A South African recalls the academic boycott

At its worst, the culture of the boycott produced an imagined South Africa that was a theater of morality. That this was so was entirely understandable. If ever a political struggle could reasonably be construed by democrats as one of good against evil, right against wrong, the situation in South Africa in the 1980s was it. But the problem was that, too often, the ostensible topic of South Africa simply became the occasion for a kind of parading of the foreign scholar’s moral virtue. In much antiapartheid writing of the time, we find out very little about South Africa but a great deal about the author’s ethical qualities as an opponent of apartheid. The practice of the boycott often became a gesture of separating oneself from the sphere of evil rather than intellectually engaging with the realities of a society in travail. When traveling abroad in the 1980s, I was struck by the way in which many keen supporters of the boycott were uninterested in discussing the details of what was happening in South Africa. South Africa was merely the occasion for them to play a heroic (in reality, mock-heroic) role on the stage of the theater of morality.

                                                                                         Jonathan Hyslop, “The South African Boycott Experience,” in Academe Online (September-October 2006).