Activists waged anti-apartheid fight in '70s

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse | 8/24/2010, 10:13 p.m.
Pictured here are activists Ken Williams and...
Pictured here are activists Ken Williams and Caroline Hunter in 1990. The former Polaroid employees launched an international boycott of the company after learning of its involvement in apartheid in South Africa. Banner file

As she walked through her office building one day, Caroline Hunter noticed something strange — a mock-up of a South African passbook.

At the time, Hunter knew little about South Africa, a country on the other side of the world from her workplace in Cambridge, Mass. But she knew about apartheid, and understood that this enlarged photo identification card meant something was not right.

Hunter, a 21-year-old chemist working for the Polaroid Corporation, stumbled upon evidence that her employer supported apartheid. But unlike anyone else at the time, she and her colleague, photographer Ken Williams, decided to do something about it.

The year was 1970, decades after the apartheid regime took hold of South Africa, but many years before the international community would realize and rally against its brutality.

South African passbooks, which Nelson Mandela described in his autobiography as “the hated document,” was a photo identification booklet used by the apartheid regime to control and monitor the movements of the country’s 21 million blacks.

The Pass Laws Act of 1952 required black males over the age of 16 to carry their passbook at all times — and to present it to white officials upon request.

Failure to do so resulted in jail time.

 Although various pass laws had been in effect since the eighteenth century, passbooks became a powerful symbol of apartheid and cause for widespread protest.

 In March of 1960 — a decade before Hunter found the mock-up at Polaroid — thousands of South Africans gathered in front of the police station in Sharpeville, a township outside Johannesburg. Protesting the pass law, the crowd of 7,000 refused to carry their passbooks and presented themselves to law enforcement officials for arrest.

However, police shot at the crowd, killing 69 and injuring 180 in what became known as the Sharpeville Massacre.

 Polaroid had been doing business with South Africa since 1938, a decade before apartheid became a formalized legal system. The company sold its products to the government and military. Most important was its ID-2 system — which consisted of a camera, instant processor and laminator.

This new system could generate a photo identification card in just two minutes and more than 200 in an hour — exactly the technology the South African government needed to enforce its Pass Laws Act.

“Polaroid was unique in that it was the only company that could fulfill South Africa’s need for instant identification systems — whether passbook or race identity card,” Hunter later testified to the United Nations’ Special Committee on Apartheid.

After finding the mock passbook, Hunter and Williams got to work. They distributed fliers around their workplace to alert their colleagues: “Polaroid imprisons black people in 60 seconds.”

They also demonstrated in front of the company’s headquarters in Technology Square and formed the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement (PRWM).

Although Hunter was only working at Polaroid for about a year, she was no stranger to “causing a stir” at the company’s headquarters. Before the PRWM, Hunter fought for the same salary as her white counterparts. She also led an organized effort to support a dishwasher burned by cleaning chemicals.