Did boycotts, divestment and sanctions overthrow the Apartheid regime in South Africa?

There are many earnest people in the west who look to the BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) campaign as a ‘practical’ way to show solidarity with Palestine. BDS calls for Israel’s economic and cultural isolation in order to hit the Zionists in their wallets. Its activists often point to the example of the racist Apartheid regime in South Africa, which, they say, was brought down in large part through sanctions and pressure from the ‘international community’. But is this really the case?

The theory is that a combination of consumer boycotts of Israeli products, withdrawal of investment in Israel by western companies, and the cultural starvation of Israel by artists and academic institutions will either force Israel to withdraw its illegal settlers from the West Bank, end its bombardment of the Gaza Strip, retreat to the 1967 borders, or dissolve its own state, depending on which of the boycotters you ask. In all cases, the professed objective is to end Apartheid for Arabs and win Palestinians a homeland using these methods.

As BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti writes:

“This reference [to South Africa] is neither coincidental nor rhetorical. It stems from the many similarities between the two cases of colonial oppression… and it aims to highlight the effectiveness and moral unassailability of using the boycott in the cultural sphere to resist a persistent oppressive order that enjoys impunity and ample complicity from the powers that be around the world and to increase the isolation of oppressive regimes, like Israel’s.”

We sympathise with all workers and youth who are rightly horrified at the plight of the Palestinians, and are moved by a desperate need to ‘do something’. But facts are stubborn things. We must ask ourselves: what was the relationship between the west and the South African regime during the Apartheid era? What were the conditions that led to the sanctions? And importantly, did the sanctions really lead to the overthrow of the Apartheid regime?

This is not merely an intellectual exercise: it is important that workers and youth around the world adopt tactics that can actually affect change, and not become lost in dead ends.

The attitude of the West to the South African Apartheid

For most of its history, the relationship between the Apartheid regime and the West was one of open and ‘mutual cooperation’, as the US State Department called it. In this sense, the situation did resemble that between the West and Israel today!

For countries such as the USA and Britain, the Apartheid regime was an important ally and strategic partner in the Cold War. From 1945 through to the 1980s, the government in Pretoria proved to be a reliable enemy of ‘Communism’. With the colonial revolution sweeping the African continent, many newly independent, former colonies in Africa passed from the Western sphere of influence to a non-aligned status, while others came under the influence of the Soviet Union. By contrast, South Africa remained steadfast as an outpost of the capitalist system, an enemy of communism, and a firm ally to the West.

On the other hand, the imperialist countries regarded the African National Congress (ANC) and other liberation movements as terrorist organisations. Despite the way he is sanctified as a grandfatherly pacifist today, Nelson Mandela himself was arrested on 5 August 1962 by the South African police… based on intelligence provided by the CIA! He was put on the US State Department’s terror watch list and was only removed from it in 2008: 18 years after his release from prison! The West also regarded South Africa as an important market for western products and an outpost of western civilisation in the ‘dark’ continent. In turn, the regime provided the West with gold, coal and other important minerals from the country’s rich reserves.

All the major policies and laws that were to form the backbone of Apartheid were implemented in the immediate aftermath of the National Party coming to power in 1948. Some of the major laws forming the legal framework for the Apartheid were passed and implemented in the 1950s: the Group Areas Act, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, the Suppression of Communism Act, the Riotous Assembly Act, The Immorality Amendment Act, the Population Registration Act, the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, and dozens more. The regime ruthlessly implemented all these laws for nearly four decades while the so-called Western ‘democratic countries’ tolerated and even propped up this racist dictatorship. Not to mention the western multinational corporations, which benefited greatly from the super-exploitation of the black South African working class.

The UN did eventually pass an arms embargo against the Apartheid government in the 1960s. But it was a typical, toothless ‘voluntary’ resolution that nobody paid any attention to. It was not until 1986 that multilateral trade and economic sanctions were declared. This had nothing to do with ‘human rights concerns’. Nor was it that they had suddenly ‘discovered’ the atrocities the Apartheid regime had committed for decades. Rather, it was done to try to cut across the mass revolutionary movement in South Africa that had broken out in the mid-1980s, which had begun to threaten the foundations of South African capitalism.

