September-October 2006

The South African Boycott Experience

Jonathan Hyslop
Salim Vally
Shireen Hassim

Jonathan Hyslop,
Deputy Director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research,
University of the Witwatersrand

In the current debate about calls for an academic boycott of Israel, the history of the boycott of South Africa during the apartheid era has become an important standard. That history is represented in strikingly different ways by the opposing camps. For proponents of a boycott of Israeli universities, the South African campaign is a clear precedent to follow. In the eyes of the drafters of the AAUP report “On Academic Boycotts,” on the other hand, the AAUP never supported an academic boycott of South Africa. According to the statement, what they backed was a campaign for economic divestment.

Throughout the high point of the academic boycott, from the early 1980s to the end of that decade, I was on the staff of the University of Witwatersrand, better known as Wits, the Johannesburg university where I still work. The campus was highly politicized, and as a member of the executive of the academic staff association, I followed the issue of the academic boycott closely and participated in many discussions about it. For a time, I supported a selective form of the academic boycott.

But far from being an unproblematic strategy, the South African academic boycott was riddled with conflicts among its supporters, inconsistencies, and minor injustices. It was plagued by the problem of unintended consequences. In my view, it had no important political effect in undermining apartheid and, I will suggest in this paper, may have had a minor negative impact on postapartheid society.

The account of the boycott implicit in the AAUP report is equally unconvincing. If, as claimed, antiapartheid American scholars were pursuing a divestment campaign rather than an academic boycott, they never succeeded in conveying this fine distinction to South African colleagues at the time. It certainly appeared to us, from our experience, that American universities, scholars, and journals were boycotting South African universities, at least as strongly as their British colleagues. Indeed, while I can recall several significant British scholars giving support to antiapartheid activities on South African campuses in the 1980s, I can recall no examples of activist American scholars who were equally flexible in their approach to the boycott. For practical purposes, there was an American academic boycott of South Africa in the 1980s.

My purpose in this essay is not to prescribe to Palestinian, Israeli, British, or American scholars. My hope is, rather, that by identifying some of the issues that arose around the question of an academic boycott in South Africa, I can assist in their endeavors to come to terms with the present issue. Perhaps in the 1980s I would have been keen to hand out advice to all and sundry, but in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

The Total Boycott

In the years 1984 to 1989, the question of an academic boycott attained salience as an issue in South Africa and abroad, and it is with this period that my discussion is largely concerned. The boycott was supported by both exiled liberation movements recognized by the United Nations—namely the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC)—and inside the country by the United Democratic Front (UDF), which was essentially a legal vehicle for supporters of the ANC. By the start of the 1980s, it was clear that the ANC was a far more effective organization than the PAC, so the positions of the ANC and the UDF are the important ones for the purposes of this discussion.

The original form in which the academic boycott was pursued was that of an exclusion of South Africa from all forms of academic connection and exchange—a total boycott. However, it was not long before problems became apparent with this approach.

First, in the West, it was only liberal and leftist antiapartheid scholars who could be induced to support the boycott. Rightists and apartheid sympathizers came to South Africa freely and without political cost to themselves at home. International experts on counterinsurgency, military technology, and the like visited freely and worked with the regime.

Second, well-informed scholars abroad, who wanted to support the explosion of critical scholarship, cultural production, and activism that the revolutionary times had produced on South African campuses, faced a problem. They could not give such support if they were required to observe a blanket academic boycott. And the ANC itself began to develop an understanding that the political developments on South African campuses were worth encouraging and that international links might contribute to this.

Third, there were some cases of real, if minor, personal injustice arising from the implementation of a total boycott. For example, sociologist Eddie Webster played a crucial role in the development of trade unionism in the 1970s. He was detained by the police at that time and then subjected to a lengthy trial on charges of political subversion in which he was eventually found not guilty. He was one of the most important educators of the trade unionists, lawyers, and industrial-relations practitioners who democratized the labor arena in South Africa during the 1980s and 1990s. Yet when Webster arrived to speak on a British university campus, he was picketed by members of the local antiapartheid movement for breaking the boycott. The spectacle of people who had never faced any force more lethal than the Thames Valley Constabulary adopting a position of moral superiority over someone who had seen the inside of South Africa’s prisons for his beliefs is sufficiently ludicrous as to merit our reflection.

Fourth, the idea of a blanket ban on foreign academics taking posts at South African universities assumed that they would naturally be predisposed to play a reactionary role. This was certainly not the case. Political scientist Tom Lodge, for example, initially came from Britain to South Africa as a postgraduate researcher. He later accepted a post at Wits. During the 1980s, by commenting to the media on the ANC’s political statements, which could not be directly quoted in South Africa at the time, he was able to project the banned organization’s views into the public sphere. Lodge testified for the defense in a number of political trials. His teaching and publications helped educate a generation of activists about the history of political movements in the country. Lodge’s role was recognized both by the security police, who set fire to his office, and by the ANC, which welcomed him at its exile headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia. Yet the logic of the total boycott was that Lodge would have made a greater contribution to change in South Africa by staying at home and going on demonstrations during the weekend.

The Selective Boycott

Such difficulties led to the emergence of support inside the antiapartheid scholarly community for the idea of a selective boycott. Although the ANC was hesitant to give public support to such a position, in practice it did begin to give approval to a number of scholars who sought its private endorsement of their visits to South Africa. As this position gained more support, UDF-related organizations inside the country attempted to take on a role in deciding which visits were politically acceptable.

The idea of a selective boycott, however, also proved problematic. Hard-to-answer questions arose. What were the criteria for exemption? Who made the decision?

