There will be huge disappointment from supporters of Palestinian rights and relief among supporters of Israel’s violation of those rights at the failure of the measure to divest from companies profiting from Israeli occupation at the United Methodist Church’s General Conference.
Perhaps, some may conclude, the battle is too tough and what worked against South Africa can never work against Israel.
This is a mistake. In hindsight, people forget just how long and tough the battle for divestment from apartheid South Africa was.
After today’s vote, I was reminded of this Associated Press headline from 12 July 1987 that I came across a few years ago: “Church of England rejects divestment from South Africa.”
Here’s how the report began:
Leaders of the Church of England rejected a proposal Saturday to get rid of the church’s investments in South Africa, despite pleas by some churchmen that the holdings are morally wrong.
The 570-member General Synod of bishops, clergy and laity of England’s state church voted by a show of hands to accept the annual financial report without the proposed divestment amendment.
Sir Douglas Lovelock, who as first church estates commissioner controls $3.2 billion in real estate and stocks, said the church’s only investments in South Africa were indirect, consisting of investments in multinational companies doing a fraction of their business in that country.
He said the church’s income from those South African interests amounted to about half a cent for every dollar of total income.
“For an institution of our size, if you have our sort of money to invest you have to have part of it in large international firms which trade all over the world,” he said. “They have a very small stake in South Africa and we have a very small stake in them.”
A moral not a financial issue
The Church had in fact reduced its investments in South Africa over recent years, but wasn’t prepared to go all the way. So the argument for church leaders was that the amount of money involved was very small. But for supporters of divestment then and now it was always a moral issue, about making a declaration:
The Rev. Alan Webster, dean of St. Paul’s, said: “We need to send a clear signal to the suffering people of South Africa, living under the bitter injustice of apartheid, that we are on their side. I appeal to the commissioners for rather wider consultations _ they do not realize how troubled people are by investments in an apartheid-dominated country.”
Oxford Bishop Richard Harries appealed to the commissioners to sell the church’s $39.7 million stake in Shell Transport and Trading. He said Shell “more than any other company underpins apartheid,” trades with the South African army and police and enables South Africa’s government to “carry on the illegal war in Namibia.”
But the money men weren’t swayed:
Church commissioner Philip Lovegrove said he was “fed up with the commissioners being told to do the right things so we can all have clean hands.”
“Total disinvestment from South Africa would result in a substantial loss of income and diminish the capital value of the (church’s) portfolio,” he said.
But wasn’t everyone for divestment from South Africa?
From the perspective of 2012 it scarcely seems believable that there was even a debate about this.
Remember that Desmond Tutu was the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, yet even he could not sway the leaders of his church at that point. Tutu, who was on the right side of history, made the same arguments for divestment from Israel as he did in the 1980s in a recent Tampa Bay Times op-ed hoping to sway the United Methodist Church:
A quarter-century ago I barnstormed around the United States encouraging Americans, particularly students, to press for divestment from South Africa. Today, regrettably, the time has come for similar action to force an end to Israel’s long-standing occupation of Palestinian territory and refusal to extend equal rights to Palestinian citizens who suffer from some 35 discriminatory laws.
But didn’t everyone divest from South Africa? Wasn’t it a no-brainer? The article from 1987 reminds us that it wasn’t then and it isn’t now.
Tutu had to work hard to convince churches, universities and companies to do what was right. And many of the arguments made against divestment from Israel were made a generation ago to oppose measures to punish South Africa.
Well, at least the Church of England did get it right in 2006 when it voted to divest from Caterpillar, the company that supplies Israel with the bulldozers it uses to destroy Palestinian homes.
A luta continua
I recently finished reading the memoir of another great South African, Ronnie Kasrils. In his book Armed and Dangerous about the underground struggle against apartheid, he tells how every time the ANC suffered a setback, comrades would say to one another, “A luta continua” – the Portuguese-language rallying cry of Mozambique’s liberation movement FRELIMO – “the struggle continues.”
Words to remember, immortalized by the late Miriam Makeba.