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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

The PRWM presented Polaroid with three demands: disengage from South Africa, publicly denounce apartheid in both the United States and South Africa, and donate all profits made from South Africa to recognized African liberation movements.

Up until that point, Polaroid had enjoyed its reputation as a liberal company, and boasted itself as an “equal opportunity employer.”

But Polaroid executives did not take well to PRWM protests. According to a 1971 article in Ramparts magazine, Polaroid Vice President Arthur Barnes said, “We don’t deal with demands from the street.”

While Polaroid denied its role in apartheid, Hunter and Williams were not satisfied — Polaroid still sold its products to and had factories open in South Africa — so the PRWM launched an international boycott of Polaroid products until the company completely withdrew.

As PRWM protests grew, Polaroid made a controversial donation of $20,000 to Roxbury’s Black United Front, an organization supporting the boycott. Black groups saw this gesture as an attempt to buy off the movement, and refusing to back down, gave the money to South African liberation groups and a Black United Front branch in Illinois.

Hunter and Williams were the first American activists to stand up and challenge their employers’ South African investments. Their Cambridge-based protest quickly became a national story.

 Facing such intense media pressure, Polaroid responded, this time buying a full-page ad in the Boston Globe to explain its position on South Africa, and to announce its sending a multi-racial envoy on a fact-finding mission in South Africa to understand the “complexities of the situation.”

“Because, if a corporation has a conscience it must be considered to be the collective conscience of the people who manage the company and those who work there,” the ad said. “Injustice to blacks in South Africa concerns many black people and many white people no matter where they live.”

The envoy returned with the conclusion that it should not withdraw — simply improve working conditions there. The group claimed its decision was based on the wants of black South Africans, but didn’t acknowledge that at the time, openly calling for foreign divestment was a crime punishable by death in South Africa.

Hunter and Williams were not convinced. “Then, as now, Polaroid responded with empty public gestures and a cover-up of its continued trade with the South African pass system and government,” she testified to the United Nations in 1977.

After her testimony, Polaroid fired Hunter, citing the contradiction that “ [she] accepts the benefits of employment by the Polaroid Corporation while [striving] to hinder or counteract the effectiveness of its operations.” By that time, Williams had also quit his job.

But amidst their struggle Hunter and Williams also found love in each other, married, and together endured the personal sacrifices of their activism. Hunter was jobless for two-and-a-half years and lived off $69 in weekly unemployment checks, according to a Banner article from 1990. “I taught kitchen chemistry at Roxbury Multi-Service Center, got involved in community activities and eventually found my way into education, working with adults going for their high-school diploma,” she said.

But their hard work and sacrifices paid off. By 1977, Polaroid completely pulled out of South Africa, and the international divestment movement — which eventually crippled apartheid — was on its way.

Hunter and Williams’ efforts have recently been featured in the documentary “Have You Heard from Johannesburg: The Bottom Line.” This film, produced by Connie Field, chronicles the international South African divestment movement.