For those who hate South Africa's treatment of its black majority, disinvestment is an all-purpose tool. It even shows some limited signs of working.
Divestiture, though it looks and sounds a lot like disinvestment and stems from the same outrage, is largely a ritual act.
The distinction, I hasten to point out, is my own. Activists seem to use the two words interchangeably.
Disinvestment (or at any rate the threat of disinvestment) appeals to those who favor a club to beat the Afrikaners into line, those who prefer a carrot to tempt them into behaving more decently, and those who wish to punish a racist government for what it has already done. It is a demand that America get its businesses and its money out of South Africa.
Divestiture, on the other hand, is a demand that decent Americans get their money out of companies that do business in South Africa. It's not the same thing.
Divestiture, as I read it, is what the student demonstrators have been demanding: that their universities purge their portfolios of stock in U.S. companies doing business in South Africa. What follows when their demands are met? The colleges may or may not lose money, depending on the current performance of the stocks in question. The international companies may be hurt, in terms of public relations and the attractiveness of their stock. The colleges may feel "cleaner" as a result of the purge, though some will see themselves as having been forced into punishing their own benefactors as well as many corporations with outstanding records in promoting social good and racial fairness both here and in South Africa.
But what difference would it make in South Africa? Stock certificates, representing loans to the companies that issue them, don't just evaporate in the face of student demands, thereby canceling out the loans. They are sold, presumably to other buyers who either don't care about South Africa's policies or who are immune to the sort of pressures that the universities cannot escape. How does it hurt white South Africans (or help black South Africans) if Good Guy University sells its tainted stock, whether to the Bad Guy Corp. or to Indifferent, Inc.?
It's like the religious convert who announced: "It occurred to me that my finery was dragging my immortal soul to hell, so I sold them to my sister."
That's divestiture, and while its backers may hope that it will lead to disinvestment, it is principally a ritual washing of hands. Disinvestment, on the other hand, can produce some practical (though limited) results.
South Africa has just announced plans to repeal its laws banning sex and marriage between whites and nonwhites. That isn't much (surely no one is picketing the South African Embassy in order to facilitate interracial marriage), but to the degree that it represents an attempt to reduce the impact of the Free South Africa movement, it holds the promise of more -- and more substantial -- concessions.
What concessions? My guess is that the credible threat of disinvestment could prod South Africa into completely dismantling so-called petty apartheid: the laws that restrict access to places of public accommodation, to residential areas, to land ownership. And it might even lead to negotiations toward ending the fundamental discrimination against the black majority -- the denial of citizenship and political rights.
Actual disinvestment -- getting American-based companies and American money out of South Africa -- might well make things worse for blacks there.
The trick, as I see it, is to keep the threat credible without actually having to deliver. One way to do it might be for the U.S. Congress to legislate a set of escalating sanctions that would be imposed automatically if South Africa refused to take certain steps on a specified timetable. For instance, we might ban the importation of Krugerrands immediately while announcing a prohibition on new investments, public and private bank loans and, ultimately, U.S. business operations in South Africa unless the government there undertakes specific, anti-apartheid actions.
It might not work. But it seems more promising than the pres campaign, which might be described as prodding the conscience-stricken to sell their stock to the unrepentant.