One approach was to differentiate between “good” universities, with which foreign scholars would be encouraged to link up, and “bad” universities, which would continue to be boycotted. But this line proved impossible to draw. In the 1980s there were three broad categories of universities in the country. Afrikaans-language universities, such as Stellenbosch and Pretoria, were closely linked historically to the regime and were almost entirely white in staff and student composition. Then there were “liberal” universities. Witwatersrand was a good example here. Historically, it had always been predominantly white in staff composition. By the 1940s, however, a minority of black students was present on campus. In the 1950s, the government decided that strict racial segregation should be implemented in higher education and that all black students should attend separate institutions. This was vigorously opposed by the university authorities and students at Wits and similar universities in the name of academic freedom. Nevertheless, restrictive legislation was passed in 1959, and through the 1960s and 1970s, despite continued protests by the university, few black students were admitted. But at the end of the 1970s, weakening political resolve by the government and continued attempts by the university to get around the legislation meant that black students again began to enter Wits in greater numbers. By the time of the mid-1980s upheavals, Wits had a large, often highly politicized minority of black students. Finally, there were what came to be called (rather misleadingly) the historically black universities (HBUs). These were established or consolidated under the 1959 legislation with the intention by the state to provide segregated education for people of color. These institutions had a significant number of black academic staff, but they tended to be dominated by Afrikaner professors and administrators and were, for the most part, run in an authoritarian style. Their establishment in large measure backfired on the government, because the HBUs became a focus of black radicalism. Steve Biko’s black consciousness movement, for example, emerged from them, and they saw three decades of nearly continuous student unrest.

Any attempt to differentiate between these categories of universities would have come politically unstuck. The HBUs were the universities most directly and brutally controlled by the government. But they represented the largest concentrations of black students, and it would have been morally unacceptable to force visitors to avoid these campuses while encouraging them to speak to students on predominantly white campuses. The liberal campuses had a record of defending academic freedom, but this did not stand them in good stead. Black students often charged that the liberal universities’ focus on academic freedom was accompanied by a hypocritical evasion of wider political issues and that they continued to be white dominated. The former charge had enough reality in it to hurt, and the latter point was unanswerable. To have made the liberal universities exempt from the boycott would have provoked student anger. The Afrikaans universities may have seemed the most obvious candidates for ostracism, but this was not straightforward either. Especially at Stellenbosch, the cradle of Afrikaner intellectuals, a courageous minority of staff and students were working in an antiapartheid direction. The magazine published by Stellenbosch staff members, Die Suid Afrikaan, was important in challenging received political ideas within the Afrikaner elite. By the late 1980s, there was substantial student radicalization and political protest in Stellenbosch, which the university authorities met with a heavy hand. In these circumstances, to have boycotted the Afrikaans universities would have meant actually assisting the authorities in their attempts to impose ideological isolation. So it proved impossible for the boycott to differentiate by university.

That left the possibility of exempting individuals from the boycott, and this was indeed attempted. And despite having supported such an approach myself in the late 1980s, I now think it was misguided. It seems to me that the AAUP report is right to see such a strategy as involving a “political” test and in seeing this as ethically problematic. For how did one find an acceptable gauge for exemption from a boycott? Was it enough to make an antiapartheid declaration? What else could reasonably be asked for? Should support for a particular political movement be required, and, if so, what did that do to intellectual pluralism? What happened to political mavericks who were opposed to the regime but genuinely disagreed with the political ideas of the antiapartheid movements? What did one do about the difference between the position of the social scientist or humanist whose work could easily engage with current political questions and that of the natural scientist who was less easily placed to do so? Answers to these questions were not easily found; the selective boycott created a set of irresolvable dilemmas.

The Impact of the Boycotts

How effective was the academic boycott? That question can be answered at several different levels, and at each level it is important to understand the impact of the campaign in relation to the broader effects of sanctions.

Most straightforwardly, sanctions can be considered from the point of view of how effectively they put pressure for change on the Pretoria government and on white society in general. Economic sanctions certainly weakened the status quo in South Africa during the 1980s by contributing to the economic decline that the country suffered in this period. The effect should not be exaggerated, though: the mass revolts inside South Africa were the chief force making for the eventual democratization. And the revolts, combined with the Botha government’s inability to devise a coherent reform strategy, were also more important than sanctions in creating the investment famine, capital flight, and currency decline that characterized the period. Sports sanctions became tighter than before. British actors did impose a successful boycott of South Africa by the UK television industry, but British television productions had never been popular in South Africa. Cultural sanctions in the eighties had almost no effect on the availability of the imported cultural staples of white society: U.S. movies, television series, recorded music, and magazines.

Compared with economic, sports, and cultural boycotts, the academic boycott was feeble indeed. I can honestly say that, throughout the 1980s, I did not talk to a single South African scholar or university employee whose political views had been changed in any way by the academic boycott. Whereas the economic boycott had some palpable effect on the regime, and sports and cultural boycotts had irritant effects on white society, the academic boycott had little in the way of visible achievements.

But the impact of the boycotts also needs to be looked at in a more complex way. We need to consider why, given that it was viable for whites to continue to resist change, albeit at an economic and military cost, the large majority of them did in the end support F. W. de Klerk’s turn to negotiate with the ANC and, however grumblingly, go along with the transition to democracy in 1994. The original social base for apartheid, in the 1940s and 1950s, was a radical Afrikaner populist movement of farmers, minor civil servants, workers, and intellectuals. It was all about ethnically and racially based social protection—agricultural subsidies, expanded civil service employment, politically skewed promotions, and the “reservation” of skilled jobs for white artisans. Now such a movement would never have accepted a deracialized society at any price; no amount of sanctions and boycotts could have shaken its commitment to apartheid. But the very success of Afrikaner nationalism became its undoing. The state put enormous resources into educational uplift for Afrikaners and into providing preferential opportunities for Afrikaner businesses. The result was that, by the 1980s, a whole generation of the children of Afrikaner workers and low-level employees had moved into the professional, managerial, and entrepreneurial strata. Like English-speaking whites, the majority of Afrikaners were now no longer reliant on state protection; they had urban skills and capital of their own. They traveled internationally and were exposed to global media. This all provided the basis for a shift in identity—Afrikaner nationalism became increasingly less central to the worldview of the new middle class.

