When two employees at Polaroid discovered their company’s technology was being used by the South African government to help enforce apartheid, they protested and called for an international boycott of their employer until it withdrew from that country. It was one of the first anti-apartheid protests against a major U.S. corporation and the beginning of the broader divestment movement that followed. Polaroid’s leadership responded with steps it thought could help Black South Africans, and its efforts pose a question we still grapple with today: What responsibility do corporations have to promote social justice and human rights around the world?
Produced by Charlie Herman, with Julia Press and Sarah Wyman.
- How 2 Polaroid employees pushed the beloved camera company to stand up for Black South Africans during apartheid
- Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement pamphlet
- Eric Morgan, “The World is Watching: Polaroid and South Africa.”
- Christopher Bonanos, Instant: The Story of Polaroid
CHARLIE HERMAN: This is a fantastic ad.
POLAROID AD: Hey! Meet the Swinger. Polaroid Swinger…
CH: Everything about it, kills me. It’s for this affordable Polaroid camera sold in the 1960s.
POLAROID AD: …19 dollars and ninety five, swing it out…
CH: It’s in black and white, and you see these young, good-looking white kids dancing on the beach, jumping in the ocean, and especially, flirting. And, that oh-so-subtle name.
POLAROID AD: Polaroid Swinger…
CH: The Swinger is a very simple instant camera that has a strap you hook around your wrist. When you want to take a quick picture, you swing it up, click, and, presto, a few moments later, there you have a black and white snapshot.
Polaroid had a real knack for creating great ads for its instant cameras – a technology the company created and completely owned. Like this one from the 1970s:
LAURENCE OLIVIER: When you can see a picture developing before your eyes. Blooming in minutes into a photograph as real as life itself, it makes you eager to grab hold of the world.
CH: Yes, my friends, that is master thespian … star of stage and screen … Laurence Olivier …
LAURENCE OLIVIER: Press the button, there it is. It’s as simple as that…
CH: Selling the heck out of Polaroid’s latest, revolutionary and really cool-looking new instant camera, the SX-70. That “tsck-zzzhhh” sound of instant photos … the white border on the bottom, the image slowing emerging before your eyes? This is it. The start of it all.
So then, what about this other ad from Polaroid in 1970 that ran in newspapers? It wasn’t to sell an instant camera. Instead, the headline read: What is Polaroid doing in South Africa?
From Business Insider, this is BTYB. Brands you know, stories you don’t. I’m Charlie Herman.
Polaroid is instant photography. During its heyday, millions of people took billions of instant photos around the world. It was the Apple of technology. The original Instagram (without the filters).
But up to the 1970s, Polaroid was also doing business in South Africa. When two employees discovered this, they called for a boycott until the company withdrew. It was one of the first anti-apartheid protests against a major corporation in the United States… and the beginnings of the divestment movement that followed.
As Polaroid tried to figure out the right thing to do, its founder summed it up: “The world is watching us right now.”
Stay with us.
CH: Ken Williams and Caroline Hunter were the Polaroid workers who led the protests against their employer. They met through a company program, began dating and, then, in the late 70s, got married. Williams has since passed away, and Hunter, now 73-years old, splits her time between Massachusetts and Louisiana.
CAROLINE HUNTER: I am happily retired and when people ask me what I do, I generally say ‘my job is to do nothing well.’ (laughs)
CH: And how are you doing, doing nothing well?
HUNTER: Well, I’m trying to be really good and I’m trying to be an expert.
CH: Hunter was born and raised in New Orleans.
HUNTER: I am number four out of six children, four girls and then two boys. Grew up in a black Catholic environment. Uh, poor working class neighborhood. My father graduated high school. My mother did not.
CH: She grew up in the 1950s and 60s in the city’s Seventh Ward, which, as she put it, was a segregated bubble.
HUNTER: We had the kind of Black, everything we needed within our community segregated communities. So you went to the Black doctor, the Black dentist, the cleaners, the pharmacy, the Black owned pharmacy, what we called the drug stores back then.
CH: But Hunter attended high school across town and had to get there by bus.
HUNTER: We had to sit behind the sign, behind the ‘colored’ sign. And if a white person got on and needed a seat, needed your seat, you had to get up.
CH: In the 10th grade, she had a teacher who inspired her to see the world differently. And if you’re lucky, you’ve had someone like that in your life and know what that can mean. For Hunter, it was Mr. Valda, a young, white teacher who taught current events.
