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Monday, 05 March 2012 10:43

"Ordinary People Leaned on Barclays"

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This article by Richard Gwyn from The Toronto Star in 1986 was being circulated this past week. It provides an excellent reminder of the power of ordinary people to call corporations to account.

People Matter. Not always; perhaps not often; but sometimes. That is the lesson to be learned from the dramatic decision of Britain's Barclays Bank to pull out of South Africa.

Seventeen years ago an anonymous student, who must be by now in his or her late 30s, and who (having probably long since turned respectable) may no longer wish to remember having done it, scrawled on the wall of a Barclays branch in Nottingham the slogan: "Barclays is a piggy bank."

At the time that was little more than a witty graffito, a tentative gesture of protest. But in an exasperated recognition of the strength of people power, Barclays officials this week admitted that prime among the reasons for their sale of their South African subsidiary was the effect that anti-apartheid protesters were having on their balance sheet.

"People who have wanted to do something [about apartheid] have realized that the easiest something to do is to switch their bank accounts," says Mike Flynn, spokesman for Britain's Anti-Apartheid Movement.

The actual money involved wasn't terribly large. But it kept on growing. Oxfam withdrew its account from Barclays. So did Balliol College, Oxford. So did churches and municipal councils.

So, above all, did college and university students. Barclays share of total student accounts dropped from 25 per cent to 17 per cent. And students, while they may be poor today, tomorrow will be lawyers, doctors, and even bankers.

More damaging than the withdrawals was the publicity about them. The Anti-Apartheid Movement and the National Union of Students organized a major campaign around the slogan "Boycott Boerclaybank."

That hurt. It hurt even more, potentially, abroad. In the U.S., Barclays has $22 billion in assets and 7,500 employees and is set, so it has hoped for a major expansion.

In a rare bankerly bow to public opinion, Basil Hersov, chairman of Barclays South African subsidiary, told a press conference in Johannesburg that "the cost of being in South Africa, in terms of the obstructions and difficulties this generated for Barclays operation in other parts of the world, was no longer tenable...."

There are no certainties about the net benefits to the anti-apartheid cause of corporate disinvestment, any more than there are about sanctions themselves.

All that's certain is that people power is having an effect in the most direct of all possible ways: on the balance sheets of companies that until now have done well out of South Africa' resources, including black labour....

None of the victories will come easily. A British government spokesman has already said that Barclays decision will have no effect on its anti-sanctions policy. But Margaret Thatcher and the others may have at last encountered a force stronger than they: ordinary people who have discovered that they do matter after all – sometimes.

 

 

Read 2195 times Last modified on Monday, 05 March 2012 11:28

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