Reviews, interviews and insights


Sanctions and Mandela's legacy

By Judy Kuszewski


Nelson Mandela seems not long for this life. The world keeps vigil at his bedside, monitoring his slow but apparently inexorable decline, and hoping for a merciful end for the man who suffered and struggled and achieved so much over his ninety-four years.

I have used the occasion to remember a visit to South Africa a few years ago. On an off day in Cape Town, a colleague and I paid a visit to the museum at Robben Island, the site of the notorious prison where Mandela (along with many of his cohort) spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment.

A ferry ride across some famously choppy waters (a boat I was delighted to exit) brought us to a bleak and barren landscape. We were taken by coach to see the preserved facilities of the prison and finally to the high-security prison itself. It was not hard to imagine the frigid winter winds and the prisoners’ thin, skimpy blankets. Harder to imagine was the grace and humanity of Robben Island’s most famous ex-prisoner, who through decades of degradation and physical hardship refused to dehumanize his captors as they had done to him, and who lived in belief of a better future  every single day. Throughout his internment, he plotted every step of the Long Walk to Freedom in his mind’s eye, and as appalling as the prison conditions were, his vision of redemption was far more powerful. And while the world has since embraced South Africa’s transition to majority rule, I have found it salutary to also remember that not all were genuinely in favor at the time.

What is incredible about the prison tour is that it is guided by a former political inmate – one with first-hand knowledge of a prisoner’s day-to-day life and the wider impact of the prison on South African society and the world’s consciousness during the Apartheid years. Robben Island prison was repeatedly condemned by the Red Cross and finally closed in 1996, before being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. If I may make a suggestion to anyone visiting Cape Town, please go and visit. The scenery is far from lovely, but the experience is profound, and the tour guides are not getting any younger, so now is the time.

Mandela and his legacy have also had me thinking about the global movement that brought down the Apartheid regime, and what we ought to remember about it today. Specifically, South Africa was the target of one of the first large-scale global boycott, divestiture and sanctions movements. What was the role of divestiture in those days – and what about today, and in other parts of the world?

The South Africa divestment movement really began in earnest in the late 1970s – although there had been calls for sanctions since the early 60s – when private industry came into focus. It owes much to the Sullivan Principles, named for the Rev. Leon Sullivan, then a board member of General Motors; the principles call for companies to ensure integrated workplaces, equal treatment and equal protection of all employees, regardless of race. The enforced segregation and discrimination of Apartheid South Africa ran directly counter to the Sullivan Principles, and General Motors – then the largest employer of black South Africans – found itself the target of divestment campaigners because of the difficulty of upholding the principles, as did hundreds of other companies. Many companies ultimately did divest; many others resisted mightily, and there remains debate to this day over whether this divestment helped or harmed the South African people, short-term or long-term (see for example here and here).

My old friend Bob Massie wrote about the role of sanctions in his award-winning book Loosing the Bonds: The United States and South Africa During the Apartheid Years, published in 1997. He argues that sanctions were critical in starving the regime of the foreign capital it desperately needed to prop up an economy fundamentally unbalanced and artificially constrained by the impacts of Apartheid. The color barrier, he argues, kept black wages artificially low, and thus catastrophically constrained economic growth, keeping it entirely dependent on a small and saturated white market. Furthermore, foreign sanctions and withdrawal of foreign direct investment suppressed growth even further, while the oil embargo alone added billions to the country’s annual energy costs. Massie’s analysis certainly lends credence to the notion that sanctions can create real change, although other economic forces no doubt contributed.


I asked Simon Billenness, a US-based consultant, expert and campaigner for human rights and sustainability, how he views sanctions in today’s world. Simon co-founded the US Campaign for Burma, which advocated a wide variety of sanctions against that country on behalf of US pension funds, municipalities and states, during the worst years of the military junta there. “One of the many things Mandela did was to plant a seed for later global justice movement work, based on the principle of solidarity,” he said. “It very much began with Mandela and the ANC calling for economic sanctions on their own country, and asking the international community to support that out of solidarity. Here we had a call for sanctions by a legitimate leader of the South African majority. It was powerful in that it really connected solidarity work around the work with that being done on the ground inside South Africa.”

Billenness went on: “When it came to Burma, and Aung San Suu Kyi called for sanctions, we were able to transpose the model and compare the call for sanctions on Burma as having same legitimacy and effectiveness as that on South Africa. Her party, the National League for Democracy, had actually won an election at that point. We deliberately used a lot of the same strategy and tactics that were successfully used in the anti-apartheid campaign. I even copied the exact same wording of a Massachusetts law to write the Massachusetts Burma selective purchasing bill. In fact, all I changed was replacing the words “South Africa” with “Burma (Myanmar)”

When Burmese authorities released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and permitted a far-ranging set of political reforms, sanctions imposed by other nations were swiftly lifted in a show of support. But were sanctions the key in the first place? Sanctions were instrumental, he said: “The Burmese authorities continually called on the US and EU to drop sanctions.  In response to reforms by the Burmese regime, the US and the EU have successively ratcheted down the sanctions. Suu Kyi being released was huge, and her party’s freedom to campaigns and win the legislative by-elections that followed were as well. In the South Africa case, Mandela didn’t call for dropping of sanctions until the transition to democracy was in his words ‘irreversible’ – that was his standard for when change is real or not. Aung San Suu Kyi has used the term too as a benchmark for judging change in Burma.  It’s a difficult judgment call, but that’s the key concept.”

Finally, looking at the corporate legacy of the South Africa experience, I wondered how today’s companies should regard economic and business sanctions as part of the CR landscape. During the Apartheid years, many companies were deeply opposed to sanctions, arguing they were a wrong-headed approach to political reform. When waves of companies finally gave in to demands from protesters and their own shareholders to divest from South Africa, many did so in a cynical way, maintaining their commercial presence, and the availability of their goods, services and brands in the country while superficially meeting the definition of divestiture in use at the time. And almost all argued they’d divested for purely business reasons, and not because of outside pressure. Would the private sector ever come to a different view of its own role and responsibility in bringing about political change?

Simon Billenness said: “Companies withdrew from South Africa for a variety of reasons, but they’re all connected. When US lawmakers ended tax deductibility of tax payments to the apartheid regime in South Africa, suddenly Mobil Corporation was facing a tax rate in excess of 100%. Similarly, a lot of banks pulled out because of state and local government selective purchasing laws that threatened their much larger markets in the US, particularly for underwriting municipal bonds. Obviously, these withdrawals were indeed for business reasons, but they came about through external pressure.”

“Even when something is completely in a company’s interest, a lot of times they need to be cajoled either by us or by their own shareholders to do that. Some companies get it and get ahead of the curve but the big guys tend to move more slowly. Companies aren’t monoliths, and the outside pressure helps those executives who share our views within companies win the arguments internally.”