HUNTER: He encouraged us to get involved in the civil rights movement because it was not what we did. It was around us.
CH: So as a teenager, she looked for ways to stand up for her rights in her hometown.
HUNTER: Myself and my friends would go to the dairy queen order at the colored window and when our food would come, we’d say, ‘we want to sit inside.’ And when refused, we walk away in protest. That was the most that we ever did.
CH: It was also Mr. Valda who introduced Hunter to the novel, “Cry, the Beloved Country” by the South African author Alan Paton. It’s a story about a Zulu pastor who goes to Johannesburg to search for his son who’s been accused of murdering a white man. Published in 1948, it was one of the first novels by a white author that detailed the inhumanity of apartheid. Hunter said the story moved her, and made her more aware of the suffering of Black people in South Africa. She still remembers her favorite quote from the book:
HUNTER: There’s a man lying in the grass. There’s a storm gathering over his head. People pass him by not knowing what’s happening to him.
CH: Why did that resound with you so much, that passage?
HUNTER: I, I think the book resonated with my life as under segregation. It moved me to the point that I marked it. And then life went on.
CH: After high school, Hunter went to college and graduated with a degree in chemistry. She then accepted a job at Polaroid and moved to Cambridge, where the company was based.
CH: You start working at Polaroid, and what was your job?
HUNTER: A research chemist in the color lab. (laughs) It’s ironic from here on out.
CH: Compared to other companies in the 1960s, Polaroid was considered progressive. There were several women in leadership roles. And Hunter decided to work there because, in part, the workforce was integrated, though in truth many of the Black employees worked in entry-level, low paying jobs.
That’s how Ken Williams started out, as a janitor. But Williams was also an excellent photographer who really understood how to get the best out of Polaroid film. Over time, he worked his way up and became a photographer at the company.
One day in the fall of 1970, Hunter met Williams in the photographers’ studio at Polaroid to go to lunch.
HUNTER: And I went into the shop. There weren’t any other people around and I, the memory is as of coming from one room to the other end, looking back at a bulletin board and seeing the picture of the only other Black guy in the shop on an ID badge. And we looked at it and it said “Department of the Mines, Union of South Africa.” And we froze
CH: What did you think when you saw that?
HUNTER: Well, I froze, we froze and he said, ‘I didn’t know Polaroid was in South Africa.’ And I said, ‘I didn’t know either, but I know that’s a bad place for Black people.’ And all of “Cry the Beloved Country,” all of Mr. Valda, all of that stuff came flooding back to me.
CH: They left the building, went to lunch, and couldn’t stop talking about what they had just seen.
CH: And what did you do?
HUNTER: That evening, we started looking up South Africa in the World Book Encyclopedia. (laughs) And then, uh, the next day I went to the library, checked out tons of books on South Africa. And each evening for a long time after we got home from work, we researched and researched and researched and researched.
CH: Apartheid, the word, comes from Afrikaans and means “apartness” or “separateness.” Starting in 1948, the white minority government in South Africa passed a series of laws to separate the races and create a divided society: white people on top, and Black people – who made up nearly 70-percent of the population – on the bottom.
As Hunter and Williams did their research, they learned that a Polaroid instant photography system called ID-2 was being sold to companies in South Africa. Now, the ID-2 made instant photos for identification cards, and they concluded it was being used by the government as part of a program to enforce apartheid.
HUNTER: The discovery of that ID card, the unveiling for us of Polaroid’s role in South Africa was really, really significant.
CH: More specifically, the ID-2 system could quickly create the photos necessary for a 20-page document known as a “passbook” that Black South Africans despised.
HUNTER: Under South African law, Blacks had to carry a document called their pass book, similar-sized to our passport. However, this passbook has everything about you. Uh, you must have it on your physical person at all times. So if I, police came on to me right now and my passbook was in the coat rack on the door, but not on my person, I could be arrested. It has to be updated. I have to have it signed. It is the permission for me to move to exist and is considered the handcuffs of Black people.
ERIC MORGAN: The passbook was, uh, without question, a symbol of all of the ills of apartheid because it did separate people by race and it also controlled your movement.
CH: This is Eric Morgan, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay. He’s studied and written about South Africa, Polaroid and apartheid, and the role of the passbooks.
