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David Wildman at PennBDS: Motorola and Caterpillar profited off apartheid South Africa before occupation (updated)

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Activists in New York call for a boycott of Motorola over its occupation profiteering (Photo: Bud Korotzer/Electronic Intifada)

Palestinian-American poet Remi Kanazi, who had a rocking performance at Penn’s boycott, divestment and sanctions conference (BDS) Saturday night, explained the appeal of BDS in a tweet: “#BDS [is] so successful because it’s a positive, ethical, rights based, anti-racist & inclusive movement to upend Apartheid. #pennbds.” The conference showcased those qualities. But to add to Kanazi’s list, one reason why BDS campaigns targeting Israeli apartheid is so appealing is because it has a successful precedent to look to, as David Wildman reminded conference-goers.

Wildman is a long-time faith-based activist who gave a talk on Saturday during a panel on the movement against South African apartheid. He told conference goers that, just as Motorola and Caterpillar profit from the Israeli occupation, these companies profited from South African apartheid. And as I learned after doing some reading, Motorola did eventually divest from South Africa in 1985. Today, Motorola and Caterpillar are the targets of divestment campaigns across the country–this time with the focus on Israel.

Adalah-NY has the history on Motorola:

Motorola today enables Israeli apartheid as Motorola South Africa once enabled South African apartheid. Forty percent owned by its American parent, Motorola South Africa supplied mobile radio transmitters to the South African police.These radio transmitters helped police suppress protest against white rule. Motorola’s dealings with the apartheid regime came to an end in 1985, when Motorola sold its South African operations to South African electronic company Allied Technologies Ltd. (Altech) on the condition that the latter cease equipment sales to South African agencies. The agreement was a win for US anti-apartheid activists, who had pressured Motorola to break its ties with the South African regime and had helped to pass municipal laws, in New York and elsewhere that prohibited city governments from doing business with companies supplying equipment used to enforce apartheid in South Africa.

Caterpillar, on the other hand, resisted the pressure to divest from South Africa. The company’s 1985 explanation for resisting calls for divestment is cited in this book on U.S.-South Africa relations:

Caterpillar is aware of demands that U.S. companies withdraw from South Africa as a protest against governmental policies in that country. We do not believe that such a withdrawal by Caterpillar from South Africa would serve any useful purpose. Withdrawal would be harmful to our employees of every race and would eliminate the  opportunity to work for peaceful change.

Today, Caterpillar and Motorola continue to profit from Israel’s decades-long military occupation. Caterpillar’s bulldozers are the machines that crush Palestinian homes, and Motorola, as Adalah-NY explains,

enables Israel’s apartheid policies and violations of international law through the development and sale of products specifically designed for and used by the Israeli Army

That’s why they are the targets of boycotts and calls for divestment, like Jewish Voice for Peace’s TIAA-CREF campaign.

Fittingly, a day after the end of the BDS conference, the news that South Africa was considering imposing sanctions on Israel broke:

The country’s Minister of Arts and Culture announced at a conference in Pretoria last week that the government is seeking to increase support for the dispossessed Palestinian people.

“We want to step up our support of the Palestinians and are investigating a number of peaceful ways to upgrade this support. We have no problem with supporting the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel,” Minister of Arts and Culture Paul Mashatile told a local newspaper.

How the tables have turned.

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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2 Responses

  1. mudder on February 7, 2012, 6:22 am

    It’s important for BDS supporters to know that Motorola split two years ago into separate companies. The spinoff cell phone maker Motorola Mobility is not the problem. Rather, the parent government contractor Motorola Solutions is. From Wikipedia

    On February 11, 2010, Motorola announced its separation into two independent, publicly traded companies,[35] effective Q1 2011. The official split occurred at around 12:00 pm EST on January 4, 2011. The two new companies are called Motorola Mobility (NYSE: MMI; cell phone and cable television equipment company) and Motorola Solutions (NYSE: MSI; Government and Enterprise Business). Motorola Solutions is generally considered to be the direct successor to Motorola, Inc., as the reorganization was structured with Motorola Mobility being spunoff.

    A similar situation exists with AB Volvo, which years ago sold its car division to another OEM. In both cases the high profile consumer brands (Motorola phones and Volvo cars) have no organizational connection–except historical–to the companies that are supporting Palestinian oppression.

  2. Blake on February 7, 2012, 2:47 pm

    Caterpillar’s “reason” for not pulling out of South Africa during apartheid is exactly the same reason hasbara propagandists use regarding why bds will hurt the Palestinians.

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