THE DECISION BY GENERAL MOTORS and IBM to pull out of South Africa by selling off their operations there by the end of the year is nothing to cheer about.
Both GM and IBM have been in the forefront of pushing for constructive change in South Africa. But GM, in particular, will be missed. GM set the standards for proper treatment of workers in South Africa, regardless of color. GM is also one of the biggest U.S. employers in South Africa, with some 3,000 workers at two major plants in Port Elizabeth. Annual sales total around $300 million.GM's decision, based on continued economic losses and "the slowness of progress in ending apartheid," is being hailed by anti-apartheid activists as a major victory. It isn't.
GM has been a strong supporter of organized labor in the country, which has helped improve wages and living conditions for the blacks and coloreds. Rev. Leon Sullivan, undoubtedly one of the most effective black leaders in the U.S. today, sits on the GM board. He personally led the fight for improved conditions in South Africa for non-white people. The "Sullivan Principles," used as a measurement of how well companies are treating minorities in the country, were formulated by Rev. Sullivan.
"They (GM) were the people who were willing to go the extra mile to lobby for the end of apartheid," said Tim Smith, executive director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a New York-based anti-apartheid organization. "By doing this, they are basically admitting their efforts have come to naught."
We disagree. GM, for more than 15 years, has used its capital, management skill and concern for the welfare of blacks and coloreds in Africa to actively erode apartheid. Each day this was a struggle. Changes introduced and implemented by GM were for the better. GM's efforts can in no way be construed as having come to naught.
We do not criticize GM or IBM for deciding to walk away. Their efforts to date can brook little criticism. We wish each company would change its mind. Without them there, conditions will only get worse.
Those who live and work in the United States and applaud the move are wrong. As poet John Milton said long ago, "Cloistered virtue is of little value."