EM: It controlled, um, who you were allowed to associate with it, controlled, your entire existence. If you didn’t have your passbook with you or if the stamps or the permissions were incorrect, you could be detained for very, very long time.
CH: In 1960, several thousand black South Africans demonstrated against the passbook in the township of Sharpeville, south of Johannesburg. Police responded by opening fire on the protesters, killing nearly 70 people, and wounding nearly 200 more, including dozens of women and children. The Sharpeville Massacre, as it’s called, shocked the international community. It showed how violence was integral to enforcing apartheid. The South African government, however, responded by implementing even more repressive measures … and by the early 1970s, apartheid had reached the peak of its power.
EM: First and foremost, the major resistance movements are all either imprisoned or in exile. South Africa’s economy is also incredibly powerful. So the investments of the Western world, the United States, Great Britain, et cetera, um, are, are very strong.
CH: And if you were doing business in the country, you had to comply with the laws … apartheid and all. So that was the situation for Polaroid in South Africa when Hunter and Williams stumbled across that ID card. After thinking and talking about it, they decided one evening to post leaflets around the Polaroid offices – on bulletin boards and on restroom stall doors throughout the building.
HUNTER: It was done on a typewriter. And at the top, Ken had written in hand, “Polaroid imprisons, black people in 60 seconds.” Uh, and at the bottom it says, “seize the time” and it’s got a lot of great rhetoric. (laughs)
CH: Yeah, folks at Polaroid were not laughing about it.
HUNTER: So on Monday when we show up for work, the Polaroid police and the Cambridge police are looking for us.
CH: They knew it was you.
HUNTER: Well, we, I signed in! We both signed in. [laughter] Come on. This is a known protest.
CH: There’re some discrepancies in the timeline of what happened when, but what matters is that after some back and forth between Hunter and Williams and executives at Polaroid, the company put out a statement that said, “Polaroid has not sold its ID equipment to the government of South Africa for use in the apartheid program.”
Hunter and Williams though weren’t buying it. So, along with a third co-worker, they decided to organize and protest Polaroid’s business in South Africa.
HUNTER: We called ourselves the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement, PRWM. We put the protest document on Polaroid stationary, (laughs) which I think is, it was okay, you know, I had it, I got it. Why not? We’re from the company writing to the company, right?
CH: There you go.
CH: Polaroid put out another statement — also on Polaroid stationary — quote “Polaroid has consistently refused to sell the ID-2 Identification system directly or indirectly to the government of South Africa.”
Now, compared to other US companies like General Motors, IBM and Coca-Cola, Polaroid’s operations in South Africa were small. What business it did have in the country was through a local distributor called Frank and Hirsch. Technically, Polaroid had no employees, no factories there. All of the profits came from this distributor, and they weren’t much: Polaroid said sales were less than one half of one percent of the company’s total global sales. It was this local company, Frank and Hirsch, that sold the ID-2 system to parts of the South African government, like the state-run Bureau of Mines and the army and the air force.
EM: This was hugely problematic because Polaroid’s technology was being used directly for the purposes of separating Blacks from whites in South Africa.
CH: In early October 1970, the newly formed Workers Movement held a rally right outside of Polaroid’s offices. More than 200 people showed up, most of them other employees. And along with speeches, the group presented Polaroid with three demands.
HUNTER: We call for Polaroid to denounce apartheid in the US and in South Africa simultaneously, that Polaroid immediately withdraw from South Africa, that they turn over their profits to the recognized liberation movements, fighting for their freedom. We saw ourselves as, uh, David helping the people fight Goliath.
CH: Shortly after the protest, Ken Williams stopped working for Polaroid and put his full attention to the Workers Movement. A few weeks later, they held another protest, this time calling for an international boycott of Polaroid products. Close to a thousand people attended. Hunter and Williams waited to see how Polaroid would answer their demand that it withdraw from South Africa.
And they weren’t the only ones. So did the CEOs and executives of other US companies doing business in that country — several of whom were on the board of Polaroid.
EM: This is a major moment in, not only the history of the anti-apartheid struggle, but I would say the history of, of labor, the history of American business. It’s an incredible demand, because it’s unprecedented at the time. No other corporation had been pressured by its workers to do something like this.
CH: What Polaroid decided could ripple through the rest of corporate America. That’s, when we come back.
