Kris Kobach was interested in apartheid South Africa and its economy as a young man, years before he became known for his stands on voter fraud and illegal immigration.
He once contended American corporations shouldn't pull out of then racially segregated South Africa because it would hurt the country's black residents. He made the argument in an August 1986 letter to the editor, written when he was 20 and published in The Topeka Capital-Journal.
After receiving multiple tips about such a letter, The Eagle found it during a search of newspaper microfilm.
The document gives new insight into the early political thinking of the Kansas secretary of state and candidate for governor. Kobach wrote the letter during his undergraduate years at Harvard University, well before he attracted national attention for politically divisive positions.
"For every 100 people unemployed by American disinvestment, 80 will be black. Thrusting blacks into further impoverishment will not help. They must have economic power if they are to influence the government," Kobach wrote.
In 2012, opposition researchers accused Kobach, who was advising Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, of once justifying apartheid. Kobach called the allegation ridiculous and has repeatedly said he is not racist.
The letter shows Kobach denouncing South Africa’s policy of racial segregation, saying the "injustices of apartheid" must end.
Kobach wrote the letter in the weeks before President Ronald Reagan vetoed sanctions against South Africa. Congress quickly overrode the veto, forcing the sanctions into law.
Nancy Kassebaum Baker, then a U.S. senator from Kansas, helped lead the charge in favor of sanctions. She said she remembered Kobach’s letter.
“I’m sure I had people who certainly disagreed” with her support for the sanctions bill, Kassebaum Baker said in an interview. “And Kobach, I’m sure, represented the views he felt strongly about.”
Kobach said in a statement to The Eagle that he became interested in South Africa because it was a big topic on Harvard’s campus. He also said that he was not opposed to sanctions, despite his opposition to the disinvestment movement.
“Disinvestment was counterproductive to the goal of ending apartheid because it removed American companies from the country; and those companies were in many cases a powerful force against apartheid. Correctly-crafted congressional sanctions, on the other hand, could serve to weaken apartheid,” Kobach said.
The letter wasn’t the only time Kobach wrote about the intersection of business and apartheid South Africa. He wrote his senior thesis at Harvard about how businesses in South Africa had become extremely politicized. The report, based in part on research he conducted duirng a 1987 visit to the country, was published as a book in 1990. Kobach won a Harvard award for the thesis.
Kobach’s study of South Africa was guided by Samuel Huntington, a Harvard professor and director of the university’s Center for International Affairs. Huntington, who died in 2008, had advised South Africa’s government in the 1980s.
Huntington contended that South Africa should follow a “policy of simultaneous reform and repression,” according to a 1987 review of his work in The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper. He went on to write a book in 1996 that said battles between cultures, not countries, would define future conflicts.
Kobach distanced himself from some of Huntington’s more radical ideas in a profile in The New York Times earlier this year, but said Huntington "touched on a lot of themes I’ve worked on with immigration law."
Kobach told The Eagle he had not begun working with Huntington at the time the apartheid letter appeared. He wrote the letter between his sophomore and junior years and began working with Huntington during his junior year.
The letter is one of Kobach’s earliest public statements on South Africa, though it came after he participated in a campus debate that spring over disinvestment.
"Recent turmoil in South Africa has prompted some Americans to urge the disinvestment of American corporations. Such a policy would be both ineffective and irresponsible. Following other paths would be wiser. We must strive to end the injustices of apartheid, but pursuing disinvestment can only hurt South Africa's blacks," Kobach wrote in the letter.
Kobach concluded that even if disinvestment worked, the South African government would not capitulate. South Africa had "the will, the resources and the ability" to maintain a siege economy.
"Disinvestment is tantamount to washing our hands of the issue and turning our backs to the chaos we cause," Kobach wrote.
Michael Smith, an Emporia State University political scientist who has studied Kobach’s career, called Kobach’s writing on South Africa “classic, old school conservatism, really much more so than many of the things Kobach is doing now."
Asked what role South Africa played in his political formation, Kobach said he was already a conservative.
“However,” Kobach said, “the disinvesment debate at Harvard in the 1980s demonstrated to me how campus liberals often argue for policies that make them feel good superficially but actually make the problems worse.”