Few issues have galvanized public support for economic sanctions as strongly as apartheid. South Africa's ruling National Party formally institutionalized the system of discrimination against the country's black majority in the 1940s. Since 1959, when the black- supported African National Congress (ANC) first called for an international boycott of South Africa “to precipitate the end of the hateful system of apartheid,” the U.S. and other countries have grappled with the costs of using sanctions to influence behavior. 1
“South Africa is a good example of a place where economic sanctions were hugely important,” says Holly Burkhalter, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “But they certainly didn't happen in the short term.”
At the time of the ANC's appeal, South Africa was vulnerable to sanctions because the economy depended on foreign capital to develop its gold and diamond mining and manufacturing industries. When the country's black majority protested its exclusion from the benefits of rapid economic development after World War II, government repression intensified.
The U.N. General Assembly answered the ANC's appeal in 1962 by calling for a ban on trade with South Africa. But the Security Council, the only agency that can impose U.N. sanctions, repeatedly blocked the imposition of a general trade embargo. In 1977, the council did apply an arms embargo against South Africa but stopped short of imposing multilateral economic sanctions. Of the five permanent council members, each of which has veto power, two -- the United States and Britain -- had especially high stakes in South Africa's continued prosperity and voted against the full sanctions.
A general trade embargo would have had the strongest impact on the United States, Britain and Japan, which absorbed half of South Africa's exports, mainly gold, diamonds and other minerals. South Africa depended on the same three countries and West Germany for more than half its imports, chiefly heavy machinery, high-technology goods and oil. By the early 1980s, South Africa imported more than $8 billion worth of goods and exported more than $12 billion, trading primarily with the same countries.
With the U.N. powerless to impose a multilateral embargo, support for sanctions against South Africa depended on grass-roots anti- apartheid movements in the country's main trading partners. In the United States, early protests were aimed at Chase Manhattan and nine other banks that lent money to South Africa. Workers at Polaroid Corp. and other U.S. companies forced their employers to stop selling goods there. After student uprisings in Soweto in 1976, a campus-led divestiture movement pushed U.S. companies, universities and local governments to sell their holdings in South Africa.
The anti-apartheid movement faced considerable economic obstacles. By 1982, total U.S. financial interests in South Africa amounted to some $14 billion. But the effort paid off, with many state and local governments as well as businesses refusing to do business in South Africa.
The grass-roots campaign claimed a key victory when Congress passed the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act with enough support to override President Ronald Reagan's veto. The law banned new investments and bank loans to South Africa and prohibited bilateral trade in a number of goods. By the end of the decade, some 200 U.S. firms had pulled out of South Africa.
Shortly after his election in 1989, President F.W. de Klerk opened negotiations with leaders of the black majority and freed political prisoners, including ANC leader Nelson Mandela. In 1991, as political reforms were enacted, President Bush lifted the sanctions imposed under the Anti-Apartheid Act. All remaining U.S. sanctions were lifted last fall, and South Africa finally lost its status as a pariah state with Mandela's election in April as South Africa's first black president.
During the anti-apartheid struggle, South Africa suffered a severe recession. By 1993, economic growth had fallen and unemployment approached 50 percent. 2
Just how great a role sanctions had in prompting constitutional reform is impossible to quantify, experts say. “At no time did sanctions supporters believe the sanctions by themselves could achieve the desired end -- bringing human equality and political democracy to South Africa,” writes Jennifer Davis, executive director of both the American Committee on Africa and the Africa Fund, based in New York City. “Rather, the imposition of sanctions was a strategy to provide direct support for an active and ongoing struggle for liberation.” 3