CH: We’re back. Before we go any further, I want to talk about Polaroid and its founder at the moment the Workers Movement called for a boycott. At the time, Polaroid was a brand known and admired around the world.
CHRISTOPHER BONANOS: I think of it as an absolute ideal of a technology company that tries to stay ahead of any competition through real creativity of invention.
CH: This is Christopher Bonanos, the author of “Instant: The Story of Polaroid.” In the early 2000s, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy twice… and eventually, the brand and its intellectual property was sold to another company. But when Polaroid was at its peak in the 1970s, if you’re looking for a modern-day parallel, well, that’s pretty easy:
CB: Apple and Google. And in particular, Apple because the other thing about Polaroid is that they really, really embraced industrial design. They wanted their products to be fantastic objects that you really, really wanted, that you would covet.
CH: And the person at the center of Polaroid was Edwin Land. He started the company in 1937 and ran it until the late ’70s. During the company’s heyday, Polaroid was Land. He was an inventor with over 500 patents to his name … and one of them was for the instant camera. When he unveiled the first one in 1947, a New York Times editorial described it saying:
CB: “There is nothing like this in the history of photography.”
CH: Land was a visionary. He wanted to make products that changed the world. In a documentary about Polaroid made in 1970 called “The Long Walk,” Land reaches into his coat, pulls out his wallet, and pretends to take a picture with it … and then puts it back in his pocket. Sound familiar? Land says this new camera would be…
EDWIN LAND: Oh like the telephone, something you use all day long, whenever an occasion arises in which you want to make sure that you cannot trust your memory or when you want to record any object of great interest to you or any beautiful scene.
CH: But for Land, Polaroid wasn’t just about making cool, gotta-have products. He also wanted to change lives, starting with the people who worked at Polaroid. Land was known to say “Polaroid is people.”
EM: He really truly believed that the plenty provided by capitalism afforded an opportunity for normal people to achieve greatness.
CH: Again, Eric Morgan, professor at the University of Wisconsin.
EM: These were values he absolutely believed in, that, a company like Polaroid wanted to give opportunities to African Americans, to women, to contribute to spreading democracy, to creating a more equitable and just world.
CH: You see this in Land’s response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. The morning after, Land stood in front of a group of mostly white employees and told them the nation was in a moment of crisis. Land said that Polaroid was a leader in corporate America, and as such, he asked if there wasn’t something more the company could do to hire and train Black workers at all levels of the company, and at numbers equal to the percentage of Black residents in the Boston area.
Land had a vision of himself and his company as progressive and enlightened. That’s how many of Polaroid’s workers saw things too. So when Caroline Hunter and the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement revealed the company’s involvement in South Africa, well, employees were confused and embarrassed. And they began asking, what does Polaroid really stand for?
EM: I think there is general shock and discomfort with the connection between Polaroid and apartheid. From the Workers Movement perspective though, that’s all lies.
CH: The company tried to explain its business in South Africa, but with each statement it put out, with even more disclosures that were sometimes contradictory, it just created more questions. In the meantime, the Workers Movement honed its message.
HUNTER: You didn’t have to be a Polaroid worker to boycott Polaroid. You didn’t have to be Black to hate apartheid. You just have to be right thinking and identify with the inhumanity of what was happening in South Africa.
CH: Now, a thing to keep in mind, is what was happening across America at this time. This was 1970. There were ongoing — sometimes violent — protests against the Vietnam War. This is the year four students were shot and killed at Kent State by the Ohio National Guard. In addition, women and gay people were demanding their rights. And there was a growing anti-apartheid movement, especially on college campuses, like the ones near Polaroid — places like Harvard and MIT and other Boston schools. The Workers Movement got support from those students, as well as an important boost from the American Committee on Africa, a national group focused on African issues.
As much as Polaroid might have said it would not answer the demands of the Workers Movement, it also couldn’t ignore them.
EM: Polaroid’s hand was forced. Edwin Land said, you know, ‘I’ve never been bullied or pushed around in my life. I’m not going to be now.’ But there is a clear connection right between the Worker’s Movement and what happen
CH: Around this time, Land had been laser-focused on developing a new, instant camera that years later would be described as “magic.” But as the protests grew and got more media attention, he recognized that he needed to answer the question: is it right for Polaroid to do business in South Africa? As a former executive put it, Land knew that “an attack on his company was an attack on him.”