As we shall demonstrate, the aim was to pressure the hardline faction of the regime towards a negotiated settlement with the ANC and liberation movement from above, for fear of the revolutionary overthrow of the system from below. But how effective were the sanctions, even to this end?

The sanctions fallacy

The economic and trade sanctions that were applied in the mid-1980s actually had a very limited economic impact on the regime. The economic decline in the 1980s predated the sanctions, and the real cause was South Africa’s external debt crisis. As a result of the global economic crisis starting in the 1970s, many countries entered into negotiations on outstanding debts to reschedule terms with the bankers, including South Africa.

In 1985, the government responded to the crisis by declaring a moratorium on all short-term debt repayments. Shortly thereafter, Chase Manhattan Bank declared it would not renew its short-term loans, kicking off a liquidity crisis as other lenders followed suit. All of this preceded the multilateral economic sanctions. While foreign companies doing business in South Africa certainly experienced pressure in their home countries to disinvest, this was not in the calculations of the bankers. One Chase executive explained his company’s withdrawal by saying:

“We felt that the risk attached to political unrest and economic instability became too high for our investors. We decided to withdraw. It was never the intention to facilitate change in South Africa, the decision was taken purely on account of what was in the interest of Chase and its assets” (our emphasis).

In September 1985, the European Economic Community imposed a set of very limited trade and financial sanctions on South Africa; and the Commonwealth countries adopted similar measures in October that year. The EEC banned imports of iron, steel, gold coins from and new investments in South Africa. Crucially, they did not extend this ban to cover the most important South African exports, such as coal, diamonds or other forms of gold. Japan passed similar sanctions shortly thereafter, although omitting iron ore.

C51448-7In the United States, there was an open split in the ruling class on this matter / Image: public domain

In the United States, there was an open split in the ruling class on this matter. Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA) in 1986. President Reagan vetoed the legislation, but his veto was overridden in October. When the House of Representatives introduced its sanctions legislation in 1985, Chester Crocker, the assistant secretary, called this the “path of madness.” He considered Congress to be “carelessly throwing matches into an already explosive and volatile situation.” He instead advocated stronger economic engagement with the Apartheid regime, stating, “We Americans are builders, not destroyers.” The administration reasoned that the imposition of sanctions would only be a sign of the U.S. “impotence,” in that such measures could only “erode our influence with those we seek to persuade.”

Not since 1973 and the War Powers Act had the US Congress overturned a presidential veto on a foreign policy matter, and the president rebuffed so completely in this domain. It was a measure of how serious a concern the issue of South Africa had become for the US. A significant element of the Reagan administration’s ‘constructive engagement’ strategy involved Washington DC defending those multinational corporations that decided to remain in South Africa.

The White House was instrumental, for example, in establishing the US Corporate Council on South Africa. This body encouraged those American institutions that operated in South Africa to stand up and publicise their positive work vis-à-vis countering Apartheid. This would demonstrate that there was an alternative to economic sanctions. At the United Nations, the US government, together with Britain used its veto at the Security Council, four times during this period to block economic sanctions being imposed.

This split in the US government meant that the sanctions were not tightly enforced. The CAAA restricted lending to South Africa and imposed import bans on iron, steel, coal, uranium, textiles, and agricultural goods. However, strategic materials, diamonds, and most forms of gold were omitted. The direct impact of these trade sanctions was therefore limited.

This can be plainly demonstrated by looking at the figures. In the decades leading up to 1974, real GDP in South Africa grew an average of 4.9 percent per year. From 1974 to 1987, it averaged 1.8 percent per year (mostly because of the general crisis, as we explained). In the immediate aftermath of the sanctions, GDP growth actually accelerated. It was 0.5 percent in 1986, 2.6 percent in 1987, and 3.2 percent in 1988. South Africa developed extensive measures to circumvent the sanctions, although these sometimes involved costly import-substitution. South Africa also was able to transship through countries that were not participating in the embargoes. In fact, from 1985 to 1989, export volumes rose by 26 percent!

