The Fund for a Free South Africa and the Road to Divestment in Massachusetts by Katie Norton

South Africa suffered apartheid, which dehumanized the majority of Black South Africans through policies of racial segregation, from 1948 to 1994.  Various institutions and governments consistently opposed apartheid both within and outside of South Africa. Many believe the global anti-apartheid movement was the final push that was needed to put an end to the apartheid regime.  Even Tukwini Mandela, the granddaughter of Nelson Mandela, stated that “without the support outside, they wouldn’t have been necessarily successful in dismantling apartheid” (Mandela 2014).  Beginning in the mid-1980s, the United States was one of the crucial players in this global anti-apartheid movement, and of all the states, Massachusetts was one of the most influential.  Massachusetts played a key role that led to United States divestment from South Africa due to student activists at universities, the political climate of the state during the 1980s, and organizations such as Fund for a Free South Africa, which raised awareness for the cause throughout the city of Boston and state of Massachusetts. 

Fund for a Free South Africa was a charitable organization founded in 1985 in Boston, Massachusetts, which aided groups and projects in South Africa that were pursuing political, social, and economic rights for those oppressed by the apartheid government within South Africa.  Today, the organization is still alive and well, but operates under the name South African Development Fund. The organization was founded by South African political exiles in the 1980s who wished to bring awareness of the anti-apartheid struggle to the United States.  Themba Vilakazi was one of the main founders of Fund for a Free South Africa, and he ran the organization from 1985-1996 (Bloomberg 2018).  Vilakazi was a very active member in the anti-apartheid movement.  Not only was he a member of the Boston Coalition for the Liberation of South Africa, but he also served as Chairman of the African National Congress in the United States for thirteen years. He was also a member of the Executive Committee of the African National Congress in the United States for eighteen years.  These ties to the anti-apartheid movement allowed the Fund for a Free South Africa to be “in contact with members of the African National Congress, the United Democratic Front, the South African Congress of Trade Unions, and the religious community in South Africa. With the advice and suggestions of these activists in Southern Africa, [Fund for a Free South Africa] … assured that people working for justice receive and administer the funds in ways that they themselves deem best” (Fund for a Free South Africa 1988; Bloomberg 2018).  A majority of the members of Fund for a Free South Africa were people who were either directly from South Africa, or descendants of those who were.  People of various ethnicities helped and supported the organization while South African leaders consistently led the organization.  The organization used pamphlets, rallies, and other means of protests to raise awareness of the atrocious acts committed by the apartheid government, and due to the political and social climate of Boston at the time, organization was fairly successful.

Boston’s Political Climate

As a capital and port city filled with universities, Boston possessed a political climate that was ideal for the spread of social change.  Boston had been home to many anti-apartheid movements even before Vilakazi formed the Fund for a Free South Africa.  Protests to raise awareness about the situation in South Africa began in the city as early as the 1970s.  One of the most famous protests around the anti-apartheid movement that occurred in Boston was at Harvard University.  The prestigious university experienced trouble when students protested their involvement with businesses working within South Africa.  When asked why Harvard continued to profit from apartheid despite the atrocities the National Party committed against black South Africans, President Derek Bok stated that “[r]emaining engaged [and] maintaining dialogue” was a top priority for the university (Goodman 2008, 151).   During the late 1970s, Harvard University had millions of dollars invested in companies which were doing business in South Africa, and some students found the support appalling.  Student activists at Harvard joined efforts throughout the late 70s and early 80s, holding rallies and protests in order to get the university to divest itself of the approximately $1 billion that it held in companies doing business in South Africa.

Many of these student activists joined one of the several anti-apartheid movements located in Boston, and some were encouraged by South African political exiles such as Themba Vilakazi to “go to South Africa if you can get in. But when you come back, you will have a responsibility to tell people about it” (Goodman 2008, 152).  Boston was home to many political activist groups pertaining to civil rights, environmental preservation, and anti-war efforts, so there were plenty of young students eager to support the organizations such as Fund for a Free South Africa.  Even on a grander scale, the entire state of Massachusetts was ahead of the rest of the country in its support for an end to the apartheid government.

