Anti-apartheid efforts felt home and abroad

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 3/8/2011, 7:54 p.m.

One hot summer morning, thousands of black students left their classrooms to protest what they thought was a racist curriculum. The high school students marched peacefully, but soon found police armed with deadly weapons, blocking their path.

The police opened fire on the youth, even as they ran away. While the government downplayed the number murdered in the massacre, some estimate nearly 600 young people were killed that day.

 The 1976 massacre in Soweto, South Africa shocked the world, as it revealed the true brutality of apartheid. Reports and images of the violence quickly reached Boston and did not fall on deaf ears—just a decade earlier, Americans had dismantled their own system of institutionalized racism.

Instead, the horrors of apartheid galvanized Boston activists, ready to tackle racism abroad. But nearly 8,000 miles away, South Africa was physically out of reach to these Bostonians. But they did the one thing they could from a distance — bring down apartheid’s financial allies in the United States.

After the Soweto uprising, longtime activist and state Representative Mel King (I-South End) initiated hearings about the Commonwealth’s investments in South Africa. At the time, Massachusetts had about $300 million of public funds invested in companies doing business there.

When a state commission report released two years later revealed that Massachusetts invested more of its public employees pension funds in South Africa than at home, King and white state Senator Jack Backman responded by filing a divestment bill that called for full divestment of the Commonwealth’s pension funds.

But they were fighting a tough battle. Up until this point, American and European governments had firmly rejected international calls to put economic pressure on the apartheid regime. In 1962 the United Nations General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution calling for economic sanctions against South Africa, but Western nations boycotted the measure.

King and Backman’s bill failed to get enough votes in 1979, but the pair was able to pass another provision to the state budget barring any new purchase of stocks in companies doing business in South Africa.

For King, South Africa’s distance from Boston didn’t diminish its importance. “Our humanity dictates that we should be in human relations with everyone on the planet,” he said in a recent interview with the Banner.

Local activists saw divestment as an important tactic on two ends.  It was a non-violent move to put pressure on the apartheid government, and one that could be done from afar. But it was also a way to preserve jobs in the Commonwealth.

 “Massachusetts workers are increasingly being threatened by ‘runaway shops’ — firms which leave Massachusetts unless they get wage cuts, speed-ups, and local subsidies,” read a pamphlet from the early 1980s. “South Africa is an attractive environment for such firms because of the extremely cheap labor, illegality of free trade unions, toleration of brutal working conditions, etc.”

But divestment also had its opponents. Some argued that withdrawing funds would hurt black South African workers — even though Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu advocated the tactic. Others argued that divestment simply could not bring down apartheid.