The Academic Boycott of South Africa: Symbolic Gesture or Effective Agent of Change?

by F. W. Lancaster (University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign) and Lorraine Haricombe (Northern Illinois University) | Perspectives on the Profession (Periodical of the Centre for the Study of Ethics for the Profession), Illinois Institute of Technology |

From the early 1960s until very recently, scholars in South Africa were subjected to various forms of boycott within the international academic community. The academic boycott, strongly supported by the African National Congress and agencies of the United Nations, was part of a much broader sanctions campaign including political, economic, cultural, and sports elements designed to express condemnation of the policy of apartheid and to force change in the racial policies of the South African government. The academic boycott was intended to "isolate" scholars in South Africa by depriving them of the formal and informal sources of information needed to further their research and of the conduits through which they could bring their own work to the attention of the international community.

Manifestations and Levels of the Boycott

At least eight manifestations of this boycott can be recognized:

1. Scholars refusing to travel to South Africa or to invite South Africans abroad;
2. Publishers, journals, and the like, refusing to publish South African manuscripts;
3. Scholars abroad refusing to collaborate with South African scholars;
4. Publishers abroad refusing to provide access to information (for example, books or computer software);
5. International conferences barring South Africans;
6. Institutions abroad denying South African academics access;
7. Institutions abroad refusing to recognize South African degrees;
8. Scholars abroad refusing to act as external examiners for theses presented at South African universities.

Elements of such a boycott can exist at national, institutional, or personal levels. At the national level, for example, some countries including Japan, India, Finland, and the Soviet Union routinely denied visas to South Africans. At the institutional level, scholarly bodies prevented South Africans from attending their conferences, rejected manuscripts submitted for publication, or otherwise put obstacles in the way of scholarly discourse with South Africans. Trinity College, Dublin, provides an extreme example: it forbade its faculty to collaborate with South Africans, threatening those who disobeyed with censure or dismissal.

Views on the Boycott

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

Opponents of the boycott 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.

A compromise position, advocated by some, was that of "selective boycott" or "selective support" - organizations in South Africa should be boycotted if they practiced apartheid and supported if they opposed it. This approach was also severely criticized both because of the practical problems of implementation and because 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.

A Book Boycott

A particularly controversial element in the academic boycott of South Africa was the "book boycott." Books, journals, and other scholarly materials were not included in the trade boycott enforced by the United States under the terms of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, but some countries, such as Denmark, applied an absolute embargo. Elsewhere individual publishers, booksellers, or other vendors were free to adopt their own policies.

Both the Association of American Publishers and the Association of American University Presses opposed an embargo on scholarly materials. Nevertheless, several major U.S. publishers imposed their own boycott. One was University Microfilms International, which cut off the supply of dissertations to South Africa, causing one South African librarian to point out that getting materials from the Soviet Union had become easier than getting them from the United States.

A large and vocal element within the American Library Association (ALA) favored an absolute boycott and some public libraries (and their parent entities) refused to do business with any publisher, bookseller, or other vendor that continued to trade with South Africa. A resolution introduced at an ALA conference in 1987 to oppose the book boycott on the grounds that it violated First Amendment rights was labeled "racist" and decisively defeated. Individual libraries, in the United States and elsewhere, refused to supply photocopies or other materials to libraries in South Africa. In some cases, requests were returned with anti-apartheid slogans scribbled across them.

Impact of the Boycott

During the year 1990-1991, we surveyed a random sample of faculty in all disciplines in twenty-one South African universities to determine what effect the boycott had on their scholarly activities. (There are actually twenty-two such institutions, excluding those in the homelands, but we accidentally omitted one.) The survey used both questionnaires and interviews.

Of the 900 questionnaires mailed (300 in the sciences, 300 in the humanities, 300 in the social sciences), 513 (57%) were completed. Forty-two faculty members were subsequently interviewed in their faculty offices in South Africa.

A second questionnaire was mailed to twenty-eight research libraries in South Africa, to determine the effects of the boycott on their acquisitions and services. Twenty-three responded. Eight of the librarians were subsequently interviewed in South Africa.

Since the survey results are extensive, we can give only highlights here. (For more detail, see Haricombe and Lancaster, Out in the Cold: Academic Boycotts and the Isolation of South Africa, Arlington, VA, Information Resources Press, 1995.)

About 57% of the respondents had experienced some boycott effects. A higher percentage of scholars in the humanities and arts reported effects than in the other disciplines, but scholars in the sciences were more likely than the others to consider the effects severe. Faculty at the English universities were more likely to report effects than those at the Afrikaans universities. Faculty at the "Ethnic" (mostly Black) universities were least likely to report effects. Refusal of scholars to visit South Africa and difficulty in obtaining information resources were the boycott effects reported most frequently (155 scholars affected by the former and 153 by the latter). Of the 513 respondents to the questionnaire, 76 (15%) reported denial of attendance at conferences abroad, 48 (9%) reported problems in collaborating with scholars abroad, and 31 (6%) reported manuscript rejection by foreign publishers.

Comments on the questionnaires, together with the results of the interviews, lead us to the following general conclusions:

The numerical results of the survey are likely to underestimate the extent of the boycott effects because some scholars applied "self boycott" (for example, not applying to conferences abroad, not submitting to certain journals).

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

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.

The academic boycott actually had some effects that could be considered beneficial. Lacking convenient access to foreign textbooks, some faculty members wrote their own, more appropriate to the South African situation; some departments moved from the study of Dutch literature to the study of the domestic literature.

The boycott had intangible, psychological effects that are difficult to assess. Many scholars felt left out, isolated, unjustly discriminated against. Suspicions were created-for example, that a submission was really rejected for political reasons, not the reasons claimed, or that the high incidence of inactive research materials, such as biological agents and antibodies, received by South African institutions was not a mere coincidence. Barriers to the free exchange of information with foreign scholars seem not to have improved collaboration at the local level. Indeed, scholars frequently felt that the isolation brought more local acrimony than local harmony.

Writing in 1986 (Journal of Applied Philosophy, 3. 59-72), W. H. Shaw pointed out that a boycott can have actual effects or it can be merely "symbolic" (for example, serve to assuage the conscience of individuals who are otherwise passive). 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.
Posted by: Mona Baker on Aug 09, 03 | 5:40 pm