A Catalytic Role Untold : Coca-Cola and the Undoing of Apartheid

Monday, 2 October, 2023 - 16:00

Presented by : 


This is an on-line seminarRegister for the session in advance of the meeting at :  https://wits-za.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJckd-ytrzwiEtHogJsRMtAP8ZsyGZpprMs4

Chapter five of the forthcoming Bottled: How Coca-Cola Became African (Hurst, 2023; Oxford University Press, 2023).

When Nelson Mandela toured the United States in 1993 on the eve of his presidential election, he did so aboard a Coca-Cola jet. This was surprising, since just three years earlier, Mandela – and the larger ANC universe – shunned all attention from the famous Atlanta company, believing it to be complicit in having helped prolong apartheid. This paper – a chapter from my larger book on the history of Coca-Cola in Africa – is about what happened to compel this shift, both for Mandela personally and for the larger story of anti-apartheid activism and Coca-Cola that it embodies. To tell this tale, I begin in the 1970s, heady days of activism in both South Africa and the United States. This is a story that is interwoven with that of American activism, both against Coca-Cola and against apartheid. It is similarly entwined with the ascent of a new wave of youth activism in South Africa in tandem with the escalation of South Africa’s civil war. This is a story that helps us unpack how the ANC shifted from communist to free market principles upon empowerment as well as nuance the role of multinationals in ending apartheid. Here, I explain the hidden maneuvers and complex restructuring that enabled Coca-Cola’s unique form of disinvestment, a process that saw the company grow exponentially in formerly disadvantaged communities just as others were leaving. This singular form of disinvestment thus allowed Coke to do what no other company managed: keep its products in South Africa while the company positioned itself in opposition to the apartheid state. Coke’s unique form of disinvestment, I argue here, prepared the company to thrive anew in whatever order was to follow apartheid both in South Africa and, even more importantly, on the African continent writ large.


General seminar arrangements

  • The WISH seminar is hosted on-line every Monday afternoon at 16:00 - 17:00 SA during the teaching semester.
  • A printable version of the seminar schedule for the current year is available here.
  • For the details of the Zoom meetings, please sign up for email notices at https://wiser.wits.ac.za/mail.
  • Participants must read the paper prior to the seminar, which is typically available by the Friday preceding the seminar.
  • The WISH seminar archive is available here