The national debate over policy toward racially segregated South Africa moved to the Maryland General Assembly today when a coalition of lawmakers, led by members of the black caucus, presented testimony on a package of bills that would sharply limit the state's ties with companies conducting business in that nation.
Presenting divestiture as a matter of moral responsibility as well as fiscal prudence, state Del. Howard (Pete) Rawlings (D-Baltimore), joined by Del. Sylvania Woods Jr. (D-Prince George's) and supporters from labor unions and the clergy, urged the House Appropriations Committee to "be true to our history of strong opposition to injustice and bigotry."
Opponents, including the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and the director of the state's investment agency argued, meanwhile, that the bills would hurt the state's investments, or, said chamber spokesman Charles Krautler, cause unemployment and thus harm blacks as well as whites.
One bill would prohibit the state's pension board from investing in any companies doing business in South Africa. According to state fiscal analysts, the state's $4.5 billion pension portfolio includes 109 stocks with a value of $733 million that fall in that category. Another bill, a version of which passed the Senate last year, would place a one-year moratorium on all new investments in such companies and require an analysis of the results.
A third bill would prohibit any college or university that receives state money from investing in companies doing business in South Africa. And the fourth would prohibit government agencies from purchasing goods produced in South Africa, unless those goods are essential and unavailable elsewhere.
Noting that Maryland became one of five states to have divestiture provisions last year when the sssembly passed a bill barring banks from making loans to the South African government, Rawlings said today, "The pressure works. For the first time last December President Reagan strongly denounced the policy of apartheid. And this January, the leaders of all the largest business organizations in South Africa called for major reforms."
Though careful to note the group's distaste for apartheid, the system of rigid, legally enforced racial segregation in South Africa, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce opposed the bills, saying they would do more harm than good. "We believe that imposing economic sanctions on corporations that are making positive contributions not only in the Republic of South Africa but also in the state of Maryland is poor public policy," said Krautler.
Last year the Senate passed the one-year moratorium bill but the measure died on the last day of the session in the House committee, whose members argued they had not had the time to study such a major change. This year, several members of the committee said they are open to the idea.
Gov. Harry Hughes said in a press conference today that he has not made a decision on the feasibility of divestiture, particularly, an aide said, given his concern over the state's business climate.
Though most of the debate centered on the possible effects on the state's investment portfolio, some of the testimony came from South African national Mankekolo Mahlangu-ngcobo, 35, who told the committee how she fled the country after being jailed for political organizing.