S. Africa Blacks Give U.S. Firms Low Mark on Apartheid

Times Staff Writer

American companies operating in South Africa boast that they are helping to dismantle apartheid, but many blacks do not see it that way, according to a new survey.

Only 35% of the black community leaders, managers and labor union officials surveyed said that the 300 or so American companies doing business here were better on “social responsibility” than South African companies--and 33% said they were not.

The rest said they did not know, indicating that the American firms had, at the least, failed to project an image as equal opportunity employers and foes of apartheid (South Africa’s system of racial separation and minority white rule).

The survey is certain to provoke controversy, for it contradicts the frequent claims of U.S. companies with branches here and of the Reagan Administration that the American firms have become a major force for peaceful change in South Africa and should not withdraw from the country, as advocates of divestiture argue.

Robyn Sealey, a sociologist and business consultant, whose Johannesburg firm, Specialist Data Services, conducted the survey, commented: “Clearly, there is no basis for American companies to be so self-satisfied, or for the Reagan Administration to claim, as it has, that U.S. firms represent the ‘state of the art in corporate citizenship’ here. Whatever their achievements and contributions, blacks regard them as nowhere near enough and largely motivated by a desire to score public relations points at home.


“American companies, and for that matter the American public, will have to ask themselves whether they are honestly here to do more than make what money they can out of apartheid,” she said. “And, if they are not simply accepting apartheid for profit, then they will have to do a lot more in working for change.”

Still, when asked to list the best companies in terms of “social responsibility,” the black leaders surveyed by Sealey listed International Business Machines first, followed by Mobil Oil (second) and Ford Motor (fourth).

The other two firms in the top five were Anglo American Corp., South Africa’s largest company and one long noted for its progressive policies, and South African Breweries, which began actively promoting social change after noting that most of its customers were black.

But 48% said that no company should be ranked as best or that they knew of none that could claim to act out of “social responsibility.”

The survey’s conclusions, based on extensive questionnaires completed by 80 black political activists, labor union officials, managers, professionals, clergymen, teachers and student leaders in Johannesburg, have been corroborated in large part by a broader study of black urban opinion by the Gallup Organization’s South African affiliate, Markinor, for the London Sunday Times.

Clearly disillusioned by the government’s failure to embark on promised reforms faster than it has, urban blacks in the Gallup survey favored for the first time by a strong majority--77%--economic sanctions against South Africa, including the withdrawal of foreign investments here.

In contrast with surveys carried out a year ago by the Center for Applied Social Research at the University of Natal in Durban, the Gallup poll showed blacks supporting sanctions even if it meant that they would lose their jobs or otherwise suffer, as nearly half of those surveyed thought that they would.

Conducted by Prof. Lawrence Schlemmer, the center’s director and the president of the South African Institute of Race Relations, the earlier surveys showed that two-thirds of urban blacks opposed sanctions, particularly the withdrawal of foreign investment, fearing that they would suffer and that the pressure would produce no change. Schlemmer sees this major shift in black opinion as the result of the sustained civil unrest over the past year and the growing feeling among urban blacks that any hardship they suffer as a result will be temporary and probably minor compared to the gains they expect from “liberation.”

The failure of business to be more active in dismantling apartheid has also contributed to the growing disenchantment with capitalism among blacks and to the calls from many black leaders for some form of socialism after majority rule begins. American companies, with few exceptions, are perceived in this context as participants in what the Azanian People’s Organization, a militant black consciousness group, calls “racist capitalism” that is based on the exploitation of the racially oppressed here.

“Even the most bourgeois blacks, the ones who are politically sophisticated and perhaps have the most to lose from a violent upheaval, have been greatly radicalized in the past 12 months,” another researcher said, asking not to be quoted by name because of professional associations with several U.S. clients.

Should Listen Closely

“American companies should listen closely to the black opinion leaders if they want to continue operating in this country. I am not talking in terms of ‘after the revolution’ but in terms of selling in a market where half the purchasing power already is black, in hiring in an urban labor market that is two-thirds black and operating in an environment where no firm can afford to become the enemy of three-quarters of the population.”

Black leaders want American companies and business in general to play a far more active role in opposing apartheid and promoting political, economic and social reforms, the Sealey survey showed. At the same time, however, blacks expressed strong doubts that the businessmen will do so, simply because, it is believed, they are profiting too much from South Africa’s present system, particularly the low-paid black labor that it provides.

