Academic boycott of South Africa

International opposition
to Apartheid in South Africa

Academic boycottSporting boycott
DisinvestmentConstructive engagement

Instruments and legislation

UN Resolution 1761 (1962)
Crime of Apartheid Convention (1973)
Gleneagles Agreement (1977)
Sullivan Principles (1977)
Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (1986)


Anti-Apartheid Movement
UN Special Committee against Apartheid
Artists United Against Apartheid
Halt All Racist Tours
Organisation of African Unity


1964 Conference for Economic Sanctions
1978 World Conference against Racism

UN Security Council Resolutions

Resolution 181Resolution 191
Resolution 282Resolution 418
Resolution 435Resolution 591

Other aspects

Elimination of Racism Day
Biko (song)Activists
Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute
Equity television programming ban

The academic boycott of South Africa consisted of series of boycotts of South African academic institutions and scholars initiated in the 1960s, at the request of the African National Congress, with the goal of using such international pressure to force the end South Africa's system of apartheid. The boycotts were part of a larger international campaign of "isolation" that eventually included political, economic, cultural and sports boycotts. The academic boycotts ended in 1990 when its stated goal of ending apartheid was achieved.[1]

During apartheid era, the boycotts were debated within anti-apartheid circles as to whether they were ethically justified and appropriate.[1] Other critics of the boycott were various conservative groups worldwide who "disliked such anti-apartheid initiatives", and campus libertarians who "perceived a loss of academic freedom".[2]

Subsequent research in the post-apartheid area has claimed that the boycotts were more a "symbolic gesture of support" for anti-apartheid efforts rather than a direct influencer of the situation.[1] Additionally, the academic boycott was perceived by the targets of the boycott, South Africa scholars, as unjust and discriminatory.[1]


[edit] Motivation

The African National Congress first called for an academic boycott to protest South African apartheid in 1958 in Ghana. The call was repeated the following year in London.[3]

[edit] Formal Declarations

[edit] British Academics

In 1965, 496 university professors and lecturers from 34 British universities signed the following declaration in protest against apartheid and violations of academic freedom. They made special reference to the issuance of banning orders against Jack Simons and Eddie Roux, two well-known progressive academics.[4]


We, the (undersigned) professors and lecturers in British universities in consultation with the Anti-Apartheid Movement:

  1. Protest against the bans imposed on Professors Simons and Roux;
  2. Protest against the practice of racial discrimination and its extension to higher education;
  3. Pledge that we shall not apply for or accept academic posts in South African universities which practise racial discrimination.

[edit] United Nations

In 1980, the United Nations passed a resolution urging "all academic and cultural institutions to terminate all links with South Africa".[2]

[edit] Apartheid-era debate

Apartheid in South Africa
Events and Projects

Sharpeville massacre
Soweto uprisingTreason Trial
Rivonia Trial
Church Street bombingCODESA
St James Church massacre
Cape Town peace march


Conservative PartyECCPPRP
BroederbondNational Party


P. W. BothaD. F. Malan
Nelson Mandela
Desmond TutuF. W. de Klerk
Walter SisuluHelen Suzman
Harry SchwarzAndries Treurnicht
H. F. VerwoerdSheena Duncan
Oliver Tambo
B. J. VorsterKaiser Matanzima
Jimmy KrugerSteve Biko
Mahatma GandhiJoe Slovo
Trevor HuddlestonHector Pieterson
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela
Mangosuthu Buthelezi


BantustanDistrict SixRobben Island
SophiatownSouth-West Africa
SowetoSun CityVlakplaas

Other aspects

Afrikaner nationalism
Apartheid lawsFreedom Charter
Sullivan PrinciplesKairos Document
Disinvestment campaign
South African Police

"The ethical and other issues surrounding the academic boycott deeply divided the academic community, both within and outside South Africa." [1]

[edit] Proponents

"Boycott proponents argued that academics should not be treated as an elite detached from the political and social environment in which it functions, especially since some of the South African universities seemed to be tools of the Nationalist government." [1]

[edit] Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu, a prominent leader within the anti-apartheid, described his clear support for the academic boycott of South Africa. He wrote that it needed to be maintained for institutions which had a bad record in opposing apartheid, but could be lifted for others as the political situation eased. The boycott had "certainly made a number of people sit up and take notice, especially the so-called liberal universities." [5]

"They thought that just as a matter of right they would find acceptance because they were allowing blacks into their establishments. I mustn't belittle them too much, I think that they did stand up for academic freedom and so forth, but I don't think myself actually that they were sufficiently vigorous and the boycott helped to knock sense into their heads, to realise that they did have a role in seeking to undermine that vicious system [of apartheid]."
"I would, I think, now still say that we maintain [the academic boycott] insofar as, if for instance academics from here want to go to South Africa then you want to look at who is inviting them. Under whose auspices are they going? Are they going to institutions that have a good track record in their opposition to apartheid? But I would say that as things begin to ease up, this ought perhaps to be one of the first of the constraints that goes to give some of these people the reward."
"But I would myself say it is important for academics outside of South Africa also to say they want to reward places like UWC which stuck their necks out and then let these others get the crumbs that remain from the table."