Although Massachusetts would become the first state to divest from South Africa, it was not a goal easily obtained.  Activists spent years protesting and raising awareness throughout the state, especially in Boston.  In 1977, Vilakazi participated in a march in Boston to protest racism in both South Africa and the United States.  The goal of the march was to “highlight how the U.S. Government and corporations help support apartheid in South Africa,” focusing on the $4 billion dollars invested in South Africa, and how the U.S. controlled 60% of South Africa’s automobile market and 40% of its petroleum market (Tarter 1977).  The United States as a whole collaborated in the exploitation of Blacks in South Africa due to these high investments.  Of the ten largest US corporations during the 1970s, eight of them had ties to South African investments.  These corporations included Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Texaco, Mobil, Standard Oil of California, International Business Machines Company (IBM), International Telephone & Telegraph Company (ITT), and General Electric (Boston Coalition for the Liberation of Southern Africa 1976).   It was difficult for the small anti-apartheid organizations to go after such big corporations, so they decided to start locally.

The First National Bank of Boston was a popular target for many protests due to the business they did with South Africa.  The Bank loaned an estimated $20 to $30 million to private companies in South Africa but began to withhold new loans because South Africa was seen as a “bad credit risk” (Swanson 1977; Tarter, May 1978).  Activists questioned what would happen if South African businesses used genocide or other forms of immorality to maintain a stable economy.  Kenneth Rossano, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs for the bank, refused to answer the question and said there was no way for the bank to even know where the companies gave their money after they had received bank loans.  Anti-apartheid activists urged individuals and companies to withdraw their accounts from the First National Bank of Boston until the demands for divestment were met, and it resulted in the Church of the Covenant withdrawing their account on Good Friday (Tarter, May 1978).  Vilakazi, along with other leaders in the movement, tried to time the protests to line up with anniversaries of tragedies experienced in South Africa.  Protests and demonstrations were carefully planned to coincide with the 18th anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre, as well as the anniversary of the student uprising in Soweto (Tarter, Mar 1978).  The strategy was taken in the hopes of gathering larger crowds to make their statements more impactful, as well as making sure the horrible events that occurred in South Africa were known about in the United States and wouldn’t be forgotten. 

The Road to Divestment in Massachusetts

Massachusetts was home to multiple committees and organizations which worked together towards total divestment from every company and bank doing business in South Africa.  The coalition was called Mass-Divest, and it was made up of religious groups, municipal employees, and many African-American organizations (Goodman 2008, 154).  Members would travel the state, asking people to invest locally instead of in apartheid South Africa.  In 1983, the Massachusetts House and Senate both voted on a divestment bill.  The bill was originally vetoed by governor Edward King.  However, Mel King and Jack Backman, who were key players in the anti-apartheid movement in Boston, “fought off efforts to weaken the bill... [and] pulled of a dramatic veto override in both houses” (Goodman 2008, 154).  Once the bill was passed, Massachusetts became the first state to officially divest from South Africa. Even after the bill had legally passed, it was not strictly enforced, and Fund for a Free South Africa made it one of their missions to raise awareness about the sneaky politics until a truly full divestment was reached within Massachusetts and the whole United States.