The disinvestment campaign, which largely consisted of private pressure but also included some government involvement, was actually more costly to the foreign firms that withdrew than they were to the regime. To circumvent the campaign, many disinvesting companies simply sold their assets cheaply to local white businessmen, but maintained non-equity links such as franchise, licensing, and technology agreements that permitted them to keep operating. Further, in September 1985, South Africa introduced a dual exchange rate regime to discourage disinvestment, whereby those firms that wished to repatriate their holdings did so at the “financial rand” rate, which was at a 40 percent discount to the commercial rate.

Although the trade sanctions cost of 0.5 percent of GNP is not trivial, neither was it large enough to be decisive. Also, local white capitalists often benefited from the firesale disinvestments and blacks were often hurt by the loss of jobs. Despite these sanctions, the Apartheid regime remained in power. While it is clear that sanctions had a psychological impact, this was nowhere near enough to swing the balance. The situation only qualitatively changed once the South African working class entered the scene.

From reform to revolution

During the 1960s, the greatest economic boom in South Africa’s history (based on soaring gold prices and horrendous exploitation of the majority black working class) resulted in growth rates that equaled that of Japan. Fortune Magazine wrote: “South Africa is one of those rare and refreshing places where profits are great and problems are small. Capital is not threatened by political instability or nationalisation. Labour is cheap, the market booming, the currency hard…” This was the real attitude of the capitalists in the West!

Yet, by the early 1970s, the South African economy began a long process of decline. Following the worldwide recession and the oil price crisis, the South African economy entered a sustained period of crisis. The recession brought a rise in unemployment, and inflation undermined wages. These conditions led to a dramatic rise in strikes and militancy in the working class. The repressive calm of the 1960s was broken as workers throughout the 1970s began to organise and make demands. This led to the emergence of a mass-based trade union movement. As a result of this, by the late 1970s and early 1980s, the ground began to rumble underneath the feet of the regime.

The contradictions of Apartheid began to manifest themselves and white-minority rule entered into a deep-seated crisis. The Soweto Uprisings by black schoolchildren of 16 June 1976 shattered the myth of invincibility of the Apartheid state. The state responded by killing nearly one thousand people during 1976/1977. In October 1977, the government banned 18 organisations and clamped down on the media. The Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko was murdered in detention. But putting down the revolt could not hide the crisis. It showed the impossibility of the regime continuing to rule in the old way.

Soweto Image public domainThe South African state responded to the Soweto Uprising by killing nearly one thousand people during 1976/1977 / Image: public domain

There were other factors beyond the oil shock that combined to slow the rate of expansion. Labour market distortions inherent to the Apartheid system became apparent to big business. Blacks constituted the majority of the population but were restricted in their travel and in the jobs that they could hold.

One goal of the Apartheid system was to keep blacks living in separate areas from whites. As the South African economy developed, however, the employment restrictions became a hindrance to the functioning of the system as a whole. There was a need for a substantial increase in skilled workers. An expanding manufacturing sector created a demand for additional workers in the cities at the same time that a central goal of Apartheid was to keep blacks out of cities and in separate Bantustans.

As a result of the boom, in the 1960s, the weight of petty-bourgeois Afrikaner nationalism had declined in favour of big business, which now pushed the government in the direction of reforms to overcome the crisis. After the Soweto Uprisings, it became clear to big business that the aims of the black opposition went much further than protests against racially discriminatory Apartheid policies. Led by the emerging working class, they were now challenging the whole economic system, based on cheap black labour, underpinning Apartheid. Big business responded by launching the Urban Foundation, a big project aimed at improving conditions in black townships.

Following the economic reforms, the government released a new constitution setting out its plans for political reform in 1983. The constitution provided for a new tricameral constitution with separate chambers for Coloureds [a term still used in South Africa to denote non-white people of mixed heritage], Indians and whites and a new executive state, which had extensive powers.

This constitution was firmly based on the Apartheid system, with white-guaranteed majorities in the bodies that made legislation. The constitution also excluded the African majority completely. Africans were not considered part of South Africa. Rather, they were seen as citizens of the Bantustans, which were ruled by ruthless and corrupt allies of the Apartheid state. The so-called ‘reforms’ did not constitute reform at all. They simply streamlined white domination and control. It was an attempt to contain the political aspiration of the black majority by sowing further divisions between them. All major black working-class organisations and trade unions mobilised to boycott the tricameral parliament and the new constitution.

