During the 1960’s, after Sharpeville, the nations who comprised the United Nations embarked on a plan to restrict capital flows to the apartheid government of South Africa. They passed a number of rules and recommendations attempting to restrict the interaction between the South African Government and the major international banks. The UN’s Special Committee on Apartheid, under the chairmanship of Abdulrahim Abby Farah, the UN representative from Somalia, called a meeting of the Special Committee at the UN New York Headquarters, from 17-18 March, 1969, to discuss the role of the international banks in supporting South Africa and to make a plan to expand the campaign to get these banks to boycott capital interactions with the South Africans.
Invitees to the meeting were drawn from several U.S. groups active in the anti-apartheid movement. I was invited as the specialist on Africa from the United Auto Workers (UAW) and as a Board Member of the American Committee on Africa, led by George Hauser. I had been one of the main contacts for the African liberation struggle leaders who visited the U.S. and had taken many to the House and Senate Committees for meetings. I had also arranged their meetings with groups like SNCC, CORE, NAACP, and others. I was very pleased to be invited to the meeting and hoped to contribute my thoughts on the issue.
We convened in a large conference room in the UN where, in addition to the invitees, there was a substantial group of UN delegates from countries which supported the anti-Apartheid movement. The program opened with an introduction by Ambassador Farah and followed by speeches by the Algerian and Nigerian ambassadors. Oliver Tambo was there on behalf of the ANC and he made a speech. After several more speeches we were allowed to speak.
I was more than ready to speak. In fact, I was quite upset. I had just been looking at the day’s New Yok Times newspaper where I saw a quarter-page ad by the Chemical Bank of New York Trust headlined by the line “The American Capitalist”. It descried the role of the Chemical Bank in arranging a large loan and ancillary financing of a Japanese company to buy iron ore from South Africa. This was the very thing we were meeting to discuss and, with good effort, prevent. I rose and asked permission to read the text of the advertisement into the record of the Committee. I did so and then said “Here you have a major American bank financing apartheid. You should realise that this is no rogue bank; this is the official bank of the United Nations. Your salaries and expenses are paid through this bank. It has branches inside UN installations worldwide. If you want the world to support the Banks Campaign of the UN perhaps you can start with your own bank.”
After a moment of silence heated discussions broke out. Mr Reddy, the administrator of the Committee, confirmed that Chemical Bank was the official bank of the UN. Chairman Farah called upon the Algerian delegate and the Indian delegate to speech who pronounced their outrage at what I had discovered. They. believe it or not, agreed to send a telegram to the UN Secretary-General from the floor of the meeting requesting an urgent response and review. I suggested that the UN Secretary-General’s office was only six floors above us and I would volunteer to hand deliver it immediately. I was told this telegram was the normal procedure for UN business. We broke for lunch.
I was having lunch with Oliver Tambo who was quite pleased with the proceedings so far. He did say to me “You may feel that this was an important blow for the Banks Campaign, but don’t be fooled. Nothing will happen but chit-chat and pointing fingers. The banks will go on lending as usual”. He was wise. There were stories in the press; there were earnest discussions with the anti-apartheid groups; there were fiery speeches from the African delegates. What finally happened as the result of my speech was that the copywriter of the article at the newspaper lost his job. Everything else went, as Tambo promised, out of the minds of the Committee.
I was immensely proud that I had used my opportunity to speak at the UN with some effect but, in retrospect, I had learned an important lesson. One cannot move international institutions by speeches or embarrassment. The United Nations is a permanent compromise looking for problems to work on. It was a bitter lesson for me in my youthful naivete but helped to shape my future expectations. I attach the official Committee report on my intervention and a picture of me before my speech, with Ambassador Farah.
“Although sympathetic U.N. delegations were aware of and concerned about the bank campaign, it was again in 1969 that action look concrete form. In 1966, the General Assembly resolution on the policies of apartheid had appealed to all Slates to “discourage loans by banks in their countries to the Government of South Africa or South African companies,” but in March, 1969, during a Special Committee on Apartheid seminar held at U.N. headquarters, the question of Chemical Bank, a consortium member, being the bank located at the U.N., came to a head. By chance. Chemical Bank New York Trust Company had placed an advertisement in the New York Times the same day as the seminar meeting in which it lauded the bank’s role in securing a deal between South Africa and Japan for the sale of iron. This remarkable situation, where U.N. resolutions were in essence being ignored by the United Nations itself, resulted in proposals by the Special Committee to the Secretary General asking an investigation of Chemical Bank’s role at the U.N. This culminated in a General Assembly Resolution passed in November, 1969, which called upon the United Nations and its affiliates “to refrain from extending facilities to banks and other financial institutions which provide assistance to South Africa and firms registered there.”