Harvard’s South Africa Internships

The problem with an all-Ivory tower

With timing that struck many students as suspect, President Derek Bok established a $1 million fund last October to be used for "educational programs to assist black South Africans." The decision to create both the fund and a Committee on South Africa (COSA) to administer it was seen as a rush attempt to mitigate renewed criticism of Harvard's $400 million investment in companies that do business in South Africa. 

In March, with what seemed more astute preemptive timing, the University suspended plans for its proposed South Africa Internship Program before sending any interns abroad. The aborted program had been the first suggestion presented by COSA, and many students opposed it because of its implicit intent to work within, rather than fundamentally challenge, the apartheid system. 

Despite the cynicism about motives, students at first seemed receptive to the internships. The situation changed, however, when an article in the Harvard University Gazette described five months of teaching and coaching by Dolf Berle '85 at the Michaelhouse School in Natal as a prototype for future internships. Berle was positive about his experience at a multiracial private school and suggested in a written report that a productive course for Harvard would be to fund black students entering white private schools. He added that because revolution in South Africa did not appear imminent, "sooner or later ties with the government must be formed if real progress in black education is to occur." 

Alarmed that Berle's work at a 90-percent-white private school was seen as a model internship, members of the antiapartheid, pro-divestment Southern Africa Solidarity Committee (SASC) decided to examine the list of "available South Africa internships" on file at the Office of Career Services. That resulted in a 48-page report condemning the specific internships proposed and raising doubts about the wisdom of creating any type of South African internship program at present. 

The SASC report, released two days before the January 31 internship application deadline, asserted that three of five private schools listed "were the schools which educate [much of] the English-speaking white business and political community"; the two science and technical-training positions were with organizations that aim to help blacks in state-run schools, despite the fact that "for the past year and a half the students and teachers in Black state schools have been on strike"; and the last two listings were for positions in Namibia, which South Africa occupies in contravention of a 1969 UN Security Council resolution. Most of this information was readily available in Widener Library, noted Damon Silvers '86, author of the report. 

Defending the program against this unexpected attack, COSA chairman Daniel Steiner, University vice president and general counsel, said that the initial list simply represented "organizations that wrote to one particular office and asked to participate. The list neither included organizations like university or social support programs nor represented . . . final selections." 

Robert Neer '86 suggested Steiner "didn't anticipate the political repercussions of posting such a list." Neer had applied for an internship because of an interest in South African politics and a desire to spend time abroad. He noted that although SASC probably prejudged the program for its own political ends, its report was still useful in "focusing attention on the way internships were being set up." The most conspicuous problem SASC cited was COSA's failure to seek input from black South Africans—the very group it ostensibly wants to help—in designing the program. 

Steiner explained that the idea of internships developed after Professor Alan Heimert, director of Harvard's South African Fellowship Program, spoke with various South African organizations last November, and after consultation "with a number of people here in Cambridge, black and white, including some black South Africans." SASC's own discussions with black South Africans, however, led it to conclude that teaching internships were currently inappropriate. SASC questions the very premise of the program: the assumption that one can play a useful, apolitical role 

as educator while working within the extreme constraints imposed on black education by apartheid. Silvers said the notion that "we're educators, we don't deal with politics" is "absurd and dangerous; nothing could be more political than education in South Africa. The very idea of sending American college students to South Africa is not well received by many South African blacks," who tend to think the harm caused by accepting the ground rules of an inherently racist school system would outweigh any possible benefits. SASC member Chris Riley '86 notes: "Blacks will probably be boycotting schools this year. One can picture a Harvard intern sitting in an empty classroom." Since many black teachers are already engaged in protest strikes, interns could risk undermining the black cause by playing the role of scabs. 

Clarisa Bencomo '86, who spent last summer as a volunteer in South Africa working with the activist women's organization, Black Sash, described the catch-22 of intern placement: "On white campuses there are few blacks, and those who are there are going to make it anyway. Many black universities, on the other hand, are closed more days than they are open. In some areas there has been a teacher boycott for almost two years, and there is frequent use of rubber bullets and tear gas on campus. Just this past December students had to take their controversial matric exams [to enter universities] under armed guard. In Soweto, many teachers had to leave because the state of emergency made it too dangerous to teach in the townships. Whites were not even allowed there without special permission." 