Pomp and circumstance – and revolution!

It is often the case that the most dangerous time for a dictatorship is when it lifts the boot and starts to reform. While the government was working on its reform project, a growing militancy was organising in working-class communities across the country. The most significant feature was the rapid growth of the trade unions. Driven from the shopfloor up, by 1981 they embarked on unity talks, aimed at creating a national federation. The result was the formation of the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU), which was later dissolved and replaced by the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) in 1985.

On 2 November 1982, a whites-only referendum endorsed the new constitution. In response, the black opposition, led by the working class, began to mobilise against the sham ‘reforms’ and the new constitution. These organisations began to organise successful boycotts, marches, and demonstrations against the ratification of the constitution. The aim was not only to voice opposition to the constitution, but to mobilise and organise against the regime. Big rallies were organised, and Indian and Coloured voters were successfully mobilised to boycott the tricameral parliament. Only 18 percent of Indian voters and 21 percent of Coloured voters would turn out on polling day. This was a clear rejection of the government’s sham reforms.

On 3 September 1984, the tricameral parliament was introduced with pomp and circumstance by president PW Botha. On the same day, mass mobilisations erupted in the so-called Vaal triangle, the industrial heart of the country. Militant youth fought with the security forces in open battles. Soon, a hurricane of mass revolutionary mobilisations spread throughout the country. The existing structures of the UDF could no longer keep pace with the rapid mobilisation. At the same time, a clear leap in mass consciousness outpaced the official leadership. These uprisings ushered in a period where grassroots campaigns snowballed into a mass revolutionary movement, which would shake South African capitalism for more than a decade.

At the beginning of 1985, South Africa was in the grip of a mass revolutionary movement. The townships were in open insurrection. The youth movement sparked the working class into action. The country was hit by waves of strikes as the workers began to lead the struggle. A two-day general strike crippled the country as the tricameral parliament was opened. The strike sent shivers through big business, raising the spectre of a general strike. In March 1985, even more successful strikes occurred in Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape. These strikes were supported universally by the township residents. The Eastern Cape, with its powerful automobile industry, became the new centre of struggle. Community organisations supported the trade unions through boycotts of white business, which soon led to forced concessions from local authorities and the state.

Embryonic soviets and dual power

The revolutionary movement in the Eastern Cape soon mushroomed into a national movement. By 1985, the country was in the middle of an open insurrection. The Apartheid state, with its reform programme in tatters, was on the ropes. Unable to halt the insurrection, PW Botha declared a state of emergency in July 1985 in 36 districts. Virtual martial law was declared in these areas. This only fueled the fire.

The state apparatus was battling to get to grips with the situation. A big reason for this was that an alternative power was being created by the mass movement itself, which openly rivalled the existing state. Alister Sparks, a veteran correspondent for the London Observer at the time graphically gave an example how this alternative power was created in the Eastern Cape:

“The Port Elizabeth Youth Congress (PEYCO) effectively seized control of the Port Elizabeth townships and ran them as the closest thing South Africa has to “liberated zones'. Official black councillors elected under the Apartheid system were forced to resign or flee. Black policemen took refuge in protected camps outside the townships, black youngsters walked out of the school in protest at what they termed ‘gutter education’, and PEYCO street and area committees stepped into the vacuum. They issued trading licences and fixed prices in black-owned shops: they policed the streets and set up ‘people’s courts’ to try common criminals as well as suspected criminal informers; and they talked about setting up ‘people’s education classes in garages and church halls.’”

The revolutionary movement was creating its own structures, which chased out and replaced the official state. These embryonic forms of an alternative power – street committees, area committees, self-defence committees, etc., sprung up all over the country. By the end of 1985, only a handful of more than 100 local authorities the government had set up were still in existence. In their place, township residents began to set up grassroots street and area committees. This was the most serious threat, not only to the government but to the foundations of South African capitalism itself.

