Opinion

Boycotts Worked Against South African Apartheid. They Can Work Again for Palestine.

By Clare Maxwell


Disclaimer: The views, opinions, and assumptions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of The Graduate Press Editorial Board. Our mission is to provide a neutral platform for the student body to be able to engage in open dialogue on complex issues.


The movement to boycott Apartheid in South Africa started in the late 1950’s in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, one of the defining moments of the movement happened an ocean away, in Cambridge Massachusetts. Two African-American workers at Kodak, then a global leader in the film and photography industry, became aware that the company was providing materials to the apartheid government of South Africa to create the infamous pass-book system. Pass books, a form of ID issued to black South Africans, were used to designate a non-citizen status and control the movements of black workers. Caroline Hunter, a chemist, and Ken Williams, a photographer, founded the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement to push their employer to end their contracts with the South African government. It took seven years, but eventually Kodak both admitted their complicity, and agreed to stop supplying the apartheid regime.

Caroline Hunter reflected on her decision to go up against her employer by saying “we had some sense that no one is free unless everybody is free, and that we had some relationship to black people everywhere. As workers, we had the right to say what happened to our labor.” Forty years later, Caroline Hunter stepped up to advocate for the boycott of another system of apartheid, this time decrying the biometric ID system used by the Israeli government to restrict and monitor the movement of Palestinians. Hewlett-Packard, one of the largest information technology companies in the world, was the new target, as they were providing the technology that enables the multi-tier ID system.

Ms. Hunter was explicit in drawing the parallels between the passbook system in South Africa, and the biometric ID system in Palestine, saying, “Just as Polaroid was a key boycott target during the Apartheid era for providing imaging for South Africa’s notorious pass system, people of conscience today should boycott HP companies for providing imaging and technology for Israeli apartheid.”

The comparisons between the two are clear. Passbooks were issued to black South Africans to identify them as citizens of “bantustans”, segregated and deliberately underdeveloped towns that were designated as reservations for indigenous people. Passbooks were used to control which workers could leave and live in labor camps, or enter “whites-only areas”. If a black South African was caught outside a bantustan ghetto without a passbook, they could be arrested, beaten, or worse. One of the most horrific moments in the history of Apartheid South Africa was the Sharpesville massacre, when police fired on an anti-passbook protest, killing 69 activists.  

Palestinian ID cards serve a similar purpose. Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza hold a different ID than Palestinians who are residents of East Jerusalem, which is again different from that of Israeli citizens, despite the fact that Israel controls all borders, trade and most civil affairs throughout their territory. Like Black South Africans who were forced to live in bantustans, Palestinians are relegated to the Gaza strip and increasingly divided areas of the West Bank, areas that are restricted from economic activity and development, and where the necessary infrastructure is repeatedly destroyed by the Israeli military. The ID system governs who can and cannot leave the territory, which roads a holder is allowed to drive on, and where they can work. The IDs are also necessary to pass through the hundreds of military checkpoints that separate Palestinian territories from Israel, or restrict movement in the West Bank.

The parallels are clear, which means that there is a possibility that the same strategy that was one of the deciding points in the end of South African apartheid can help end the apartheid system in Israel and Palestine. The Polaroid Revolutionary Workers led to the withdrawal of Kodak from South Africa, and spurred influential boycotts against General Motors, Barclays Bank, and more. A successful campaign that pushed Hewlett Packard from providing technology for segregation would push more companies to take responsibility for the use of their technologies, and remove the tools used to discriminate against Palestinians. This is the idea at the root of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Not only are there similarities between the conditions in South Africa and Palestine, as well as the strategies used to oppose the respective discriminatory regimes, there are also similarities between the consequences for those who speak out. For Black South Africans, criticizing the apartheid regime or calling for divestment could mean imprisonment or death. The same is true for Palestinian activists and BDS organizers, as tragically exemplified by the case of Tareq Matar, who was admitted to the IHEID department of Anthropology and Sociology in 2019. Instead of coming to Geneva, Tareq was imprisoned in  retaliation for his activism, brutally tortured, and sentenced to four years in Israeli military prison. Boycotts are a way that actors who are spatially removed from Palestine can take action, rather than placing the responsibility for ending an apartheid regime on the shoulders of those who are worst affected. Whether one is a working chemist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or a graduate student in Geneva, Switzerland, collective economic action offers an effective, principled, nonviolent route to making historical change.


Photo by Clare Maxwell

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