So one of the first things he did was an interview with the Boston Globe. Land told the reporter that he was unaware of how Polaroid products were being used in South Africa. But it turns out, others at Polaroid were aware, and no action was taken.
CH: Is it confirmed that Frank and Hirsch was selling it to organizations that were connected to the South African government?
EM: Absolutely. Not even selling to organizations, but selling directly to the South African government.
CH: Polaroid eventually conceded that nearly 20 percent of the film it sold to its distributor, Frank and Hirsch, ended up being used for passbook photos. So Polaroid announced it would immediately stop selling any products that could be used in the passbook program.
Next, the company created an executive committee that included seven white and seven Black employees to figure out what Polaroid should do with its business in South Africa. Land spoke to the group and told them, quote “the world is watching us right now… Polaroid is considered a great and generous company. Shouldn’t we use that power?”
But almost immediately, the committee hit a snafu. What did it mean for Polaroid to “get out” of South Africa?Remember, it had no employees, no factories, only a deal with a local distributor, Frank and Hirsch. It could end that relationship, but then Frank and Hirsch could just as easily buy Polaroid products from say, another company and then re-sell them in South Africa. Simply withdrawing didn’t mean Polaroid products would disappear from South Africa. So what to do?
At one point during two long days of meetings, a Black member of the committee stood up and said he was leaving. When asked why, he replied, ‘For a hundred years, whitey has been telling Black people what’s good for them. Now, we’re sitting here trying to do the same thing for the Blacks in South Africa. I don’t think we should be doing that.’ Well, someone asked him, what he thought they should do, and he said, “We should go over there and ask them what they want to do.”
With that insight, Polaroid had a plan for what it would do next. And it decided it would tell the world. Again Eric Morgan.
EM: On November 25th, it placed advertisements in major newspapers all across the country that posed the question, “What is Polaroid doing in South Africa?”
CH: “What is Polaroid doing in South Africa? This ad, this question, it’s pretty remarkable for a company. Even Caroline Hunter couldn’t quite believe it.
CH: What did you think of that ad?
HUNTER: Oh, we loved it. It was like, we went out and bought all the newspapers with all the ads.
CH: Let’s be clear, the ad itself did not impress her, but the company had just given her and the Workers Movement a big boost.
The ad started off Polaroid describing its business in South Africa. It talked about the Workers Movement and its demands. And then Polaroid stated very publicly, quote “We abhor apartheid.”
EM: Polaroid becomes the first major American corporation, as far as I can find, that publicly, in print, denounces apartheid and that’s important, right? Because it sets a precedent. Someone has to do it first and Polaroid is the first one to do that.
CH: The ad then went on to ask a series of questions: “Should we stop doing business there? Would it put Black people out of work?” The company didn’t really offer many answers, but there was one to that first question: What is Polaroid doing in South Africa? Answer: “We don’t know.”
So to find out, the company announced it would send four employees — two white and two Black ‚ to South Africa to investigate. And when they returned, they’d make a recommendation for what Polaroid should do.
EM: They go to South Africa for about 10 days. They basically want to talk to South Africans, both white and Black alike. They want to go to the distributor, Frank & Hirsch, and see what the working conditions are for Blacks. They wanna talk to Blacks and whites outside of the distributor as well.
CH: The men from Polaroid talked with over 150 South Africans. They learned that Frank and Hirsh had been paying Black workers less than white workers. And from nearly every Black South African they spoke to, they said they heard a common refrain: don’t leave, use your influence.
When the four men got back to Cambridge, they presented a unanimous recommendation: Polaroid should stay in South Africa and do more to help the Black employees. In January of 1971, the company announced that’s exactly what it would do, in yet another newspaper ad … this time in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and 20 newspapers in Black communities. Under the headline, “An experiment in South Africa,” Polaroid said it would work with its distributor, Frank and Hirsch, to raise salaries of Black employees, offer workplace training and provide financial support for more education. And Polaroid hoped that other American companies would join its experiment.
EM: The question was, can we have an influence incrementally or do we need to destroy this all at once? And that’s ultimately what it comes down to.
CH: In many ways, though, the “experiment” didn’t pose much of a risk for Polaroid: Again, it had no employees or factories in South Africa and the profits were small. Instead, Polaroid stayed because it and its founder believed it could make a difference.
