Impact of Economic and Political Sanctions on Apartheid

SEE: Follow Up Article -The Interconnected Factors on Apartheid in South Africa

SEE: Sports Diplomacy and Apartheid South Africa

Author: Alexander Laverty

Final Paper: MMW 6 Spring 2007

7 June 2007

Impact of Economic and Political Sanctions on Apartheid

When the Afrikaner-backed National Party Came to power in South Africa in 1948, it implemented its campaign promises in the form of high apartheid. This contrasted with the segregationist policies of the pre-war government. While much of that legislation was designed to restructure the organization of economic opportunity in South Africa, apartheid legislation lacked the trademark of systematic exploitation of native Africans (Butler 19). The English speaking whites who had held power before the war were sidelined as the white constituency was consolidated under the National Party, a Afrikaner dominated political group. This allowed the National Party to enact such legislation as the Population Registration Act, which enforced classification into four racial categories: white, Coloured, Asiatic, or native. The next high apartheid landmark was the Group Areas Act of 1950. This act enforced the separate areas of residence by race across the country. It would be this act that eventually led to Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act of 1959 that transferred Africans’ political rights to these quasi-states, which allowed the South African government to treat natives as foreigners and allow them no political representation in the South African government (Butler 19-23).

Apartheid, the Afrikaans’ word for segregation, brought white supremacy to a whole new level as the rest of the continent was decolonizing following World War II. The National Party government treated non-whites as second class citizens and in the case of Africans, non-citizens. By confining Africans to the ‘homelands’ of Bantustans, the National Party was able to justify stripping away any basic rights Africans had in the country of South Africa. The international community refused to recognize these homelands, and pressure eventually began to build from all sides to allow equal rights for all residents of South Africa. Pressure came in the form of economic sanctions, expulsions from international organizations, and the divestment of foreign companies (Craig et al 1002 & Vandenbosch 1-11).

In response to this oppression by the white minority government, the anti-apartheid struggle by South Africans began soon after the implementation of apartheid in 1948. The movement went global and was heavily influenced by the organizations and networks of South Africans that operated inside and outside the nation (Thorn 50). Did the international anti-apartheid movement against South Africa during the apartheid era play a significant role in causing the National Party government to end apartheid? In attempting to discern the actual effects of the pressure put on South Africa by the international community, two different schools of thought will be addressed in relation to the actual effectiveness of international sanctions placed on South Africa. Nelson Mandela, the first president in post-apartheid South Africa, believes the results from the anti-apartheid movement, sanctions, were effective. On the side that believes the anti-apartheid movement had no discernable impact on the dismantling of apartheid is the former South African President, F.W. de Klerk. When announcing the end of apartheid in his 1990 address to Parliament, de Klerk mentions the conflict and violence that had pervaded South Africa as his considerations for the ending of apartheid. With the end of Communism in Europe, de Klerk felt that that the removal of the African National Congress from the banned organization list was now reasonable, as they would no longer have any financial support from Moscow to continue their fight against the apartheid government. Eventually a negotiated peace was agreed upon and the first elections for all South Africans took place in 1994, resulting an electoral victory for the ANC. De Klerk continued to deny the importance of sanctions in his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1993 in Oslo (de Villiers 197).

The term ‘sanctions’ in contemporary international law is viewed as “a punitive action by one state against another, designed to force a change of policy without resorting to overt aggression” (Brewer 36). Thus sanctions require actors, a target group, punitive instruments of a non-military fashion, and political objectives that determine the range and limitations of sanctions. In the case of South Africa, the actors are church groups and public opinion, not the traditional actors: national governments and international bodies. Typically the target group of sanctions are other governments and their constituency. In South Africa however, while the Afrikaner backed National Party is the target of the sanctions, the possible greater affects on the black majority rather than the white minority had to be taken into account. Thus while the intentions were to force the National Party to change its attitudes and behavior, the side effects of the sanctions had to be considered before choosing the best course of action (Brewer 36-37).

The punitive instruments of sanctions range from prohibitive to revocative means. The economic means of sanctions are usually deemed the most effective, short of violence. Economic sanctions can come in two different forms: trade and financial restrictions. Trade sanctions are aimed at the restriction or cessation of imports and exports between state actors and the target nation. Financial sanctions seek to control or manipulate the flow of private foreign capital into the country targeted by sanctions. Financial sanctions appear in South Africa as disinvestment and divestment. Disinvestment is the reduction or withdrawal of all forms of foreign capital that is invested in the country, as well as banks not making any new investments. Divestment is the breaking of financial and economic relations with companies that profit from business done with South Africa (Brewer 37).

