The Harvard Professor in Apartheid South Africa’s Corner

The legacy of apartheid is still apparent in South Africa; it’s a legacy that has perpetuated the conditions of racism and poverty. Part of that legacy traces all the way to Cambridge, Massachusetts — to Samuel Huntington.


Growing up in South Africa, I learned about my nation’s heroes: We knew the stories of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu like the backs of our hands; we were closely familiar even with our nation’s villains — from Cecil John Rhodes with one foot in Cape Town and one in Cairo, to Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, to P.W. Botha, who defended apartheid in its hour of need.

It was only once I came to Harvard and dug through its archives that I learned about Samuel P. Huntington, the Harvard Government professor who was the strategist from across the equator.

It is easy to miss Huntington’s contribution to the effort to resuscitate apartheid in the 1980s. At the time, the question of divestment from pro-apartheid groups was a concern for then-President Derek C. Bok, and found its way onto the front page of many publications.

It wouldn’t quite be right to say that apartheid South Africa was on its knees in 1976. It would be more accurate to say that the system was growing more and more out of breath each day, its pulse rising, its limbs weakening, but by no means giving out. On June 16 of that year, as many as 20,000 students took to the streets in protest in Soweto, 176 of whom were shot and killed by the state police — gunshots that were heard around the world.

By 1978, mounting international pressure coupled with a growing internal resistance movement made it clear to apartheid South Africa’s new Prime Minister P.W. Botha that, in his words, white South Africans would have to “adapt or die.” For Harvard, it was something closer to divest or suffer the consequences of a tarnished reputation. In an open letter written that same year, Bok wrote, “no responsible person can fail to deplore the reprehensible nature of apartheid.” Still, it took eight more years for Bok to act on the moral strength of these words and finally cut investments.

According to the University’s policies on accessing archival material, to know what the thoughts of those working from the inside, one would have to return to Pusey Library 50 years after the creation of any administrative document from the time, around the year 2040. In a library collection 20 million volumes deep, any attempt to paint a fuller picture of Harvard in the time of apartheid seems to be in vain.

My attempt might have ended there; with resignation, towards a history that, at least for the time being, appeared unknowable. Yet, had I done so, I might never have known that one of the most extensive sets of archival materials to do with apartheid would be found in Huntington’s personal archives.

During the ’80s, a decade of deadly state-sanctioned violence, Huntington visited South Africa as an unofficial adviser to Botha’s government.

In his keynote address to the Political Science Association of South Africa in Johannesburg on Sept. 17, 1981, Huntington introduced a twin policy he called “repression and ‘reform.’” Reform, Huntington said, was necessary because, “It seems likely that a minority-dominated hierarchical ethnic system in South Africa will become increasingly difficult to maintain.” These policies marked the start of a decade of blood.

He later added, “Perhaps the hardest lesson to learn for governments sensitive to the needs of reform is the importance of introducing reforms from a position of strength.” Otherwise, Huntington said, reforms would “weaken the regime” and “provoke a counter-revolutionary backlash.” One can only wonder what Botha took “a position of strength” to mean. The ’80s was the decade of national States of Emergency, of tanks and army apparatus stationed in the townships, of regular detention without trial, of assassinations and extrajudicial killings that, even today, long to be answered for.

Huntington was a proponent of consociationalism, one of the political structures proposed to end the conflict. He described the structure as “an elite conspiracy to restrain political competition within and among communal groups,” essentially arguing that the “elites” who represent each political group, which were to be divided along ethnic lines, control the decisions of the group.

To Huntington it was simply a theory, one he would just as easily write in a textbook as in a brief to Botha’s government. Today, it is what keeps the prospects of a child born in affluent Sandton a world apart from those of a child born in the impoverished township of Alexandra, just 18 minutes away.

Few remnants of apartheid are more apparent today than the long and stubborn legacy of spatial apartheid, the segregationist geographical planning which Huntington helped create. This form of apartheid forcefully relocated Black South Africans to the “homelands,” territories designated to divert Black people from cities. Residents of the “homelands” were barred from South African citizenship and, with it, constitutional protections. In his 1981 address, Huntington said, “Continued adherence by the South African government to the homelands policy, for instance, may make it easier for the government to introduce some form of political representation for the coloureds and Asians.” (It’s important to note that, in South Africa, “coloured” is a non derogatory term which refers to individuals who would be called “mixed-race” in the U.S.) Indeed, in Botha’s “reforms”of the ’80s, coloured, Asian and white South Africans were included in parliament, while Black South Africans were made to remain in the townships they had been condemned to.

“Huntington’s reform strategy quite definitely informed the South African government’s efforts,” a 1987 Crimson article stated. “His 1981 paper helped provide the intellectual justification for, and is cited extensively in, proposals for the 1984 constitution, cornerstone of State President P.W. Botha’s so-called reforms.”

Huntington ultimately assessed that by “concocting the proper mixture of reform, reassurance, and repression,” a government would be successful in ensuring its continuation. He believed that if South Africa “played on fear and employed deception,” the country’s opponents would back down. Yet, the prevailing story of apartheid is the story of the opposition to it, both within South Africa and beyond it, even as far as places like Harvard. Students at the University mobilized against apartheid time and time again.

The legacy of apartheid is still apparent in South Africa; it’s a legacy that has perpetuated the conditions of racism and poverty. Part of that legacy traces all the way to Cambridge, Massachusetts — to Samuel Huntington. I wonder if he anticipated how far his ideas would spread.

— Magazine writer Sazi T. Bongwe can be reached at