The identity shift was crucial to the willingness to accept deracialization and democracy in the 1990s. Whites, as a whole, came to see themselves primarily as globalized consumers. The ability to pursue a middle-class lifestyle became paramount in white identity. This was accompanied by a spread of antiauthoritarian ideas (anarchic youth cultures, feminism, gay rights), which made whites more difficult to mobilize politically in the cause of the old order. This is not in any way to say that whites were no longer racist. But they were increasingly less willing to lay down their lives for apartheid. When, in the early 1990s, whites were confronted by a choice between a racially “pure” but impoverished and militarized future and the chance of prosperity in a new democracy, they chose the latter. Hendrik Verwoerd, the founding ideologue of apartheid, reputedly once said that it was “better to be white and poor than rich and mixed.” In contrast, the whites of the 1990s preferred to be mixed, rich, and globalized than white, poor, and isolated.

Now, why this is important to the question of the academic boycott is that, given the importance of the cultural shift in making whites ready to accept change, the failure of the cultural boycott (of which the academic boycott may for this purpose be considered a minor part) was actually rather important to the success of the other pressures for change. In order to be ready to accept democratization, whites had to move away from identities that were primarily defined by racial populist politics and cultural autarky. Although economic change provided the conditions for this, it was not enough in itself; a process of cultural change was also required. The images and ideas that enabled whites to make this reshaping of themselves were not available in the official cultural discourse of the apartheid state and society. They needed a vision of themselves on the other side of apartheid, and this, in the end, came from external sources—U.S. television programs and other cultural products, above all. They also needed exposure to different ways of thinking politically about the world, and here the universities certainly played a role. A culturally isolated white South Africa, in my view, would have been more rather than less likely to block the process of change. I would thus contend that economic sanctions worked because of sociocultural changes that the proponents of boycotts did not understand; they succeeded by good fortune rather than good judgment.

What were the long-term effects of boycotts? What is the relationship between means and ends? If boycotts are a means of political action to create democracy, how does use of those means shape the ends that they are designed to attain? How do the tactics used to promote democracy affect the quality of that democracy?

In many ways, postapartheid South Africa is an exemplary democratic polity. It has reasonably free and fair elections. The country’s new constitution and the constitutional court that enforces it are internationally admired. There is no censorship, and vigorous political debate can be found in the print media and on the radio. South Africa has one of the world’s strongest trade-union movements. In universities, scholars can teach and publish more or less what they wish. Nobody gets arrested for their political views. The governing party, the ANC, can claim a great deal of credit for all this. Through the inspired leadership of Nelson Mandela, it generated a vision of a new and united nation that was crucial to the stabilization of the country. Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, has proved a competent economic manager.

Yet there are profound problems with the ANC’s relation to the future of democracy. The difficulty is that the ANC has a strong distrust of the independence and vigor of South Africa’s civil society and a resentment of the limitations on the power of the government that a constitutional order necessarily creates.

This distrust of civil society was also manifested in the ANC’s leadership of the boycott campaign during the exile years. There was an almost total unwillingness to acknowledge that autonomous civil society or even quasi-state institutions could be sites of important social battles that could have constructive results for a future democracy. The ANC’s vision of the future was of a society that would be reconstructed from scratch. Yet many of the pillars of today’s South African democracy in fact began to be built under apartheid. The ANC appeared to assume that the South African state had such total social control that no democratic impulse could emerge within the old order. Yet for all the brutality and authoritarianism of the regime, its control of institutions and society more broadly was remarkably ramshackle. Powerful independent black trade unions emerged in the 1970s. A tradition of critical journalism produced important oppositional newspapers like the Weekly Mail. The present constitution was largely constructed by human rights lawyers who had worked in the old legal system. Even judges were sometimes important in blocking the working of apartheid; the system of housing segregation largely unraveled as the result of a 1978 decision by Richard Goldstone, later famous as the UN human rights investigator in former Yugoslavia. University teachers who were determined to do so were able to teach both critical social theory and critical studies of the social order and to publish antiapartheid writing.

Boycott politics never took seriously the idea that it might be important to act in a way that supported democratic initiatives in South African civil society. Indeed, the ANC actually opposed international assistance to the trade unions in South Africa in the 1970s and early 1980s on the basis that any legal unions must be stooge organizations (a view not shared by the security police, who put a lot of energy into repressing these unions). Moreover, there was little awareness inside the boycott movement of any possibility that civil society in South Africa might one day need to defend democracy against a postapartheid government. This despite the fact that, in a number of other countries in the region, anticolonial liberation had not been accompanied by democracy.

That South Africa has a viable democratic order today is largely a result of the vibrancy of its civil society. That civil society in South Africa is, in a mild but potentially dangerous degree, threatened by authoritarian tendencies within the new state. The importance of civil society in struggles toward democracy within apartheid South Africa was not sufficiently recognized by the boycott movement. More could have been done by antiapartheid forces abroad to strengthen civil society for the role it has to fill today. To do that would have required the complex politics of identifying and supporting important civil society initiatives, rather than the simplistic politics of lumping civil society and state together. And it would have therefore required more and not less involvement by the outside world in South Africa.

The Effect of Boycott on the Boycotters

Let me now turn to a topic that has been neglected in discussion of the South Africa boycott: what effect did the boycott have on the boycotters, rather than on those they sought to support or isolate by their action? I would suggest that the boycott campaign helped to cast South Africa in the minds of British and American academics as a moral rather than a political problem. While the moral impulse behind the campaign was commendable, it led to a moralism, which ultimately undermined the capacity of scholars abroad to understand the process of social change in South Africa and to contribute to it as intellectuals. The identification of scholars with the struggle for justice meant that they felt unable to comment critically on those whom they saw as being on the right side.