The first Selective Purchase Bill Massachusetts passed in 1983 caused the state to withdraw its pension fund investments from companies doing business in South Africa, however, Massachusetts continued to purchase goods and services from the same companies.  Fund for a Free South Africa, as well as many other organizations, were appalled at the actions of the state, and put out fliers to spread awareness of the active investment that was still happening, as well as raise awareness for a new selective purchase bill, known as Bill H. 6098.  In 1989, Fund for a Free South Africa was responsible for sending out informational fliers to citizens within the city of Boston that explained what was going on with Bill H. 6098, and how it differed from the legislature that had already been passed in 1983.  The flier explained that H. 6098 was a separate selective purchase bill that “would prohibit any Mass. State agency from buying goods and services from companies which have any loans, operations, licenses, franchises, or subsidiaries in South Africa or Namibia”; the only exception to this being if the purchase was essential, if the company was the only bidder for the contract, or if the company’s bid was more than 10% lower than the bid of the company not in South Africa (Fund for a Free South Africa 1989).  Section H.5371 was added and changed the selective purchase context in H.6098 into an anti-fraud revision of the entire law.  The goal of these bills was to put economic pressure on the apartheid government in the hopes that they would force the South African government to make compromises. The Fund for a Free South Africa raised awareness for the bill through informational fliers that they distributed to Boston citizens.  The fliers explained what apartheid was, what was happening with the state of emergency that was imposed in 1986 and why it was still going on, how the bill would affect the city of Boston, and how citizens could help get the bill to pass by showing support (Fund for a Free South Africa 1989).

Bill H. 1249 was a second attempt of a selective purchase bill.  Two years after H. 6098 was passed and subsequently up for renewal, it was instead replaced with Bill H. 1249.  This updated legislature prohibited the purchase of goods and services with the same exceptions as H. 6098, except it did not extend to companies in Namibia or include the anti-fraud revision seen in section H. 5371 of the law.  The Fund for a Free South Africa once again raised awareness for the bill through informational fliers that they distributed to Boston citizens.  By the time Bill H. 1249 came about in 1991, sanctions put on the apartheid government by multiple countries beginning in 1985 had already cost the regime $32 billion. The bill raised the cost of running the apartheid government even higher by encouraging American companies to divest.  This resulted in companies who supplied computers that the apartheid government used to record racial classifications, trucks that carried the police and soldiers to arrest and shoot innocent South Africans, and gas that fueled the jeeps, to cut ties with the South African government.  Fund for a Free South Africa’s pamphlet explained all this to uniformed citizens and more, such as how the bill would directly affect blacks in South Africa, that the bill would not significantly affect cost or quality within Massachusetts, and what they could do as citizens to help pass the Selective Purchase Bill (Fund for a Free South Africa 1991).

Fund for a Free South Africa’s Support for Economic Development in South Africa

The Fund for a Free South Africa not only helped by raising awareness within the United States of the atrocious acts committed by the apartheid government, but they were also able to send monetary aid to multiple organizations within South Africa thanks to the help of the citizens of Massachusetts.  Members of Fund for a Free South Africa collected donations by asking people in their communities for support, as well as sending out fliers asking for donations to cities and towns they could not reach.  The Fund for a Free South Africa put a great deal of emphasis on the importance of not letting the momentum that the movement had created die down, even quoting Nelson Mandela who said “now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax efforts now would be a mistake” (Fund for a Free South Africa 1990).  Fund for a Free South Africa sent even more fliers to individuals who had donated before and those who had never donated, in the hopes that citizens would want to be a part of history in the making and donate their money to the cause (Fund for a Free South Africa 1990).

 Those efforts were fruitful and in the first eighteen months of the organization’s existence, Fund for a Free South Africa was able to raise over $250,000.  The money was then divided and distributed to South African organizations that put the money towards community development, the preservation of their culture, labor, media, health care, youth, women, and education (Fund for a Free South Africa 1990; Vilakazi 1990). This was an important component to the anti-apartheid struggle because the South African government had been trying to use the image of poorly educated, homeless, and poor Blacks to manipulate public global opinion into thinking that Black South Africans were violent, uncivilized people who needed to be ruled over.  By giving money to organizations in South Africa, especially educational organizations, Fund for a Free South Africa and organizations around the world were able to put a stop to the manipulated image of an inferior black community and allow a majority of South Africans to obtain a better education and quality of life even while under apartheid rule.

