Politics, Ethics, and Corporate Policy: U.S. Corporations' 1986 Position Papers on South Africa

Article excerpt

This article analyzes 48 position papers U.S. corporations distributed in 1986 to define and defend their presence in South Africa under aparthid. As public statements about one of the most difficult business and ethical issues ever faced by U.S. corporations, these papers constitute a special moment in the history of business writing. Unique in its economic, political, and ethical complexity, this situation required corporations to depart from traditional ways of making decisions and traditional ways of writing about those decisions. These corporations, all but one signatories to the Sullivan Principles, evolved a unique structure that allowed them to enter the debate on divestiture, yet minimize their rhetorical exposure. The limitations inherent in that new pattern became evident, however, in the mid-1980s as the debate became more intense and frustrating for executives and their corporations. The essay also examines the pivotal role of Leon Sullivan, the African American minister who organized these corpo rations in their anti apartheid efforts, monitored their efforts, pushed them to do more, served as their rhetorical point man in opposition to divestiture, and helped define them as a discourse community.

Keywords: Corporate Policy, Ethics, History of Business Communication, South African Business Communication

One of the most complex and difficult ethical issues faced by many U.S. corporations in the 1980s was whether to continue operations in South Africa, a decision made even more complex and political by pressure from individuals and organizations who believed that the mere presence of U.S. corporations in South Africa supported that country's government and its unjust apartheid policies. [1] Debate on the issue became a high-profile, highly-emotional public issue. In response to these pressures, many of the companies who conducted business in South Africa produced position papers to describe their operations and their reasons for maintaining operations there. This paper analyzes 48 of these position papers written and distributed by U.S. corporations shortly before or during 1986.

The pressures on U.S. corporations doing business in South Africa were at their height in 1986. As resistance to apartheid and violence in South Africa increased, the South African government responded by declaring a state of emergency, which only served to escalate the tension and violence. In the United States, the debate over whether U.S.-based multinational corporations should divest themselves of their South African holdings intensified. Influential, well-meaning people such as religious leaders, university presidents, and politicians disagreed over what was the most moral and effective means of exerting pressure on the South African government to end its apartheid policies. Should U.S. corporations be asked or even forced to pull out of South Africa thus isolating the government by denying it essential goods and services? Or should corporations continue to operate in South Africa and work against apartheid by hiring black African employees, training them to become technicians and managers, providing th em with better housing and educational opportunities--in short, undercutting apartheid by creating growing enclaves of economic and personal equality within that repressive system? Should the United States government take a more active role in its opposition to apartheid by imposing economic and political sanctions? The debate raged in meetings of corporate boards, university trustees, church leaders, state legislatures, and congressional committees; and it spilled into the streets with demonstrations in Washington, on Wall Street, and on college and university campuses. [2]

Many of those U.S. corporations who chose to stay in South Africa were signatories to the "Statement of Principles of U.S. Firms with Affiliates in the Republic of South Africa" and the organization created to monitor the progress of these corporations in achieving the goals inherent in those principles. …