At its worst, the culture of the boycott produced an imagined South Africa that was a theater of morality. That this was so was entirely understandable. If ever a political struggle could reasonably be construed by democrats as one of good against evil, right against wrong, the situation in South Africa in the 1980s was it. But the problem was that, too often, the ostensible topic of South Africa simply became the occasion for a kind of parading of the foreign scholar’s moral virtue. In much antiapartheid writing of the time, we find out very little about South Africa but a great deal about the author’s ethical qualities as an opponent of apartheid. The practice of the boycott often became a gesture of separating oneself from the sphere of evil rather than intellectually engaging with the realities of a society in travail. When traveling abroad in the 1980s, I was struck by the way in which many keen supporters of the boycott were uninterested in discussing the details of what was happening in South Africa. South Africa was merely the occasion for them to play a heroic (in reality, mock-heroic) role on the stage of the theater of morality.

This moralistic standpoint has, in the post-1994 period, become a major obstacle to western scholars’ capacity to think about South Africa. Two melodramatic productions now alternate on the other side of the proscenium arch through which American and British academics view South Africa. For liberal mainstream scholars, the South African drama is the “Miracle Triumphant”; for western leftists, it is the “Revolution Betrayed.”

Those who adhere to the miracle view see the post-1994 period as the remarkable triumph of good. It is indeed extraordinary that South Africa made it through the transitional period to democracy without descending into Yugoslavian-style civil war and national disintegration and that the country functions relatively well despite its deep-seated social tensions. But the idea of a miracle is not conducive to analytical thought; miracles by definition are perfect and not susceptible to reasoned investigation. Analysts who view the story in this light seldom have interesting things to say about how the transition happened, and they are reluctant to acknowledge the persisting inequality, the corruption, and the incipient authoritarianism of the postapartheid polity. This type of approach often goes along with a disproportionate focus on aspects of South African life that can be read as part of a moral drama. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which gave public hearings to victims of repression, is the subject of an enormous proportion of the international academic work on South Africa. Now, I have unlimited admiration for Desmond Tutu, the archbishop who led the commission, and I do believe the commission had a definite and positive impact on the country. But to view the huge social changes through this prism alone is distorting. South Africa appears not as a real country with all its social, economic, and cultural realities but as a moral theater. The result is that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission looms far larger in the thinking of foreign scholars than it does in the minds of South Africans.

On the other hand, for many western leftists, South Africa is the story of the betrayed revolution. This is a drama of revolutionary moralism. Some western academics transferred their disappointed hopes of the 1960s and 1970s for an anticapitalist transformation in their own societies to the South Africa of the mid-1980s, which indeed looked like a classical revolution in the making. When, in 1994, South Africa instead produced a liberal democratic state with a capitalist economy, this moral fervor was turned on the ANC. For people in this camp, South Africa ought to have had a “real” revolution (however that was conceived), and the ANC leaders now were condemned for their failure to produce this result. A number of scholars have made entire careers out of writing moralistic denunciations of the ANC’s strategies. One gathers from these texts that the revolution in South Africa would have been an altogether more satisfactory affair had it been conducted under the guidance of such scholars rather than left to mere amateurs like Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. Proponents of the betrayed-revolution idea thus surreptitiously set themselves up as the heroes or heroines of their own books and articles. They would not have supported the “compromises” the ANC made. The fact that those compromises avoided a civil war, which would have affected rather more seriously the people of South Africa than those on American campuses, does not seem to be regarded as important. This type of intervention is usefully understood in terms of Max Weber’s distinction between an ethics of responsibility, in which the immediate results of a political action are taken into account, and an ethics of ultimate ends, in which these immediate consequences are ignored in the name of a purportedly higher goal.1 If Nelson Mandela’s leadership of the South African transition represents the politics of responsibility at its best, the ideas of such critics represent the ethic of ultimate ends at its worst.

Both these dramas in the theater of morality have produced a scholarship on present-day South Africa that is overwhelmingly preoccupied with continuities with the past. Much of the influential scholarship on the country emanating from the United States simply does not recognize any of the dramatic and dynamic cultural, social, and political developments in the country. Obsessed with continuity, scholars cannot recognize the emergence of anything new.

Essentially, then, I would suggest that the politics of  the boycott engendered a situation where academics approached the South African question primarily as moralists. In doing so, they largely abandoned the contribution they could have made as intellectuals to the creation of South African democracy. To this day, it damages their ability to engage with the country.


Let me conclude on an unfashionably Enlightenment note. In an essay titled “Perpetual Peace,” Immanuel Kant wrote the following lines, which would seem to me to have some relevance to the matter at hand:

Cosmopolitan right shall be limited to the conditions of universal hospitality. Our concern here is not with philanthropy but with right, and in this context hospitality . . . means the right of an alien not to be treated as an enemy upon his arrival in another’s country. . . . The right to visit, to associate, belongs to all men by their common ownership of the earth’s surface; for since the earth is a globe, they cannot scatter themselves infinitely, but must finally tolerate living in close proximity, because originally no man had a greater right to any region of the earth than anyone else. . . . Because a (narrow or wider) community widely prevails among the Earth’s people, a transgression of rights in one place in the world is felt everywhere; consequently the idea of cosmopolitan right is not fantastic and exaggerated, but rather an amendment to the unwritten code of the national and international rights, necessary to the public rights in general.2

Like many an odd line of Kant, these contain material enough for a year or two’s cogitation and discussion. They could certainly be fairly invoked in critiques of apartheid and in support of action to support the victims of its injustice (indeed, I do not quote here Kant’s ringing denunciation of colonialism in general on the very same pages). But, in considering the academic boycott, Kant’s words must provoke us to think about whether the abandonment of that cosmopolitan right of hospitality in one place on the globe can be a useful contribution to overcoming the transgression of rights in another. If we do believe that scholarship is more than a job, that ideas do make a difference in human affairs, that the clash of ideas is essential to change, then it is difficult for me to understand how stemming the flow of people and ideas assists us toward a better world. The great achievement of South Africa’s present is surely that it is an attempt at sharing the earth, to which nobody has a greater right than another. My experience of the South African boycott makes me doubt whether a refusal of academic hospitality is a means to bring about the conditions for that kind of sharing.


1. Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 77–128 (London: Routledge, 1991).

2. Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, trans. Ted Humphrey, 118–19 (Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1983).

