Intense Racism in South African Town Creates Dilemma for US Employer
BOKSBURG, South Africa (AP) _ For 60 years, Colgate-Palmolive Co.‘s toothpastes have helped whiten South Africans’ teeth. Now, the U.S. company wants to break ties with a town that has become a symbol of white racism.
A cordial corporate relationship with Boksburg, site of Colgate’s large manufacturing complex, soured in November after newly elected right-wing town councilors decided to resegegrate parks and other public facilities, which had been open to all races under an earlier liberalization.
Colgate joined other businesses in protesting the action, and went one step further. The company has requested its property be incorporated into the neighboring town of Benoni so it no longer will pay taxes to Boksburg.
The town council’s actions ″are an insult to the dignity of our non-white workers and contrary to all human rights,″ said Gerry Nocker, Colgate’s chief executive in South Africa. ″We cannot justify the payment of rates and taxes to a town council that has such backward views.″
Nocker, a 47-year-old native of Scotland, said about 750 people, 70 percent of them black or mixed-race, work at the factory and pump roughly $6 million of annual wages into the local economy.
Officials in Benoni are studying Colgate’s application. If they formally endorse it, a final decision would be made by the administrator of Transvaal Province.
The Chemical Workers Industrial Union, which represents most of Colgate’s black employees, describes the company proposal as a public relations gesture that contrasts with a ″long and difficult relationship″ between management and workers.
But Nocker says Colgate’s opposition to South Africa’s apartheid policies extends beyond criticism of the Boksburg councilors. He noted that the company financed a recent independent study of the Group Areas Act which urged the abolition of laws mandating residential segregation.
The Boksburg controversy marks the second time this year that Colgate, one of the biggest U.S. multinationals, has taken action over a race-related issue outside the United States.
In January the company said it would change the name of its ″Darkie″ toothpaste, sold by a Hong Kong subsidiary in Asia, to ″Darlie″ and replace a picture of a grinning black minstrel on the tube with a ″non-racially offensive silhouette.″
At Colgate’s international headquarters in New York, an executive said the company’s influential position in Boksburg has justified the decision to stay in South Africa despite disinvestment pressure from anti-apartheid activists. About 175 U.S. firms have pulled out since 1983, while 138 remain.
″As long as we can make a noise and contribute to preventing this kind of retrogressive step, then we think it’s very important that we and other American companies retain a presence there,″ said Gavin Anderson, director of executive services.
The Conservative Party councilors who took power in Boksburg on Oct. 26 remain committed to whites-only amenities despite a black consumer boycott that began in mid-December and harsh criticism from business groups, the press and the governing National Party.
Both the Conservatives and anti-apartheid politicians to the left of the National Party have accused the government of hypocrisy, noting that it has made no move to repeal the law that allows segregation of local facilities.
Adrian Botha, executive director the American Chamber of Commerce in South Africa, said his organization supported Colgate’s attempt to disavow Boksburg but felt the government bore responsibility.
″The Conservative Party is acting quite legally,″ Botha said. ″The fault lies with people who introduced those laws.″
Anderson said Colgate hadn’t decided on its strategy if the Benoni proposal fails, but he indicated the factory is unlikely to be relocated.
″Ours is not a business like a shop that you can pick up and move to the next town,″ he said.
Colgate began marketing soaps, shaving cream and toothpaste in South Africa in 1929, opened a factory in East London in 1937, and moved in 1958 to Boksburg, about 15 miles east of Johannesburg.
Boksburg’s town clerk, Johan Coetsee, said the council hadn’t yet discussed the Colgate application to be incorporated into Benoni. He said the maneuver could prove impossible, partly because Boksburg provides Colgate’s factory with electricity, water and sewage service.
The company’s public affairs director, Sylvia Hayward, says Colgate has been ″chipping away at apartheid″ through various programs, including financial aid for aspiring black entrepreneurs, multiracial private schools and a mobile denistry clinic.
Assessing the Boksburg controversy, Nocker said the town councilors ″are really turning the clock back. I can’t imagine the kind of thinking that goes on at those council meetings.″