Apart from the economic side of sanctions, political and diplomatic sanctions in the form of breaking off or reducing diplomatic ties or refusal of entry can be used against the target nation. Military and scientific sanctions can prohibit the exchange of technology and know-how between nations, which can be in the form of an arms embargo (Brewer 38).

Talk in the 1960s of the use of sanctions to force a policy change were looked at with skepticism based on their predicted effectiveness. In fact one writer believed that only a world wide sanctions movement, coupled with a naval blockade would have the intended effect. For this to happen the UN would have to be willing to send in an invasion force to reinstall stability in the country after it had fallen into disarray following a world-wide boycott. The belief was that if South Africa was able to promote an appearance of stability then the Western powers would not have the resolve or justification for economic sanctions. Proponents of the sanctions movement in the 1960s believed that white South Africans would abandon the National Party in great numbers because many South Africans only supported white supremacy because of the high standard of living that the National Party gave them. This does not recognize that many whites were in fact Nationalists and would prove inflexible to outside pressure (Spence 63-65).

With the passing of Resolution 418 by the UN Security Council in 1977,  international efforts to hurt the apartheid government turned to the form of an arms embargo (Klotz 50). This resolution stemmed from the international attention created by the 1976 Soweto movement. This was revolt in a Johannesburg suburb that erupted against the apartheid government over a plan to hold instruction of maths and sciences in public schools in Afrikaans (Levy 416). The South African government in turn began to develop and produce more of their arms in country, but sophisticated systems such as high-performance aircraft, helicopters, and naval vessels were not so easily produced at home. However, self-sufficiency did come in the production of ammunition, military vehicles and communications equipment. The cost of Research and Development accompanied with the smaller production runs did equate to higher prices for even ‘home-made’ arms. The arms embargo can claim success in at least South Africa’s outward policy. The inability to replace the loss of ageing fighter-bombers in the conflict with Angola (and their better equipped Cuban allies) began to toll and brought the South African government to the peace table for a negotiated settlement. The greater expense came in regard to South African society and economy. South Africa’s resources were diverted from other pressing policy matters towards keeping a well-equipped and prepared military. Funds that could have been spent on public utilities, education, or health care, were instead put towards military readiness. Dissatisfaction with the continued deprivation inside the country began to grow. At the same time, the limited amount of educated manpower in the country was required to serve in the armed forces. Additionally, due to the isolation from the rest of the world more money, citizens, and time were forced to be spent on research new military technologies because of the inability to purchase Western weapons systems. Finally, the profound effect of the arms embargo was on South Africa’s relationship with the international community. If an arms embargo had not been put in place, the West would not have been able to directly challenge the regime in power. Thus the embargo as a whole not only served to raise awareness and politicize the struggle against the apartheid movement in the West, it boosted the opposition against the South African state (Grundy 109-111).

In the early 1980s the furthering unrest in the country began to worry many of the foreign investor’s in South Africa. While many of these private business were feeling the pressure in their home country to disinvest, the political instability of the country was the primary concern for many of the foreign companies. It was only after this withdrawal of funds and business from the country in the mid-1980s did South Africa begin to feel the squeeze put on by their foreign debts. In 1985, the European Community put a limited scope of trade sanctions on South Africa, yet still the most expansive to date. This was followed by more significant sanctions in 1986 from the EC, coupled with the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act passed by the US Congress over a presidential veto in the same year. While South Africa did its best to circumvent governmental sanctions, the loss of private capital was inescapable (Levy 417).

As the end of the 1980s approached, proponents of the sanctions movement claimed success as they interpreted the fall of the apartheid state as justification of a strong sanctions movement. If nothing more, the economic sanctions were certainly the final straw in the campaign against the apartheid government. While a handful of South Africans began to draw links between the economic climate and political change, many dismissed the effectiveness of sanctions. In retrospect however, many see these comments as simply propaganda to dissuade more sanctions against their country(Levy 418-419).

When measuring the success of sanctions, comparison with past experiences are invariably drawn. For obvious reasons, sanctions have a higher chance of success when placed against smaller and less developed target states. The more specific objectives the sending state sets the more easier it will be to assess the consequences on the target state and will make sanctions more efficient in the long run. Once these objectives have been set a combination of good timing with rapid and merciless implementation must be enforced. If the screw is tightened slowly, this gives the target state to develop countermeasures to the sanctions while at the same time giving the sender state time to develop second thoughts about their sanctions (Brewer 39).

On the other side of sanctions lie the causes of their downfall. First, the expression of not using a sledgehammer to crack a nut is very appropriate here. Cultural and military add-on measures can make the sending states lose sight of the initial objectives. Secondly, the search for comprehensive boycotts and sanctions does not necessarily produce a more effective sanctions campaign. In many cases the search for general consensus among sender states can be self-defeating in the end, causing there to be more leaks in the campaign, rather than less.