EM: If a corporation has a conscience, and I think Edwin Land would believe that a corporation does, because a corporation is not just profit, it’s its employees, right? It’s its values. And so if it does have a conscience, it should act upon its conscience.
CH: But Polaroid’s “experiment” did not meet the demands of Hunter and the Workers Movement. They saw the decision to stay as supporting apartheid because it did nothing to challenge the laws of the white government.
HUNTER: Polaroid is using the American standards for people to think that apartheid is a little like segregation, and so we’re gonna make just some improvements for our workers, when our argument was you’re impacting a whole of the African masses with your product.
CH: When we come back, the lessons from the Polaroid Experiment come into focus for everyone.
CH: We’re back.
Polaroid’s experiment in South Africa got underway. And because the company had been candid about its thinking and what it was going to do, some at the time thought that Polaroid came off looking progressive.
Again, Eric Morgan.
EM: No matter what caused the Polaroid experiment, whether it was pressure by the Workers Movement, whether it was actually a decision by Polaroid itself, just the acknowledgement of Polaroid’s complicity in apartheid and its willingness to bring this story to the forefront of American consciousness, that alone was so important, right?
CH: Other companies like GM, Ford and IBM were paying attention. They had much bigger operations in South Africa — and bigger profits. And in the late-70s into the 80s, when they faced demands to withdraw, they responded by copying the Polaroid experiment: They said they could do more by staying and improving the lives of Black South Africans through economic opportunities.
For South Africans, however, the response to the Polaroid experiment was mixed. Some praised the company, while others called the experiment “tragic” and said Polaroid had done exactly what the South African government wanted. Supporters of the government said the company was giving in to “radical Black employees.”
As for the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement, they definitely were not impressed. They called the experiment an insult and said the company was lying to hide its support for the South Africa government. The boycott of Polaroid would continue.
CH: Was there any merit at all to the experiment?
HUNTER: No. We didn’t buy it the charade at all. We never did. All along, we knew that the prize was Polaroid out of South Africa.So all of these steps along the way, all of that stuff was just a diversion to keep us from our focus and for our goal.
CH: A few weeks after Polaroid’s announcement, Hunter and Williams testified at the United Nations before a special committee on apartheid. Up to this point, Hunter was still employed at Polaroid. Shortly after her testimony, the company sent a note to all its employees reminding them that calling for or supporting a boycott of Polaroid could be grounds for dismissal. Then, the next day…
HUNTER: At the very same hour, a week from the day of the protest, I’m called into my manager’s office and given my letter of suspension, which I accepted, but I write my, whatever my protest is, on a letter and I’m told to take my things and leave the building.
CH: So when you were suspended from Polaroid, What did that do for you?
HUNTER: Well, it just gave me 24/7 all day to work on the boycott. So, it kind of backfired for them because that was more speaking of events, more protests, more everything
CH: She and Williams continued to gather support from more groups upset with Polaroid and its “experiment.” That included the African National Congress, numerous faith-based groups, and college students, especially from Harvard. They held teach-ins and protested Edwin Land’s speeches.
But despite the outcry and more people calling on Polaroid to withdraw, the experiment continued for another six years. By 1977, sales of Polaroid products in South Africa reached around $4 million — still insignificant compared to Polaroid’s more than a billion dollars in global sales. But then again, the company thought it was doing something more, that it was doing good in South Africa. In fact, wages did go up for Black people working for Polaroid’s distributor. And nearly half a million dollars went to scholarships and other programs. It looked as if the experiment, originally to last for a year, would keep on going.
That is until, a slight problem was uncovered, and the experiment failed.
EM: The Polaroid corporation distributor, Frank and Hirsch, is found to still be distributing its ID-2 and other technology to the South African government.
CH: In 1977, the Boston Globe revealed that the distributor was shipping Polaroid products in unmarked boxes and unmarked vans to various government agencies, including one that issued passbooks. Part of the operation even included submitting false invoices from a pharmacy in downtown Johannesburg to hide the sales. As part of the deal to stay in South Africa, Frank and Hirsch was barred from selling Polaroid products directly to the government. But that’s exactly what it was doing. And when Polaroid found out, it was left with no choice and announced it would withdraw from South Africa.
EM: So, not only does does Polaroid become the first company to speak out against apartheid again in 1970, becomes the first company to try and enact positive changes from within, but now it becomes the first American corporation to withdraw from South Africa.