The individual papers published in this special section of Academe are reflections on the AAUP report On Academic Boycotts, which appears on pages 39–43. The papers were prepared for a conference on academic boycotts that was to have been held in February 2006 at the Rockefeller Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy. Although the conference was canceled, the AAUP resolved to publish the papers so as to present the viewpoints that would have been debated at the conference. All conference invitees were invited to submit their papers for publication; some chose not to do so, as Joan Wallach Scott explains in the introduction that follows. The publication of this issue of Academe and these papers was supported by the Ford Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Ernst Benjamin and Joan Wallach Scott, both members of the subcommittee of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure that organized the conference, edited the papers. The opinions expressed in the papers are those of the authors and do not represent the views or policies of the AAUP.

Salim Vally,
School of Education,
University of the Witwatersrand

The AAUP’s decision to openly debate its position on the academic boycott of Israeli institutions deserves praise. But my experience—as a formerly oppressed person whose general freedom and specific academic freedom were once denied, as one who received succor from international solidarity and eventually benefited from the isolation of and defeat of the ancien régime, as a former chairperson of South Africa’s Freedom of Expression Institute, and as an academic colleague who values interactions with his peers throughout the world—leads me to support an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.

Academics and Society

In the struggle against the apartheid state, conceptions about any arena of social practice were inextricable from wider conceptions of social justice and encompassed not only political freedom. These wider considerations constituted the framework on which both ethical and strategic judgments were made and practical choices decided. This was true in relation to the isolation of South Africa from the international sporting arena, in relation to the divestment campaign, in relation to the resolutions of the United Nations relative to apartheid, and, indeed, in relation to the issue of academic boycotts.

In each of these, the primary consideration was the pursuit of a set of actions that would bring censure and condemnation of the violence of the apartheid regime through international cooperation in support of the resistance struggles waged internally by the people of South Africa. These practices recognized not only the indivisibility of civil, political, and economic freedoms but also the interrelatedness (through the divestment campaign) of the violence of apartheid and the very forms of exploitation on which the whole of apartheid’s political edifice was constructed. Political, social, and economic issues were regarded as inseparable and were seen as mutually foundational to the idea of resistance and the practices—boycotts included—it shaped.

The academic boycott was never regarded as a privileged strategy, nor were academics regarded as an exceptional category. The reasons for this were simple. First, the strategies adopted by the liberation struggle placed onerous conditions on millions of individuals and many institutions in society, some more than others. Particularly for workers and the poor, the sacrifices they were asked to make exceeded those of other social classes, and in some cases it meant not only the loss of jobs, family, and health but also direct physical confrontation with a brutish state. Second, academic boycotts were supported by the majority of those academics who understood their role to be engaged and socially committed intellectuals.1 Academics so engaged did not regard themselves as privileged when it came to making sacrifices, even though their sacrifices were, relative to those of others, less onerous and demanding. Third, we simply did not regard intellectual work as outside of accountability. Finally, the call for an academic boycott was considered a legitimate and necessary extension of the freedom struggle into other arenas of social and political engagement and practice.

The “objective test” by which the issue of an academic boycott, or any other such strategy, must be evaluated can only arise from a consideration of the conditions of each case. That is, it is determined contextually, not a priori or ahistorically. Academic freedom in the conditions of civil war, violent occupation, genocide, or conquest and subjugation must surely bear some reference to these very conditions for the criteria of its determination. Failure to recognize this will mean that the very concept of freedom more generally, and academic freedom in particular, becomes both meaningless and bereft of any practical possibilities.

Morality and Ethics

At the outset, the AAUP authors state that their report was written in response to the British Association of University Teachers’ initial announcement favoring an academic boycott as a response to a Palestinian call. The Palestinians had grounded this call on “the spirit of international solidarity, moral consistency and resistance to injustice and oppression.” This moral ground is negated by the AAUP for the sake of “preserving and advancing the free exchange of ideas” and “the search for truth and its free expression.” That all moral debate within the academy should be viewed only through this categorical imperative and the singular principle of “academic freedom” is, philosophically and ethically, a dubious position. It is also certainly a politically dangerous position to take, for it does not take the situational, teleological, or ethical positions into consideration.

Given the fact that Palestinians are continuing to suffer occupation, colonization, and physical apartheid (and even a wall that not only “secures” the Israeli state but also imprisons the people of Palestine), their situation seems very close to that of South Africans under apartheid. But the notion of academic freedom in the AAUP report does not allow us to critically question the foundation, formation, existence, and oppressive character of the state of Israel. So while the AAUP may be correct in theory to distinguish between the “free exchange of ideas” and “government policies,” the distinction doesn’t hold in concrete situations. Consider the view of Arthur Goldreich, a founder of the architecture department of Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy who in the 1940s was a fighter with Israel’s Palmach and in the early sixties a member of the African National Congress’s armed wing: “I watched Jerusalem with horror and great doubt and fear for the future. There were those who said what’s happening is architecture, not politics. You can’t talk about planning as an abstraction. It’s called establishing facts on the ground.”2 Goldreich was expressing dismay at the way architecture and planning evolved as tools for illegal territorial expansion.

The Palestinians are not asking for a boycott to defend their own transcendent academic freedoms against state intervention or policies but in order to prevent the state of Israel from using its own academies as tools of state propaganda in a symbolic offensive against Palestinian rights. This is important because in this context symbolic resources are to this struggle what economicmaterial struggles are to other conflicts. And if this is the case, then a type of boycott that is “symbolic,” to use the AAUP’s characterization, is completely analogous to an economic boycott in other circumstances, which the AAUP has less difficulty with and tacitly endorses in the case of labor conflicts within the academy.

I would also argue that a boycott is a tactic in the struggle for free speech by a representative majority of Palestinian academics who are attempting to get a larger public hearing for the issue of how the “common good” can best be realized. By this means, other issues about free speech in the academy will come to be addressed, such as the role of state sponsorship of certain types of academic research and publication and the tactics various affiliates of the Israeli state use to suppress the free speech of academics around the world.

