.
Myburgh, who opposed increased sanctions, quoted a Cosatu report saying sanctions would have a devastating effect on workers. It is not the first time Cosatu has been quoted recently by both the pro and anti disinvestment lobbies. In a public television debate on Ford’s pending withdrawal, screened earlier this week, Alan Keayes of the State Department quoted a “draft Cosatu report” in support of his argument against corporate withdrawal. Cosatu last week issued a statement to clarify what it called “deliberate confusion caused by the leakage” of the document It said the document was still under discussion that Cosatu stood by its support for “all forms of international pressure against apartheid”.
While there is still ambivalence about Ford’s disinvestment – both in the State Department and the anti-apartheid movement – the divestment lobby has welcomed Citibank’s announcement that it will sell its wholly-owned South African subsidiary to the First National Bank of Southern Africa, formerly Barclays National Bank Ltd, in a transaction expected to be completed by June 30. “This will trigger a new wave of corporate withdrawals,” predicted Tim Smith of the Interfaith Centre for Corporate Responsibility, who debated with Keayes on Ford’s withdrawal. He reiterated his view that US companies – like IBM, Ford and the oil companies – had strengthened the apartheid state by selling products to the police and military.
An anti-apartheid demonstration scheduled outside Citicorp’s plush Manhattan headquarters on June 16 turned into a celebration hours after the giant corporation announced its withdrawal from South Africa. The 500-strong solidarity demonstration was the most manifest sign of a critical and far-reaching debate aired here recently about the current and future role of US business in South Africa.
Citibank has long been targetted by the American anti-apartheid movement as the only remaining US bank in South Africa Recently 14 percent of its shareholders called on the bank to withdraw from South Africa. US churches have withdrawn $125- million (R250-million) from accounts in protest at the bank’s South African investments and New York City has voted to divest its stock. Citibank has also been pressured in its home state, California, which is one of 21 American states to have sold off investments in US banks and corporations involved in South Africa.
The sale of the South African subisidary, which ranked 19th among South African banks in terms of assets and 23rd in terms of deposits, will probably have a more critical effect on the economy than Ford’s withdrawal. Although Citibank’s staff numbered only 185, compared to Ford’s 15 000 employees, its significance lies in the size, influence and international financial clout of its parent body. Although there is not yet clarity about the future of Citicorp’s Diners Club subsidiary in South Africa nor about whether they will continue to extend trade-financing loans, the disivestment movement hem pronounced Citibank’s withdrawal as a “victory” and has now turned its attention to the Shell and Mobil Oil corporations.
The anti-apartheid movement is concerned, though, that Ford’s withdrawal still leaves space for the use of the Ford logo and the sale of Ford vehicles in South Africa. They and the United Auto Workers’ union, which discussed the terms of withdrawal at a recent World Ford Auto Council meeting, are reacting cautiously to the company’s proposal to hand over a proportion of its shares to the organised workforce and to allow two union representatives on the new company’s board of directors. “We are awaiting guidance from the South African union before we do anything,” said a UAW representative in Washington.
Ford effectively began the process of disinvestment a year ago when, in the context of a failing domestic auto market, it closed its Port Elizabeth operation and merged with the Anglo-American owned Amcar. At least one of the divesting companies – ITT – may simply have been making political capital in response to these pressures. Its decision to sell off holdings in South Africa was actually made in October, soon after the passage of the US Comprehensive Anti-apartheid Act and the deal was completed by the beginning of May.
ITT’s sale of the brake manufactures, Alfred Teves Technologies, was to local management backed financially by First National Bank (then Barclays Bank). Alfred Teves’ managing director, John Brandtner, says nothing has changed in terms of the company’s operations and its presence on the market. But the company can now respond more flexibly and appropriately to local economic conditions and to the needs of its workforce, he argues. – Pippa Green and Hilary Joffe
This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail newspaper