The government was unable to regain control of the townships, despite the state of emergency. Out of desperation, Botha declared a second state of emergency, this time covering the entire country. He gave the security forces total control and the regime resorted to naked terror to try to crack down on the revolutionary movement. Every day, there were reports of mass atrocities committed by the police and army. But the mass funerals that followed these atrocities only served to act as political rallies to spur on the movement. Tens of thousands of people would turn up at these funerals. In KwaThemba, 50,000 people turned up for a funeral of four students who were killed by the police. In East London, Newsweek estimated a crowd of 70,000. The police tried to place restrictions on the number who could attend funerals, which was openly defied.

PWB Image Joop van Bilsen Wikimedia CommonsOut of desperation, Botha declared a second state of emergency, this time covering the entire country / Image: Joop van Bilsen, Wikimedia Commons

By 1986, battles between the forces of revolution and counter-revolution were waged in the streets across all major cities. In the township of Alexandra, more than 20 people were killed in February during a week of battles with the police. 40,000 people gathered to bury the dead and in the following weeks the community took control of the area. Later that year, at a rally of 45,000 people the residents resolved to form ‘self-defence units’ to protect themselves. One witness reported that…“everyone seems to be involved as if it was some kind of community project.” Such was the mood of militancy across the country.

The ruling class was brought face-to-face with a dire threat to their system in the form of a mass revolution by the black working class. The regime stood at risk of being forcefully overthrown, which compelled the ruling class to consider different measures other than brutal state repression to try to contain the black working class and avert revolution. So serious was the situation for the government that Botha unsuccessfully offered the conditional release from prison of Nelson Mandela as early as January 1985, on the condition that he renounce “violence” and “violent protests”. Of course, what he meant was: to stop the government from being overthrown in revolution.

Unable to douse the flames of revolt, the government lifted the state of emergency and abolished the pass laws, which in any event, could not be effectively enforced. But this only buoyed the revolutionary forces. May Day 1986 saw the biggest general strike in the country’s history. This was repeated a few weeks later, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Soweto Uprisings on 16 June. The initiative lay with the black revolutionary working class. The ANC had effectively been ‘unbanned’ by the movement of the masses. At the local level, the Apartheid state had virtually collapsed.

From revolution to betrayal

The more intelligent section of the ruling class realised that, if they did not grant reforms and open negotiations with the leaders of the ANC and other liberation movements, their whole system was at risk. The longer the state of emergency remained in force, the more its impotence became evident.

These were the conditions under which the imperialist countries imposed sanctions on the Apartheid regime, in an attempt to isolate the hardline faction of the ruling class around Botha. As noted, they were not very impactful in any case, but their aim was never to the aid of the working class, fighting for the overthrow of the Apartheid regime, but precisely to cut across the revolution and push the regime to open negotiations with the ANC and the leaders of the liberation movement. A sense of paralysis gripped the government, preparing the conditions for Botha’s removal from office and his replacement by F.W. De Klerk.

It was from this period onwards that a series of meetings between the exiled ANC and groupings from within the South African ruling class began to take place: a process that was unprecedented, especially since the ANC had been banned since 1960 and was prohibited in any form inside the country. The process saw white business groups, including prominent Afrikaners and big businessmen, but also representatives of anti-Apartheid organisations, for the first time initiating contact with the liberation movement. The meetings led to the eventual dissolution of the forms of prohibition placed on the liberation movements, and their eventual return and democratic elections in 1994.

However, even while the talks went on, the working class stepped up its mobilisations. On 26 July 1989, the Mass Democratic Movement, COSATU and the United Democratic Front called for a National Defiance Campaign. The response was overwhelming throughout the country. White facilities were invaded, and banned organisations declared themselves ‘unbanned’, initiating a period of open and mass defiance of Apartheid laws. Again, the apparently fearsome regime was powerless to prevent this.

In mid-September, mass marches took place in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria, with marchers openly flying the ANC flag, which was until then still a banned organisation. In smaller cities, such as Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape, a huge march seemed to dwarf those of the larger centres. This revolutionary mass movement struck terror into the very heart of the regime. Seeing that the game was up, the government of F.W. de Klerk now decided to commit itself fully to negotiations, and by October all political prisoners were released. Nelson Mandela was released on 11 February 1990 as a result of the revolutionary movement of the working class.