While the exact effectiveness of the international sanctions that arose from the anti-apartheid movement against the National Party in South Africa on an economic scale can be debated, the praise from black South African leaders for the anti-apartheid movement must be taken into account as well. Both Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela made statements to this extent. On his release from prison in 1990 Mandela stressed that to end sanctions at that moment would risk allowing the National Party to abort the process towards ending apartheid. Thus the psychological impact of international isolation could be viewed as just as important as the economic impact. (Levy 418).

While some form of sanctions had been in place for many decades, efforts intensified in the 1980s, notably from prominent South African allies in the form of the United States and Europe. This change could be attributed to causing the eventual political change of the 1990s, meaning that those that point to the considerable time lag between the implementation of sanctions and the fall of the National Party as evidence of the ineffectiveness of sanctions, do not account for the time that it takes for sanctions to effect the country as a whole. Instant change was an unrealistic goal (Levy 418).

Empirical data has been collected during the time of enforced sanctions that back up Mandela’s claim of effectives. An IMF report put together by Tamim Bayoumi in 1990 concludes that the impact economic sanctions had on the country is unmistakable. He concludes that sanctions are leading to a large upturn in white unemployment and that the nonwhite employment growth will rise while resulting in a decline in white’s wages. His report would support previous statements that suggested that the removal of private capital from the country, rather than governmental sanctions against the National Party, achieved the greatest success. His report finds that nonwhite employment had increased in the intermediary while coinciding with the fall of real white wages. This analysis would seem to conclude that economic sanctions are having the exact opposite affect on the South African economy that apartheid was meant to provide, which was the economic exploitation of blacks by the whites (Bayoumi 1, 21).

The anti-apartheid movement from an outside perspective obviously had an effect on South Africa. However, reports from inside the country differ somewhat with the West’s assessment of the effectiveness of sanctions. F.W. de Klerk, writing in his autobiography, states “Obviously, sanctions also did serious damage to the country.” (de Klerk 70). He goes on to corroborate the findings made by the IMF, that South Africa’s growth rate suffered approximately 1.5 percent during the 1980s and early 1990s. However, he states that the white minority was ready and willing to bear this cost because they feared the alternative was a Soviet-backed African National Congress regime ruling the country. This is more typical rhetoric from the South African government about fighting Soviet expansion in Africa. South Africa attempted to justify their foreign and domestic polices throughout the 1960s and 1970s as combating communism. While in truth the ANC was heavily funded by the Kremlin, Moscow certainly did not stir up the initial causes for the ANC to come into being. Moreover, De Klerk goes on to write that sanctions delayed change, rather than promoted it in the government. Importantly, he believes that the isolation South Africans felt by the West essentially nipped change in the bud as it was beginning to rise in the country’s universities as well as the intellectual and scientific elite. He believes that as a truism, isolation, sanctions, and rampant criticism of a society rarely encourage changes in the society. He is very reluctant to draw a link between governmental policies and the sanctions movement that was put forth by the worldwide anti-apartheid campaign (de Klerk 70-71).

On the political side, de Klerk believes that the National Party owed some of its electoral success to the sanctions. He implies that had no sanctions been in place, the National Party would not have been able to appeal to the resentment and siege mentality that many white South Africans felt when confronted with the West’s sanctions. Concluding, de Klerk feels that the real factor in change was the economic growth of the country. Thus from his perspective, had South Africa been allowed to grow unimpeded economically, change would have come sooner than it actually did (de Klerk 71).

Alternate views of the fall of the National Party’s apartheid stem from outside forces that did not include sanctions. Most often cited is the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe. Gorbachev realized that the Soviet Union could no longer afford to fund proxy wars across the world and abruptly ended all funding to socialist movements, thus depriving the ANC of most of its resources. While the Afrikaners once saw the ANC as godless communists, once the Soviet bloc fell, political dealings with the ANC became publicly acceptable (Evans 3 May 2007 & Levy 418).

While the timing of the Soviet collapse certainly played a role in the changes in South Africa, for de Klerk to say that sanctions had no impact in policy making would be dismissing the effectiveness of the anti-apartheid movement as a whole. Governments did not enact most of these sanctions and embargoes because they felt South Africa was a threat like present day Iran or North Korea. Much of the support for forcing change in South Africa began with grassroots movements across the United States and Europe.