[edit] Opponents

"Opposition to this boycott persisted throughout the 80s: conservatives around the world disliked such anti-apartheid initiatives; campus libertarians perceived a loss of academic freedom; and some liberal South Africans argued that their universities, as centres of resistance to apartheid, made precisely the wrong targets."[2]

[edit] From within anti-Apartheid circles

Opponents from within anti-Apartheid circles "argued that ideas and knowledge should be treated differently than tangible commodities, that obstacles to information access could actually hurt the victims of apartheid (for example, retard medical research and, ultimately, reduce the quality of health care), and that an academic boycott (in contrast to economic, trade, or political boycott) would not even be noticed by the South African government. Change is much more likely to occur by providing information than by withholding it." [1]

"Such a boycott would cut a university off from its life blood, the nurturing flow of ideas.... The campaign plays directly into the hands of the destructive right-wing in this country which would also dearly love to cut us off from the world and its influences." [6]

Solomon Benatar, a critic, wrote that "Academic boycott has been justified as an appropriate political strategy in the struggle against the oppression of apartheid. Moral outrage against racist policies has led to the claim that academic boycott is a morally imperative component of a broader sanctions policy. This claim has neither been substantiated by a reasoned ethical argument nor weighted against an ethically justifiable approach that is consistent with universal humanitarian aspirations and which allows rejection of apartheid to be coupled to constructive endeavours." [7]

[edit] "Selective" Alternatives

Solomon Benator[8], a professor at University of Cape Town, and others advocated an alternative proposal: a "selective boycott"/"selective support" effort which would boycott South African organizations only if they were practitioners of apartheid and would extend support to organizations that did not practice apartheid. This alternative proposal was criticized because of both "the practical problems of implementation" and that "it implicitly endorsed the idea that political views are valid determinants of who should attend scholarly meetings, whose work should be published, and so on."[1]

[edit] Post-Apartheid analysis

"That most of the scholars in our study judged the boycott to be an irritant or inconvenience, rather than a significant barrier to scholarly progress, suggests that it proved more a symbolic gesture than an effective agent of change." [1]

[edit] Easily circumvented

"The academic boycott was more of an irritation than a true obstacle to scholarly progress." [1]

"In most cases, scholars and libraries were able to circumvent the boycott one way or another-for example, by using "third parties" in less antagonistic countries although with delays and at greater expense." [1]

[edit] Perceived as unjust discrimination

"Many [South African] scholars felt left out, isolated, unjustly discriminated against." [1]

"Suspicions were created" ... "that a submission was really rejected for political reasons, not the reasons claimed", "that the high incidence of inactive research materials, such as biological agents and antibodies, received by South African institutions was not a mere coincidence" [1]

[edit] Comparisons to academic boycotts of Israel

The academic boycott of South Africa is frequently invoked as a model for more recent efforts to organize academic boycotts of Israel.[2]

Some invoke the comparison to claim that an academic boycott of Israel should not be controversial based a misconception that the academic boycott of South Africa was uncontroversial and straightforward. The reality, at the time, was very different. The effort was the subject of significant criticism and contentious debate from diverse segments. Andrew Beckett writes, in the Guardian, on this frequent mistaken comparison:

"In truth, boycotts are blunt weapons. Even the most apparently straightforward and justified ones, on closer inspection, have their controversies and injustices."[2]

Other, such as Hillary and Stephen Rose in Nature, make the comparison and argue for an academic boycott of Israel based on a belief that the academic boycott of South Africa was effective in ending apartheid. George Fink responds to this claim in a letter to Nature:

"The assertion [...] that the boycott of South Africa by the world's academic communities 'was instrumental in ending apartheid in South Africa' is a deception.

The African National Congress, which was the leading anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, has published extensive documentation to support their assertion that the boycott campaign was, indeed, instrumental in ending apartheid.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m F.W. Lancaster & Lorraine Haricombe, The Academic Boycott of South Africa: Symbolic Gesture or Effective Agent of Change?, Perspectives on the Professions, Vol. 15, No. 1, Fall 1995, accessed September 16 2006
  2. ^ a b c d e Andy Beckett, It's water on stone - in the end the stone wears out, The Guardian, December 12 2002, accessed September 16 2006
  3. ^ Building the Academic Boycott in Britain, Hilary Rose, Resisting Israeli Apartheid: Strategies and Principles, An International Conference on Palestine, London, 5 December 2004
  4. ^ a b * Spotlight on South Africa, Dar es Salaam, November 26, 1965, reprinted by on the ANC Website for Historical Documents [1]
  5. ^ Bishopscourt Update Item No 252, July 11, 1990
  6. ^ Editorial in Cape Times (1986), quoted in Book Review of Out in the Cold: Academic Boycotts and the Isolation of South Africa, Ralph Crawshaw, BMJ 1995;311:136 (8 July)
  7. ^ Solomon Benatar, Academic boycott: political strategy or moral imperative? Selective support as a justifiable alternative, S Afr Med J. 80(4):206-7, August 17 1991, accessed July 6 2006
  8. ^ Solomon R. Benatar, An alternative to academic boycott, Nature 343, 505 - 506, February 8 1990, accessed September 16 2006.

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