The AAUP’s report also directly suggests that academics are incapable of exercising the right moral judgment to produce an “objective test for determining what constitutes an extraordinary situation.” This is stated in such a way that the answer is already embedded in the question itself, for the document says, “there surely is not.” This undermines academics, who are shown in the document to be incompetent or unable to produce such an objective test while people are being killed, atrocities are being committed, and violations of all nature of human rights are taking place. What, given international law and universal human rights conventions and declarations, are we to make of the following statement in the AAUP’s document: “what some see as the Israeli occupation’s denial of rights to the Palestinians”? (Emphasis added.)

While this document accepts the fact that different strategies, including boycotts, are needed in some circumstances—and quotes Nelson Mandela on this—it denies any role for boycott except for economic boycotts, thus negating the very quotation it uses to make its argument. The AAUP argument is an attack on the moral demand for an academic boycott, seeing it as bad tactics. When, in places, the document does take the moral demand more seriously, it is entwined so obtusely with economic argumentation that it ends up reducing all nuances, which is of necessity an academic task, and fudges them in a shallow way.

Finally, a large weakness in this document is an enormous confusion over the issue of tactics and principles, or means and ends. Conveniently, other people’s positions are classified as poor tactics, while the AAUP position is defined as more principled, and its own tactics are very quickly converted into principles.

Academic Freedom under Apartheid and in Palestine

The university in South Africa played a critical role in reproducing the structural inequalities and injustices that were found in that society. Universities in South Africa—including the “liberal” ones—were closely linked to the state: they received much of their funding from the state; they provided the “scientific,” commercial, and intellectual bases for the state to continue functioning; and they were the prime knowledge producers for the state and its bureaucracy. Moreover, a large number of academics were directly linked to the state, furthered the apartheid agenda at universities, conducted research on specific issues as the state required, and even spied on other academics and students. It was such research that provided the “Christian” theological justification for racism. It also provided some of the basis for the security forces’ military operations against neighboring countries and liberation movements. But of course, there was resistance to this, and the university was, as we called it, an important “site of struggle.”

The Israeli university is not that much different from what the South African one was. Israeli universities and a number of individual Israeli academics play key roles in providing the intellectual support for the Israeli state and its endeavors. Certain Israeli universities have very strong links to the military establishment, particularly through their provision of postgraduate degrees to the military. A number of Israeli academics provide the practical and ideological support necessary for the maintenance of the occupation and even for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, extrajudicial killings, racial segregation, and land expropriation. Consider the homicidal rant of one Arnon Soffer, who has spent years advising the Israeli government on the “demographic threat” posed by the Arabs: “When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today. . . . So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.”3

In the main, Israeli institutions of higher learning, according to the testimonies of a number of Israeli academics, certainly are not consistent with the principle that “[i]nstitutions of higher education are conducted for the common good . . . [which] depends on the free search for truth and its free exposition.”4 The “common good”—whether “common” includes only Israelis or both Israelis and Palestinians—is not served when universities and individual academics support racism, ethnic cleansing, and the continued violation of international law. Can we ask colleges and universities to be “institutions committed to the search for truth and its free expression” when they willingly support a state and military complex that promotes discrimination among their student bodies and when they have no regard for their fellow academics (Palestinian and dissenting Israeli academics) whose academic freedom is trampled and denied at every turn by the patrons of these colleges and universities? Avraham Oz, in his comments on a May 2005 conference titled “The Demographic Problem and the Demographic Policy of Israel,” held at the University of Haifa, points out that it was not just an individual academic that lent “credibility to this conference which promoted ethnic cleansing”; the guest of honor was the rector of the university, Yossi Ben-Artzi.5When the South African liberation movements called for academic boycotts against South African institutions and academics, the institutions that were targeted included the academic bastions of apartheid (such as the University of Stellenbosch and the University of Potchestroom), the liberal white universities (such as the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Cape Town), as well as the black ghetto universities (such as the University of Durban-Westville and the University of the Western Cape). The “victims” in this case included white and black academics, liberals and racists, those who supported apartheid and those who supported the antiapartheid struggle. The South African experience highlights a comment in Committee A’s statement, that an academic boycott “inevitably involves a refusal to engage in academic discourse with teachers and researchers, not all of whom are complicit in the policies which are being protested.” South Africans understood this very well when we called for such boycotts against our country.

Further, the assertion that an academic boycott against Israeli institutions will compromise academic freedom needs, of necessity, to be followed by the questions: Whose academic freedom? and Who benefits from this “academic freedom”?

In the South African context, we understood that sanctions and boycotts were targeted against the state and various institutions within broader South African society—businesses, institutions of higher learning, sporting institutions, and so on—so that black people, primarily, might be liberated from the shackles, injustices, and humiliations we faced. It is true, as Ronnie Kasrils, the South African minister of intelligence, argued, that ultimately it was both black and white South Africans who were liberated.6 However, the international community recognized and acknowledged the oppression of black people and the need for their liberation.

In the Israeli-Palestinian context, we should be asking whose academic freedom and whose human rights it is that we want to protect. It is Palestinians who are living under occupation. It is Palestinians within Israel who are being discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity. Ultimately, as Kasrils and Victoria Brittain argued in the Guardian, both Palestinians and Israelis will be liberated.7

If we are to ask “whose academic freedom,” then we are forced to consider what academic freedom actually exists for Palestinians. Is the academic freedom of a professor in Birzeit University equal to that of a professor at Haifa University, when the former is under occupation by a government that is supported by the latter? Palestinian academics daily run a gauntlet of soldiers, checkpoints, roadblocks, and the threat of arrest, detention, and death in order to be able to get to their institutions to perform basic tasks like teaching and researching. They often teach classes that are sparsely populated, usually because students could not get through the checkpoints. Students sometimes are trapped in their universities for days, unable to get home because of curfews and checkpoints.

