Apartheid Boycotts

by @edent | # # # | 3 comments | Read ~163 times.

My father tells a story of when I was very young and helping him do the shopping in the local supermarket. As I started to lift apples into a bag, he told me to stop, "We don't buy fruit from South Africa," he explained.

A woman near us in the aisle turned to him and said, "Quite right too! Imagine all your fruit being touched by black people."


At the time, South Africa was control by violent racists who strictly segregated the non-white population. This was Apartheid.

There's not much the ordinary citizen can do to influence a foreign government. Protesting is the street rarely works, letter writing had no effect, and our own government didn't seem overly keen on changing the situation.

Capitalism offers only one redress to amoral behaviour - the withdrawal of capital. Simply put, as consumers, we stop giving you money. Frankly, It's the only avenue of protest left available to citizens in a capitalist society.

So, we stopped buying fruit from South Africa.

boycott cape poster

The boycott of South African goods has a long history and undoubted helped change the regime. A single customer turning down their apples has a negligible effect - but once hundreds of thousands of people start doing it, it becomes and incredibly powerful force.

by withdrawing our purchasing power from certain institutions we can, as Chief Lutuli said, "punch them in the stomach"
...
The economic boycott has unlimited potentialities. When our local purchasing power is combined with that of sympathetic organizations overseas we wield a devastating weapon.
Karis and Gerhart, Challenge and Violence, p. 292 & p. 472.

Did our family's refusal to pay cause the downfall of the racists? No.
Did hundreds of thousands of people boycotting topple the government? No.
Did a continual campaign over dozens of years create an environment where doing business with murderous tyrants was no longer economically viable, help lead to Mandela's release and election victory? Probably.
For it is written "I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that..."

Mozilla, and DropBox, and...

In the UK, businesses aren't allowed to discriminate when offering services to the public - you can't stick a sign up in your bar saying "No Gays/Blacks/Atheists Allowed."

But, as a customer, you have the absolute right to vote with your wallet. If you don't like my stance on Open Source, don't buy my products. If you hear the pub landlord cracking a homophobic joke, you can either politely ask him to change his opinion - or you start drinking somewhere else.

The only other thing we can do is ignore it - and that's simply not an ethical option for many people.

This is why Mozilla and DropBox spent much of this year in consumer crisis. Ordinary members of the public have zero impact on a company's decision making process. Paying customers, on the other hand, are the lifeblood of a company. If you want to stay in business - and beat your competitors - you have to keep your customers happy.

Before I dive in too much further, I want to talk about feelings - those pesky emotions humans have.

Repeat after me: feelings are intrinsically valid. You cannot tell me that I don't feel happy Peter Capaldi is the new Doctor Who. You cannot tell me I don't feel sad that my dog died. You cannot tell me that I don't trust the Police. The way I feel is the way I feel.

Now, you can try to explain that Capaldi is a crap actor, or that dogs die and I should get over it, or that police corruption is rare. That may work - but you can't just start by attacking the way I feel.

People feel that Brendan Eich doesn't believe homosexuals deserve equal rights.
People feel that Condoleeza Rice is a war criminal who supports warrentless searches.
People feel that Bob Parsons disrespects women and find abhorrent that he enjoys killing elephants.

No one is saying these people should be banned from any job other than street-sweeper. People are saying that they feel disgusted at the thought of giving money to these people. People feel like they would be morally compromised if they supported a person with such hateful views.

Let me quote Condoleeza Rice on this issue. When asked about her views on abortion, she said that she did not favour federal funding for abortion:

I believe that those who hold a strong moral view on the other side should not be forced to fund it.
Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2005

If you don't like a CEO's stance on abortion, or gay rights, or unions, or any topic that feels important to you - don't give 'em your money.

More importantly, tell them and others that's why you're no longer a customer.

3 thoughts on “Apartheid Boycotts

  1. This is unfair to Mozilla. Brendan Eich left the CEO position of Mozilla after just 2 weeks (!) due to the controversy of his political donation. Mozilla itself has never discriminated against LGBT members and has one of the longest histories of any tech company supporting LGBT rights for employees. There is no outstanding reason to boycott Mozilla today.

    1. Terence Eden says:

      Hi Jeremiah,
      I'm not saying that people should (continue to) boycott Mozilla. Indeed, I'm writing this comment in Firefox & have spent the day playing with a FireFox OS phone.
      I was trying to say that it is entirely acceptable to boycott a company / service / product if you disagree with the stance of its leader(s).
      At the time of the Eich controversy, there were many people saying that it was an illegitimate tactic and that it unfair to target a company due to their CEO. I profoundly disagree. I think it also showed that consumer power has real strength.
      Of course, the flip side is that bigots can choose to boycott a company like Apple because the CEO is gay.
      Thanks for your comment,
      Terence

  2. Dave says:

    People often tell me when I boycott a company like Condoleeza Rice-era Dropbox that my actions are meaningless and will change nothing. So why bother? No doubt they are right, unless of course there are a few hundred thousand people who turn out to feel the same way. That could make a real difference real fast.

    But they miss the point.

    How could I possibly support people or products that contribute in any way to sexism, racism, or totalitarianism (among other isms)? That would be morally wrong and (no small point) I would feel badly about myself for continuing to help fund such practices, even in a small way. From a completely self-interested viewpoint, I must boycott.

    Yes, Dropbox, for instance, would be a convenient tool to be using still. I liked it once. But to call Rice a war criminal isn't, as some snicker, hyperbole. It's a real, defensible intellectual position with a lot of evidence that can be brought to bear. And even if you don't believe that characterization, it is incontrovertible that she has strongly supported warrentless intrusions into private documents online. That's quite the message for Dropbox to be sending with their pick for a member of their board. I won't be going back anytime soon.

    And, yes: FEELINGS ARE INTRINSICALLY VALID.

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