Legacies of Fund for a Free South Africa

Resistance of the Black majority inside of South Africa as well as on a global scale was largely responsible for the overthrow of the apartheid government, however international pressure also played a large role.  When the UN first began to take notice of the acts committed by the apartheid government in the 1950s, economic sanctions were resisted by the major Western powers such as Britain, France, and the United States, and it wasn’t until 1977 that an arms embargo was adopted by the security council.  During the 1980s, when the anti-apartheid movement was beginning to rise in the United States, sitting President Ronald Reagan told an audience of United States citizens that “those who tell us the moral thing to do is to embargo the South African economy and write off South Africa should tell us exactly what they believe will rise in its place.” Reagan was against much of the anti-apartheid movement because he felt that the loss to the apartheid regime would lead to the rise of a new communist country.  Reagan vetoed the US Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986 because of this fear, but the Act was still able to pass despite his opposition due to the large number of supporters that included both Republicans as well as Democrats (Mondoweiss 2015).  The Act had so much support because it had been debated within the House since it was first brought up by Rep. Ron Dellums in 1972.  Knowledge among the populace pertaining to the anti-apartheid struggle was also rising steadily due to activism on college campuses, in progressive cities such as Boston, and eventually spurred enough discussion to have Washington vote.

Massachusetts played a key role in US divestment from South Africa due to the state’s political climate and multiple universities within its cities.  Cities such as Boston were able to generate discussions and protests that lead to the passing of various legislation pertaining to divestment from South Africa.  Fund for a Free South Africa continues to thrive in Boston.  Boston is still home to multiple universities, which each have their own activist groups who make a difference, and it is continues to be an ideal place for all forms of activism.  Some major protests that occurred in 2018 within the city are the Women’s March, protests against President Trump’s Immigration Policy, the Pride March, and the March for Our Lives.  Today, Fund for a Free South Africa goes by the name of South African Development Fund, and they continue to support South African community-based organizations committed to non-sexist, non-racial, democratic practices which address human rights through health, education, economic development, environmental justice and democracy-building. 


• Bloomberg. 2018. “Themba Vilakazi: Executive Profile- Background.”
• Boston Coalition for the Liberation of South Africa. 1976. “Soweto: The Struggle Continues.” Records of the American Committee on Africa.
• Fund for a Free South Africa. 1990. “Fund for a Free South Africa Advertisement.” Activist Archive.
• Fund for a Free South Africa. 1988/1989. “Fund for a Free South Africa: Who We Are.” African Activist Archive.
• Fund for a Free South Africa. 1989. “Your State Taxes Support Racism in South Africa!” African Activist Archive.
• Fund for a Free South Africa. 1991. “Your State Taxes Support Racism in South Africa!” African Activist Archive.
• Goodman, David. 2008. “The 1980s: The Anti-Apartheid Convergence.” In No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century 1950-2000, edited by William Minter, Gail Hovey, and Charles Cobb, Jr. 151-166. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
• Mandela, Tukwini. 2014. “Us Anti-Apartheid Movement Helped Bring Change to South Africa.”
• VOA News.
• Mondoweiss. 2015. “Boston Area Conference Aims to Change the US Political Equation on Israel and Palestine,” Massachusetts Peace Action.
• Swanson, Dan. 1977. “Protesters hit racism in So. Africa, Boston.” Bay State Banner (Boston, MA).
• Tarter, Margaret. May 1978. “Activists tell First National: ‘Stop loans to South Africa’.” Bay State Banner (Boston, MA).
• Tarter, Margaret. “Picketers hit First National for operations in S. Africa.” March 1978. Bay State Banner (Boston, MA).
• Tarter, Margaret. May 1977. “Some 1000 Demonstrators protest racism here in South Africa.” Bay State Banner (Boston, MA).
• Vilakazi, Themba. 1990. “Fund for a Free South Africa: Winter Progress Report.” African Activist Archive.

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