Leon Sullivan’s Call Strengthens the Anti-Apartheid Movement

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<i> Coretta Scott King is the president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta</i>

When the Rev. Leon Sullivan abandoned his Sullivan Principles last week and called for American firms to pull out of South Africa, the anti-apartheid movement in this country was immeasurably strengthened.

A widely respected civil-rights leader even among those who opposed his more conciliatory approach to eliminating apartheid, Sullivan is also regarded as one of the most credible and influential black leaders in the nation’s corporate suites. His call to cut remaining business and diplomatic ties to South Africa will lead not only to a reevaluation of policies in corporate board rooms and the State Department; it also will unify the front ranks of the Free South Africa Movement, which supports economic and political isolation of the apartheid regime.

In the bargain, supporters of economic withdrawal from South Africa will benefit by Sullivan’s impressive leadership skills. A creative strategist, an experienced and energetic organizer and a persuasive orator, Sullivan has a pipeline to the conscience of the nation’s business Establishment. He will be heard and heeded where it counts.


As a guide for integrating the workplace, which 127 of 200 American firms adhered to, the Sullivan principles did help bring about a material improvement in the lives of thousands of black workers in South Africa, although millions more were left behind. But Sullivan’s hope that the spirit of reform would catch on and spread to the government was thwarted by the Botha regime’s escalation of terror against black South Africans.

However well-intentioned the argument that American firms should stay in South Africa as a force for racial equality, it is morally wrong for American companies to profit from a system that practices the most brutal form of racism found anywhere. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, “Foreign investors must not kid themselves. They fatten on black misery, cheap labor and the destruction of black family life.”

No one can say for certain whether the economic, social and political isolation of South Africa would help bring about equality. Gandhi’s movement for independence in India and the civil-rights movement in the United States made extensive and successful use of economic withdrawal to achieve their goals. But the strategy of a unified international boycott to bring about a democracy has never been applied before.

We do know that the Reagan Administration’s policy of constructive engagement and private corporate persuasion have failed to encourage even a shred of progress toward democratic rights for the black majority of South Africa. If the United States, Europe, Japan and Israel would refuse to do business with South Africa, sever their diplomatic relations with the apartheid government and deny landing rights to all aircraft originating in South Africa, it would put overwhelming pressure on the Botha regime to begin to dismantle apartheid.

There are two underlying reasons for Administration reluctance to do more to end apartheid: the desire to protect corporate profits, and the fear of communist influence after apartheid. Both are based on tragic misconceptions.

As Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young points out, by integrating the Southern market and labor force the American civil-rights movement “set the stage for unprecedented prosperity in the South, turning an economically stagnant Dixie into the booming Sun Belt. There is every reason to believe that greater equality would also benefit the South African economy for all investors.”


The fear that South Africa will go communist after apartheid is dismantled is equally unfounded. Every major black South African leader, from Tutu to Nelson Mandela to Chief Buthelezi, has expressed strong support of a non-racial, “one person, one vote” democracy and a mixed economic system that embraces elements of free enterprise.

The only alternative to an international boycott of South Africa is continued bloodshed and repression. Freedom-loving people all over the world are looking to the United States for leadership against apartheid. If we fail these people in this hour, our pronouncements about democracy and human rights will be discredited as hollow hypocrisy for generations to come. But if we rise to pastor Leon Sullivan’s challenge that “every American moral, economic and political force must be brought to bear . . . toward dismantling the apartheid system,” our noblest ideals will be invested with a new and undeniable credibility, and we will win the struggle for hearts and minds with pride and honor.