And the basic rights of academics, as explained by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), do not exist for Palestinian academics in the occupied Palestinian territories.8 UNESCO requires that higher-education teaching personnel “should be enabled throughout their careers to participate in international gatherings on higher education research, [and] to travel abroad without political restrictions.” For most Palestinian academics from the occupied territories, such opportunities are based on a range of factors that are out of their control and firmly in the control of the occupation authorities: whether they will be allowed to pass through checkpoints on their way to the border or airport, whether they will be allowed to leave the country, whether they will be required to hand over their papers to the occupation authorities for vetting before they are allowed to leave, whether they will be monitored at foreign institutions or conferences they might be traveling to, and whether they will be interrogated on their return about the content of their presentations.

UNESCO further requires that academics should be “entitled to the maintaining of academic freedom, that is to say, the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, [and] freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof.” As discussed earlier, the freedom of Palestinian professors to teach is contingent on a number of factors related to the occupation. Their ability to conduct research is similarly contingent. There is not much freedom to do research or to disseminate research for an academic who is confined, for months at a time, in a canton of a few square miles and whose virtually every move is dictated by military occupation authorities. Oren Ben-Dor, on the basis of this understanding of academic freedom, believes that an academic boycott “is a boycott intended to produce academic freedom.”9

The AAUP’s Committee A is correct that “boycotts are not in themselves matters of principle, but tactical weapons in political struggles.” Other tactical weapons include, for example, the armed struggle, which, according to the Fourth Geneva Conventions, Palestinians are entitled to use in their struggle against occupation. By calling for a regimen of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions, Palestinians are allowing us the opportunity to join in the struggle for justice in a nonviolent way. A range of South Africans and South African organizations have responded to the call positively. These include a number of black and white academics; the Congress of South African Trade Unions; many faith-based organizations, such as the South African Council of Churches; nongovernmental organizations; and politicians.

We should heed the plea of Ilan Pappe, an Israeli academic from Haifa University: “I appeal to you today to be part of a historical movement and moment that may bring an end to more than a century of colonisation, occupation and dispossession of Palestinians. I appeal to you as an Israeli Jew, who for years wished, and looked, for other ways to bring an end to the evil perpetrated against the Palestinians in the occupied territories, inside Israel and in the refugee camps.”10

Finally, a respected South African academic, Jacklyn Cock, shared this sentiment with me: “[The academic boycott] definitely had an impact on white academics. . . . [Y]ou could quote Raymond Hoffenberg, senior lecturer in medicine at the University of Cape Town before he was banned, who told me that the boycott ‘made many white medical academics rethink the scientific and intellectual cost of apartheid.’ I think opposition to academic boycotts tends to privilege the university as an ivory tower that is divorced from its social context, and in the South African case, the notion of isolating the regime was a very significant nonviolent action.”11


1. See, for example, Neville Alexander, “Academic Boycotts: Some Reflections on the South African Case,” Perspectives on the Professions 15 (fall 1995): 3. However,  Alexander’s anxiety referred to the importance of how best to implement the academic boycott without making it a “blunt instrument” and to a consideration of its effects. He did not advocate the dismissal of the academic boycott itself.

2. Chris McGreal, “Worlds Apart,” Guardian, June 2, 2006.

3. “It’s the Demography, Stupid,” Jerusalem Post, May 21, 2004, Upfront supplement.

4. “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” AAUP, Policy Documents and Reports, 9th ed. (Washington, D.C., 2001), 3–10, as quoted in “On Academic Boycotts.”

5. Avraham Oz, “Haifa University and the ‘Demographic Problem,’” LabourNet UK,

6. Ronnie Kasrils and Victoria Brittain, “Both Palestinians and Israelis Will Benefit from a Boycott,” Guardian, May 25, 2005.

7. Ibid.

8. UNESCO, “Recommendations Concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel,” General Conference Resolution (29 C/res. 11), November 11, 1997, quoted in AAUP,“On Academic Boycotts.”

9. Oren Ben-Dor, “The Boycott Should Continue: A Fight to Foster Real Academic Freedom in Israel Should Unite Academics All Over the World,” Independent, May 30, 2005.

10. Ilan Pappe, “To Boldly Go,” Guardian, April 20, 2005.

11. E-mail correspondence between the author and Jacklyn Cock, January 11, 2006.

The individual papers published in this special section of Academe are reflections on the AAUP report On Academic Boycotts, which appears on pages 39–43. The papers were prepared for a conference on academic boycotts that was to have been held in February 2006 at the Rockefeller Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy. Although the conference was canceled, the AAUP resolved to publish the papers so as to present the viewpoints that would have been debated at the conference. All conference invitees were invited to submit their papers for publication; some chose not to do so, as Joan Wallach Scott explains in the introduction that follows. The publication of this issue of Academe and these papers was supported by the Ford Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Ernst Benjamin and Joan Wallach Scott, both members of the subcommittee of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure that organized the conference, edited the papers. The opinions expressed in the papers are those of the authors and do not represent the views or policies of the AAUP.

Shireen Hassim, Associate
Professor of Political Studies, University of the Witwatersrand

The AAUP’s position is unequivocal in its view of universities as arenas in which there is—or ought to be—free pursuit and exchange of ideas. This is an attractive vision and one that many academics the world over have fought to defend. But this vision is utopian. In reality, institutions of higher education do not stand outside the relations of power in society. They are implicated in defending, elaborating, and applying technologies of power and in training the elites who use that power. Although destructive uses of the natural and physical sciences—for example, the development of efficient mechanisms for killing—are acknowledged, social scientists are also implicated—for example, in developing anthropological and philosophical arguments for the supposed racial inferiority of colonized peoples. Of course, universities are also crucial sites of resistance to such forms of power and are among the arenas in which alternative philosophies and visions flourish.

Academic Freedom

Academic freedom is an important right and one worth struggling for. The degree to which it exists in any society is often a barometer of the extent to which other freedoms are allowed to thrive. Advancing the space for free thought within universities can be an important mechanism through which the space for free expression can be widened in society as a whole. Under apartheid, white liberal university administrations (themselves pressured by students and faculty) sought university autonomy. In the process, these universities became spaces in which antiapartheid activists were relatively more able to organize and mobilize. Ultimately, however, the dependence of these universities on state funding limited the extent to which even the liberal universities were able to allow open access to all.