Beyond all pragmatic objections, Riley suggests that "the educational system may not be reformable from the inside." Nevertheless, SASC did not reject the notion of internships outright. "If SASC felt black South Africans wanted the internships, we would want them too—we are a Solidarity Committee," Riley said. However, members' telephone conversations with spokesmen for the African National Congress, the United Democratic Front, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and the Reverend Allan Boesak yielded mainly nays. 

Even nonteaching internships, though in many ways less politically objectionable, are not problem-free. Some black South Africans have called it "presumptuous" of Harvard to assume that students without special technical training can contribute anything of value in a period of months. Applicant Neer says he doesn't have "any big illusions about what the program can do for South African blacks," conceding that benefits are likely to accrue mainly to the interns. 

Bencomo confirmed this view in describing her work with Black Sash, although she stresses the informational value of internships. "It's good to have people go to see what's going on; you get a range of knowledge there's simply no other way to get. Whether or not that proves helpful to South African blacks is more a matter of what students do when they return home. If you do anything, it's on a very small scale—you try to recapture what it was like for you. . . . My time there was a wonderful experience for me. . . . Black Sash is probably the most credible white organization. . . . But I don't know how much I did toward helping blacks in a meaningful way. I helped some obtain legal rights related to the pass laws, but I helped a maximum of fifty to a hundred people." If the University considers student edification sufficient justification for the internships, says Bencomo, "they're certainly not making it clear; they're not arguing that stance." 

A March faculty meeting that considered the internship issue revealed professors were also ambivalent about the program. While noting that the SASC report was not totally accurate, faculty members regarded it as the work of serious students and suggested the University respond to its many objections before going on with the program. The administration agreed to postpone action pending a second faculty review, and to answer the questions that had been raised. 

The University "needed to put on the brakes for a while and cure itself of some fundamental misconceptions," says Silvers. "Harvard has a pretty weird idea that South Africa provides an ideal opportunity for its students to do Third World social work in a First World environment. You don't have to live in the muck in Tanzania and get African sleeping sickness [to help]—you can live somewhere much like a Harvard House and have sherry every afternoon." 

Students have been suggesting more appropriate uses for the $1 million fund, such as expanding Harvard's current fellowship program to enable more black South Africans to gain the professional training in medicine, education, and law that is unavailable to them at home. Organizational networks also exist for aiding refugees, sponsored by Bishop Tutu, Boston relief agencies, or the United Nations. 

Many black South African organizations desperately need money or materials, Silvers says. Even obsolete photocopying machines, outdated microcomputers, and used books would be useful to groups like SACHED (an educational organization involved in working with trade unions), which is trying to fill the educational gap left by striking teachers. "These are situations in which it's not really appropriate to send people over," says Silvers, "but any kind of material aid could be used." 

Asked whether he thought SASC should have a voice in designing any revised internship program, Silvers replies: "There are people who are better informed and have more of a right to a say than SASC, and they have not yet been consulted." In Silvers's opinion, the only prudent course of action was "to stop—not to cancel, but to stop. The program seemed to have such momentum that the relevant people didn't even want to give advice, because they knew they wouldn't be listened to." This charge was apparently verified by a SASC telephone conversation with the Reverend Mr. Boesak, in which the moderate black leader said he and Bishop Tutu had mutually decided not to meet with Steiner during a recent two-week fact-finding visit to South Africa by the general counsel and Professor Heimert. 

It is encouraging that COSA has at last heeded requests to halt and reevaluate the internships, and there is hope that good intentions will yet be realized in good programs. Nevertheless, the acrimonious and reactive nature of the exchanges between SASC and the committee has made an ironic statement about the possibilities of "constructive engagement" on such divisive moral and political issues, even in an open university in a free country. What this says about possibilities for such engagement in South Africa is a question that merits thoughtful consideration. 

Read more articles by: Claudia Polsky

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