“The feeling is that business should indicate to the government that certain changes are vital for South Africa’s socio-economic advancement,” Sealey said in the report, summarizing findings that are under serious study by top executives here. “But if representations and memoranda do not have the desired effects, then business must be ready and willing to take a harder line.”

That may be happening, with several of the country’s largest business organizations calling upon the government of President Pieter W. Botha to open an immediate dialogue with black leaders, including political prisoners and the exiled leaders of the African National Congress, on the country’s future. With a few exceptions, however, U.S. companies have stood back from this campaign and, after one public call for reform six months ago, have said nothing in a determined effort to maintain a low profile.

Considered Agitators

“There is absolutely no percentage in going public with the recommendations we have made to the government as an American company and in coordination with other multinationals,” the managing director of a large American firm said, requesting that he and his firm not be identified. “As soon as we do that, instead of being agents for change we become in the mind of this government either agitators or simply opportunists responding to public pressure.

“We realize, of course, that there are political negatives in keeping a low profile, chiefly that people think we are happy with apartheid, that we want to keep a racist system because it gives us cheap labor, that capitalism will sup with the devil if it pays. In this country, the arguments over ends and means can go on and on and on. My view is that it is best to change the things we can, that is, within our own company and our immediate community, and to push the government hard but quietly for fundamental reforms, making it realize that we cannot and will not stay forever if those changes do not come.”

This strategy, which might have won black approval a year ago, is now given low marks not only in Sealey’s survey of black leaders in Johannesburg but also in the broader Gallup study of urban black political opinion.

“It is vital that business address the fundamental issues,” Sealey said, summarizing the views of black leaders. “Merely tampering with or attempting to ameliorate apartheid is worse than no action at all.”

Unexpected Criticism

There was unexpectedly harsh criticism as well for the efforts of American companies as observers of fair employment practices here--one of the main claims advanced by the Reagan Administration and the companies themselves to justify their continued operations under apartheid. “The gap between company claims and worker opinion is vast,” Sealey found. “The considerable publicity surrounding individual companies’ ‘codes of employment practices,’ added to the claims of success in the equal treatment of employees of all races, does not tally with opinions expressed by employees. “The promotion of isolated managers, the training of a single specialist and the like does not address the magnitude of the problem and, equally, does not let business off the hook.”

Of the black leaders surveyed by Sealey, only 37% rated the voluntary Sullivan Code of fair employment practices observed by major American companies as “effective.” In contrast, 43% described it as “symbolic.” But only 5% dismissed it as of “no use.” (The remaining 15% expressed no opinion.)

This put the Sullivan Code well ahead of that established by the European Economic Community for Western European companies here and another followed by some South African firms. Only 12% of black leaders thought the EEC code effective, 41% saw it as symbolic, 25% said it had been of no use and 22% expressed no opinion or said they had not heard of it.

Code Ineffective

Although the 150 companies that observe the Sullivan Code received some praise for desegregating their offices and plants and improving the “quality of life” of their workers, black leaders felt the code had proved ineffective at ensuring equal employment opportunities, equal pay for equal work and the training and promotion of blacks and other nonwhites. Their criticisms included a widely perceived lack of commitment of middle-level managers, most of whom are white South Africans, to the Sullivan Code’s goals, the lack of black participation in drawing up guidelines and goals at each participating company and the large number of “loopholes” through which companies could score well on the annual evaluation but change little. What black leaders believe is necessary to strengthen Sullivan Code observance, according to Sealey’s survey, is a better monitoring system that will close the “loopholes,” measure each company against preset targets reached with black community and worker participation and establish a local monitoring office where employees could register complaints. Two basic demands emerge from Sealey’s survey:

- That businessmen in general put much greater efforts into the education and training of black workers, into improvements in health and welfare services, transport and housing for them and into lobbying the government for rapid political changes.

- That they ally themselves with the black majority in bringing apartheid to an end and set their priorities in this campaign in consultation with blacks. “The only way in which business may begin to address the perception that its politically active role (on behalf of reform) is not a stratagem designed to preserve the status quo,” Sealey said, summarizing black views, “is to meet the requirement, firmly stated in the survey, of involvement with and responsiveness to the black community.”