CH: But it didn’t do it because of the boycott. And it wasn’t because Polaroid suddenly changed its position on doing business in South Africa. It withdrew because Frank and Hirsch had lied.
For Caroline Hunter and Ken Williams, Polaroid’s announcement did not mean the end of their campaign. In fact, the withdrawal was not even something they’d describe as a “success.” After seven years of boycotts and protests, Polaroid had still not met their demands.
HUNTER: They say, ‘now we’re going to pull out’ and we say to them, ‘we still don’t believe you because until apartheid is disbanded and the passbook is ended, your technology is critical and it’s still going to be there.’
CH: You’re feeling that even when they announce that they’re pulling out you, you believe that they still had business in South Africa.
HUNTER: That’s right. That’s right. And we are saying we want them boycotted until all the demands are met, turn over the profits to liberation movements and all multinationals withdraw from South Africa. So we continued the campaign beyond that, we, there was no applause.
CH: From you.
HUNTER: Not at all. Not at all. No.
CH: So you didn’t see this as a victory when Polaroid in ’77 said, ‘we’re pulling out of South Africa’?
HUNTER: It was a symbolic victory for the sake of the movement. Symbolic from the sense of the power of the people that finally got them to say what we said was true all along, that their role was significant in apartheid South Africa and their leaving, even in the nominal sense, is significant because now it’s the beginning of pressure being applied to other corporations to say ‘you too should withdraw.’
CH: When Polaroid left, there were about 350 American companies doing business in South Africa, companies like General Motors, GE, Chase and Citibank. The financial stakes for them were much greater, with investments and loans totalling close to $4 billion. After Polaroid announced its withdrawal, the growing international movement against apartheid put enormous pressure on them to do the same. In the 1980s, these companies faced a moment of reckoning, just like Polaroid.
EM: Yeah,it’s not only the first, it’s a microcosm of the struggle. It’s a precursor. It does encapsulate all of the debates over strategy, way before the larger movement, gains, momentum and steam. So yeah, Polaroid story sets the tone, for what, what is to happen in the movement over the next decade and a half.
CH: US companies tried to justify their operations in South Africa along the same lines as Polaroid. But in the face of protests and boycotts, international sanctions and a failing economy in that country, more and more US companies began to divest in the 1980s. Eventually, apartheid came to an end.
But in 1970, this was all uncharted territory for Polaroid and corporate America and for protesters like the Workers Movement. It was revolutionary and unprecedented: two employees calling on their employer to sever ties with South Africa over apartheid.
Polaroid and its founder Edwin Land thought its “experiment” could help Black South Africans living under apartheid, even if the benefits were limited.
EM: What responsibilities do corporations have to support social justice and democracy and human rights? And so to me, that’s the larger takeaway of the, of the Polaroid story. It’s the influence that individuals can have, in the case of the Workers Movement and its supporters, in putting pressure on large, powerful organizations. And then the questions that Polaroid itself raised. What responsibilities did it have? And what responsibilities do corporations have in promoting equality and justice and human rights in a global world?
CH: In the article professor Morgan wrote about Polaroid in South Africa, he quotes an executive who described the experiment this way: “the effect was like a spoon in an ocean — a very small effect. But for us, it was the right thing to do.”
But there was only so much Polaroid could do as long as apartheid continued. So that raises the question…
CH: Was it the job of Polaroid to end apartheid?
HUNTER: No it wasn’t, but was it the job of Polaroid to profit from apartheid? That was our question. And our answer was no. No.
CH: This episode was produced by me, with Sarah Wyman and Julia Press. Thanks to Claire Banderas and Tyler Murphy at Insider. Also, a big shout out to Sara Softness for the tip — it always pays to tell your friends what you’re up to.
If you want to learn more about this story or Polaroid, we’ve got links in the description for this episode and at our website. They include documents from the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement, Eric Morgan’s paper “The World is Watching” and a link to Christopher Bonanos’ book, “Instant: The Polaroid Story.”
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In the meantime, we’ll be hard at work on the new fall season. It wasn’t intentional, but there’s a bit of theme… We’re excited to share it with you.
Now, the very deserved credits for this summer season! Our sound engineer is Bill Moss. Music is from Audio Network. John DeLore and Casey Holford composed our theme. Our editor is Micaela Blei. Dan Bobkoff is the podfather. Sarah Wyman is our showrunner.