On 10 April 1993, Chris Hani, a popular leading member of the South African Communist Party was assassinated by an anti-communist Polish immigrant, with the help of a far-right nationalist. For more than 10 days, the mass movement that resulted from this suspended the regime in mid-air. A general strike a few days later paralysed the country. A mass demonstration of hundreds of thousands of workers crippled Johannesburg. This movement had the potential to sweep away the entire regime, had the ANC leadership pointed that way. Instead, Nelson Mandela, appearing on television and in the media, called for calm:

“Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin. The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shock waves throughout the country and the world. ... Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for – the freedom of all of us.”

NM FDK Image World Economic Forum Wikimedia CommonsNelson Mandela used all his authority to hold back the movement / Image: World Economic Forum, Wikimedia Commons

Nelson Mandela used all his authority to hold back the movement and restarted the negotiations with the regime. Together with Cyril Ramaphosa, who was leading the ANC’s negotiations delegation at the time, he used the moment to press for an election date. The Apartheid state was effectively replaced by the Transitional Executive Council (TEC) – a provisional body composed of all parties in the negotiations process. This body ran the country until elections were held on 27 April 1994. The truth is that, had there been a real Bolshevik leadership at the head of the movement at this stage, the masses could have taken power.

The result of those negotiations was that the economic wealth remained untouched, while state power was in the hands of the ANC elites. Although the Apartheid regime was formally overthrown, the living conditions of the masses of black people have hardly improved. The reason is the negotiated settlement that was reached between the liberation movement and the Apartheid regime in 1993, which resulted in state power placed in the hands of the new black elite, while the economy would remain in the traditional white ruling class. Since then, parts of the black elite have joined the traditional capitalist class. None of this has improved the lot of the South African masses, who still face brutal exploitation and discrimination.

What is to be done?

There are indeed many lessons to be learned from the real history of the struggle against Apartheid. The truth is that the hated regime was not overthrown by international sanctions and disinvestments. As we have seen, these had a minimal impact on the regime. Moreover, the aim of the international sanctions was never to help the workers of South Africa in their struggle against Apartheid. Rather, it sought to cut across the revolutionary movement by pressuring Botha to start negotiations, which would save the system from being overthrown by revolutionary means.

The key lesson is that the decisive blow against the Apartheid regime was dealt by a revolutionary mass movement, led by the South African working class. Moreover, the post-Apartheid regime that emerged – based on capitalism, with the ANC becoming the main representative of the South African bourgeoisie – did nothing to raise the living standards of the newly ‘liberated’ black population. This is also an important lesson for the Palestinian liberation struggle. A ‘free’ Palestine, on a capitalist basis, would see Palestinian workers dominated by stronger economies in the region, and imperialism abroad, with a local parasitic elite scraping together all the crumbs from their masters’ table.

Communists stand unequivocally for a Palestinian homeland, but genuine freedom can only come on the basis of a revolutionary struggle for socialism, in tandem with workers and youth in the whole of the Middle East, to finally break the grip of imperialism, oppression and despotism. Such a struggle would never have the support of the so-called ‘international community’, as it would threaten the very foundations of capitalism in the region.

This is not to say the Palestinians must fight alone. To all workers and youth in the west, we say: struggling against one’s own ruling class is a far greater contribution to the cause of Palestinian freedom than any number of consumer boycotts. We should not have any illusions in worthless talking shops like the UN to hold Israel to account for its crimes, let alone our own governments, which back the Zionist regime to the hilt. Instead, the labour movement can and should use its collective might to isolate the Israeli state with strikes, blockades and boycotts targeting its war machine. Not a single nut, bolt or screw should be allowed to leave western ports intended for use in weapons turned against the Palestinian people.

Beyond that, struggling for socialism at home is the only way to establish regimes that can support the Palestinians, and all oppressed peoples of the world, on the basis of genuine solidarity.

We say: join the communists, and fight for an end to the system that keeps Palestine in bondage. Intifada until victory! Revolution until victory!

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