Medicine And Books

Out in the Cold: Academic Boycotts and the Isolation of South Africa

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: (Published 08 July 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:136
  1. Ralph Crawshaw

    Lorraine J Haricombe, F W Lancaster Information Resources Press, pp 115 ISBN 0 87815 067 6

    Out In The Cold exemplifies how good things come in small packages--in this case 115 pages of easy reading, surveying the impact on South African scholars and scientists of years of academic sanctions. With a simple questionnaire sent to 900 South African academics, backed up by 50 in depth interviews, the authors take the measure of damage suffered by the faculties of 21 South African institutions of higher education.

    For those who may not know, academic sanction makes contemporary use of the ancient Greek custom of ostracism--exile without benefit of trial of those identified by popular vote as undesirable. Today it reappears when educational and research organisations, foundations, international agencies, and governments use law, custom, and informal agreement to withhold scholarly information from colleagues for political reasons. Academic boycott extends this ban by forbidding the politically correct contact with designated pariahs through lectures, books, journals, and attendance of such pariahs at international conferences. Self boycott is the reaction of some scholars thus discriminated against, who abandon attempts at contact with the larger world rather than risk humiliating rejection or “disinvitation.”

    The study shows that South African scholars experienced 20 years of frustration, anger, fear, and damaged self esteem. Medical education suffered as much as, if not more than, humanistic education from the isolation that strangled free discourse across national boundaries. In a careful, statistical fashion the authors document how at the tangible level South African scholars suffered most from economic sanctions which destroyed the value of the South African rand, making scholarly materials unobtainable and exchange economically difficult, if not impossible. At a deeper level the authors show how a generation of South African students lost the chance to become “world class” academic leaders by the slow erosion of academic standards through chronic intellectual malnutrition.

    What end did this anti-intellectual action serve? The authors point out the inherent futility of academic sanctions by quoting an editorial in the Cape Times (1986): “Such a boycott would cut a university off from its life blood, the nurturing flow of ideas…. The campaign plays directly into the hands of the destructive right-wing in this country which would also dearly love to cut us off from the world and its influences.”


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    In 1988 the bizarre expectations of academic sanctions were made clear to me by an incensed South African psychiatrist: “We are banned from contact with the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Why? Because the 121 members of the Society of South African Psychiatrists, some of whom are prepared to go to jail in protest against apartheid, have failed to influence the policies of a nation of 19 million?”

    Read Out In The Cold if only for its extensive catalogue of the pernicious nuances of academic discrimination. While you read, hold in mind the question, “What virtue do we discover for ourselves when acting as our brother's keeper?”--RALPH CRAWSHAW, clinical professor of psychiatry, Oregon Health Sciences University, Portland, Oregon, USA

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