Lessons from how corporate boycotts led to fair elections in South Africa

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Lessons from how corporate boycotts led to fair elections in South Africa

A white minority clung to power by denying Blacks their right to vote till corporate boycotts led to fair elections.

A white minority supported by corporate donations. Blacks prevented from voting. Racial violence. Calls for a boycott. Sound familiar?

Georgia? South Africa? How was the racist South African government forced to hold fair elections? What role did corporate boycotts play? Impact of sporting events? How did an American Reverend who worked with MLK Jr. bring about change in South Africa?

ApartheidRacist voter suppression

Apartheid (meaning ‘apartness’) was the ideology of the National Party (NP) in South Africa and made laws forcing different racial groups to live separately and develop separately. Apartheid severely disadvantaged the majority of the population, simply because they did not share the skin color of the rulers. Many were kept just above destitution because they were ‘non-white’. – SA History

The Separate Representation of Voters Act enforced racial segregation, and was part of a deliberate process to remove all non-white people from the voters’ roll“.

How South African apartheid ended

Public pressure and boycotts can encourage corporations to support fair voting rights for all racial groups.

Reverend Sullivan inspired boycott

“The Rev. Leon Howard Sullivan was a civil rights warrior who fought for conscientious capitalism. Sullivan preached the message “we help ourselves” in African American communities and organized Philadelphia’s black churches into a boycott of companies with discriminatory employment practices. “Don’t buy where you can’t work,” he told his followers.” – LA TImes

He developed “Operation Breadbasket” for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.Flexing of consumer muscle by Philadelphia’s black population yielded impressive results in terms of access to employment and confirmed the tactical power of coordinated economic resistance.  

“Why doesn’t someone do something about apartheid?” Sullivan described himself as asking. “I prayed to God. God spoke back to me and said, ‘You do something about it’.

Sullivan was the first black director of a major U.S. corporation when he joined the board of General Motors in 1971. Legislation inspired by the Sullivan Principles prohibited U.S. companies from engaging in segregationist practices anywhere in the world. was the Sullivan Principles. He called for divestment (dis-investment) as a means for end apartheid and the exploitation of Blacks in South Africa.” – Philadelphia Encyclopedia

College campuses across the country pushed for academic and financial disinvestment from South African companies, which eventually had 155 colleges disinvesting from South Africa in some capacity.

Boycott to end apartheid

Public pressure and boycotts can encourage corporations to support fair voting rights for all racial groups.

American apartheid?

Voting restrictions and id requirements

Apartheid laws suppressed Black voters. The Amendment Act No 9 removed all Colored South Africans from the voting rolls and pushed them into separate voting rolls where they had limited say in who could represent them. Voter IDs were also restrictive. Natives Abolition of Passes & Coordination of Doc’s Act No 67 required all people to carry “reference books”, (extremely specific forms of ID).

Georgia’s new bills plays restrict voting by increasing the amount of identification needed to submit an absentee ballot, and limiting time and spaces to deposit them. Georgia’s recent voter suppression campaign has purged primarily voters of color from the polls.

Economic and racial segregation

Minority whites in South Africa used laws such as The Separate Amenities Act of 1953 to segregate people along racial lines, limiting Colored People’s access, freedoms, and upward mobility. 

Georgia enacted similar Jim Crow laws which created systems of inequity and histories of imbalance between affluent white neighborhoods in the north and poorer Black communities in the south. Even today, there still exists major racial barriers, such as income inequality, that exist throughout Atlanta. The Brookings Institution, calls Atlanta the capital of income inequality. It has ranked the “city’s wealth disparity as the worst in the United States for three out of the last five years”.

Intimidation through racial violence

Violence against people of color who protested apartheid laws in South Africa in 1960 led to appeals for boycotts against apartheid. After the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, African led political parties were forced underground, with their leaders arrested. 

Georgia has had a history of racial violence against people of color from the Atlanta race riots of 1906, lynchings tied to Jim Crow laws and recent racist shootings at Asian spas in Atlanta.

Boycott of firms supporting apartheid

Public pressure and boycotts can encourage corporations to support fair voting rights for all racial groups.

Imperial & Global Forum

Boycott of sporting events

Public pressure and boycotts can encourage corporations to support fair voting rights for all racial groups.

Imperial & Global Forum

Product boycott

Public pressure and boycotts can encourage corporations to support fair voting rights for all racial groups.

Imperial & Global Forum

Corporations Can Defend Voting Rights

“Corporations can be powerful allies in the fight for fair and accessible elections. But they must be pressured to join the fray—and they must feel they have skin in the game. So far, companies have seen that public opinion will reward them for their participation in generic get-out-the-vote efforts. In 2021, consumers must show companies that the same is true in the fight against suppressive voting legislation—like the hundreds of bills proposed by Republicans across 47 states that would make voting harder. Turnout on Election Day is important, but in the years between elections, Republican legislators are hard at work enacting laws that narrow the pool of eligible voters more and more. Corporate heavyweights must use their platforms to discourage any attack on the right to vote—not just during an election, but in the years before and after as well.

Corporate America has gotten on board with voter registration efforts, en-masse, because they saw a marketing and economic opportunity. The same can be true for the fight against voter suppression laws—and if corporations really believe in protecting the right to vote, now is the time for them to show it. Americans have many ways to make their voices heard—at the ballot box, and with their wallets. Following the lead of voting rights advocates on the ground in states such as Georgia and Texas can show companies that there is a right side to be on in the fight against voter suppression even after Election Day—and that it pays to be on it.” – Democracy Docket

Takeaway: “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” – Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

Encourage those pushing for racial voter suppression and their corporate supporters to study history.


Image credit: Mountain & MoleHill
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