In societies deeply divided by conflict, such as South Africa during the era of apartheid, the idea of universities as open and autonomous is very difficult to sustain. Academic freedom cannot be sustained in a deeply unfree society where other freedoms are not recognized; moreover, elevating it above other rights and freedoms could be seen as an elitist luxury. We need to consider what ends we are serving in defending this ideal at all costs under conditions of repression. To be sure, more academic freedom is always better than less, as the AAUP report argues. But placing this goal above all others may have unintended consequences. In South Africa, the apartheid state insisted that there was academic freedom for black people in the “black” universities. It pointed to “separate but equal” facilities for black students and argued that the state operated within the framework of the law. This was patently false, of course, and academic boycotts (and, to a much greater extent, sports boycotts) were very important weapons in exposing the falsehood of these claims.

The report overstates, in my view, the impact of academic boycotts on academic freedom. It fails to recognize the possibility of building a stronger, justiceoriented discourse on the Israel-Palestine issue—one that would indeed benefit from the engagement of intellectuals concerned with freedom. The unqualified defense of academic freedom, and the rejection of any tactic that might be understood as curtailing the full expression of this freedom, in effect removes the possibility of collective action by the academic profession in contexts where other freedoms are violated on a daily basis.

Boycotts as Political Weapons

The idea that boycotts are a tactic and not a principle is one that potentially opens up the debate. Unfortunately, the AAUP report almost immediately makes a distinction between academic and other forms of boycott, arguing that academic boycotts can under no circumstances be viable. This would seem to place academic boycotts outside the tactical and back in the principled realm, since the AAUP “resist[s] the argument that extraordinary circumstances are the basis for limiting our fundamental commitment to the free exchange of ideas and their free expression.” In effect, this opposition to academic boycotts is an extension of the first argument for academic freedom, rather than a second category of argument. (As an aside, the quotation from Nelson Mandela is somewhat disingenuous—before 1990, the ANC, including Mandela, supported economic sanctions and a complete cultural and academic boycott.)

Reading the academic boycott as a political tactic introduces a set of considerations not adequately addressed in the report: what does this tactic seek to achieve, within what array of tactics is it based, and how effective is it likely to be? In making these judgments, careful attention needs to be paid to the debates and voices from within the society in which change is being sought. This is not because the voices “from below” or “from within” are necessarily always correct but because they have the best strategic understanding of the costs and benefits of different tactics. There are indeed strong voices within Israel calling for an academic boycott, and they are supported by a large cohort of Palestinian academics in the region and in exile. Similarly, in South Africa the call for a boycott was strongly supported by major academic staff associations. Although liberals did oppose the academic boycott, by the late 1980s, they were very much in the minority, in large part because the notion of academic autonomy could not be sustained.

As I understand it, the call for a selective academic boycott seeks to isolate the Israeli state as part of a strategy of sanctions and divestment. It is a nonviolent strategy and, on these grounds, has considerable merit in a situation in which violence on both sides has escalated to frightening proportions. Any strategy that offers alternatives to suicide bombings and targeted assassinations needs at the very least to be taken very seriously. How effective would it be? This would depend on a number of factors, including whether or not Israeli academics as individuals and especially as members of their professional associations are moved to examine the nature of their relationship to the state and its policies. Also important is whether there is sufficient international solidarity for a boycott to effectively pressure Israeli academic institutions. It is noteworthy that, in the absence of an academic boycott, no Israeli university administration or professional association has protested against the treatment of Palestinian academics and students. Ultimately, the effectiveness of a boycott depends on whether the Israeli state itself feels pressure and thus engages more actively in advancing a political solution. Whether or not this is likely to happen requires a deeper knowledge of the Israeli situation than I have. These are issues to be engaged, not to be pushed off the table by a principled, liberal-absolutist opposition to academic boycotts.

The references to South Africa in many of the statements for and against the boycott invite some comment from the South African academics participating. Was the boycott successful in South Africa? Of course, there were some costs. Gatekeepers did emerge (but as frequently as not were challenged); some academics who actively opposed apartheid had invitations to international conferences withdrawn; it was not always possible to target the supporters of the apartheid regime; and South African academics’ understanding of global issues was certainly weakened. It is in the nature of such weapons that they are double-edged. But, as part of a battery of sanctions, the academic boycott undoubtedly had an impact on both the apartheid state and on white academics and university administrations. The boycott, together with the more successful sports boycott and economic divestment campaigns, helped to strengthen the struggle of black people for justice. The Afrikaner elite, very proud of its European roots and of the legacy of Jan Smuts as a global representative in the postwar system, and convinced that there would be support for its policies abroad, was rudely shaken. University administrations could no longer hide behind an excuse of neutrality but had to issue statements on their opposition to apartheid and introduce programs of redress. Academic associations (some more than others) examined the nature and conditions of research in their disciplines, and faculty unions became part of broader struggles for justice rather than bodies protecting narrow professional interests. Universities became sites of intense debate, and, indeed, intellectuals became critically involved in debates about the nature of current and future South African societies. In the wake of the boycott, there was not a curtailing of academic freedom, then, but a flourishing of intellectual thought that was rich, varied, and exciting.

The individual papers published in this special section of Academe are reflections on the AAUP report On Academic Boycotts, which appears on pages 39–43. The papers were prepared for a conference on academic boycotts that was to have been held in February 2006 at the Rockefeller Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy. Although the conference was canceled, the AAUP resolved to publish the papers so as to present the viewpoints that would have been debated at the conference. All conference invitees were invited to submit their papers for publication; some chose not to do so, as Joan Wallach Scott explains in the introduction that follows. The publication of this issue of Academe and these papers was supported by the Ford Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Ernst Benjamin and Joan Wallach Scott, both members of the subcommittee of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure that organized the conference, edited the papers. The opinions expressed in the papers are those of the authors and do not represent the views or policies of the AAUP.