De Klerk, in his own book, gives credence to the overall international movement. He notes that never before in history had a country had to deal with the “comprehensive international campaign” against the country (de Klerk 114). Not only were the economic stresses demanding, the restrictions on travel, notably on fly-over and landing rights for South African airlines, and the cold-shoulder many white South Africans received while traveling abroad in the 1980s all contributed to the isolation. He then describes how the sanctions net began to tighten in on the country. Later, he stressed the impact that the loss of financial support was taking on the country as a whole and that it became a “source of social unrest” (de Klerk 183). De Klerk then describes the need for financial stability in order to keep everyone, including the ANC, satisfied with the progress of the negotiations to end apartheid. Perhaps de Klerk cannot see the lines between the causes and effects, but it is most obvious that the reason South Africa is in financial doldrums is because of the anti-apartheid movement coupled with economic sanctions. Thus by his own reasoning, it would be safe to assume that the world-wide movement against the National Party had an undeniable and to some extent a very palpable link between the actual removal of the National Party from power and sanctions that were employed.

The view championed by Nelson Mandela has a significant amount of empirical and scholarly evidence that would support his view that the international anti-apartheid movement against the National Party-led South African government was successful. Despite the campaign against apartheid not always meeting the requirements discussed earlier for successful sanctions, the political and overall isolation felt by South Africans, which was manufactured by the global anti-apartheid campaign, made up for the lapses in economic sanctions. Eventually the ‘total onslaught’ that the government and white society felt they were under, beginning in the 1960s, encompassed the riots caused by students within the country and the ANC’s fight from exile. The international sanction movement against the South African government was the final push that brought the National Party to near bankruptcy and brought them to the negotiating table with the ANC. While each factor of ‘total onslaught’ played a role, the global anti-apartheid movement was a significant dynamic in causing the turning the tide against the white-minority government and eventually bringing to power a true democracy on the southern tip of the African continent.

SEE: Follow Up Article -The Interconnected Factors on Apartheid in South Africa

Works Cited

Bayoumi, Tamim, “Output, Employment and Financial Sanctions in South Africa” (December 1990). IMF Working Paper No. 90/113

Order it at:

Brewer, John D., ed. Can South Africa Survive? London; Macmillan Pres, 1989.

Butler, Anthony. Democracy and Apartheid. Great Britain; Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1998.

Craig, Albert M., et al. The Heritage of World Civilizations. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2003.

De Klerk, F.W. The Last Trek-A New Beginning. New York; St. Martin’s Press, 1999. [primary]

De Villiers, Les. In Sight of Surrender. London; Praeger, 1995.

Edgar, Robert E., ed. Sanctioning Apartheid. Trenton; Africa World Press, 1990.

Evans, Ivan. Lecture. University of California – San Diego. 3 May 2007.

Grundy, Kenneth W. South Africa: Domestic Crisis and Global Challenge. San Francisco; Westview Press, 1991.

Klotz, Audie. Norms in International Relations: The Struggle Against Apartheid. London; Cornell University Press, 1995.

Levy, Philip I. “Sanctions on South Africa: What Did They Do?” The American Economic Review May 1999: 415-420. JSTOR. UC San Diego Lib. 10 may 2007 <>.

Lowenberg, Anton D., and William H. Kaempfer. The Origins and Demise of South African Apartheid. Ann Arbor; The University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Spence, J.E. Republic Under Pressure. London; Oxford University Press, 1965.

Thorn, Hakan. Anti-Apartheid and the Emergence of a Global Civil Society. New York; Palgrave Macmillen, 2006

Vandenbosch, Amry. South Africa and the World. Lexington; The University Press of Kentucky, 1970.


8 thoughts on “Impact of Economic and Political Sanctions on Apartheid

  1. Pingback: International Movement’s Affects on Apartheid in South Africa « The African File

  2. Pingback: What is the economic impact of apartheid in south africa? | Business South Africa Today

  3. Pingback: The African File Makes Scholarly Contribution for Zimbabwe | The African File

  4. This is really helpful. I was just wondering where the things you have cited from ‘Levy’ came from, as it doesn’t seem to be in the citations?

  5. Thanks for the catch – for some reason that citaion disappaeared because of an old jstor link. I’ve added it back! Thanks for your comments and having a read. – Alex

  6. South Africa’s peaceful and stable transition to democracy, universally recognized as one of the major achievements of the 20th Century, is not a coincidence or a mere short-term success: the realities in South Africa, which made this miraculous transition possible, are still in place and guarantee future stability. Political stability is the key to investor confidence, especially in today’s world. It is, therefore, essential to take a closer look at those factors, external and internal, which are guaranteeing continued political stability in South Africa.

  7. The paper seems to be very baised to one side. If the title is ‘impact of sanctions’ then it should provide the reader with arguments about not only how effective they were but also how these sanctions strengthened the economy as it forced RSA to become indipendant which at the the time of 1994 the national party handed over the strongest economy in Africa and arguably the strongest military- also author makes comparison saying that it was feared that the NP party was a threat like north korea and Iran I presume because of nuclear capabilities but doesn’t mention how the NP party was the first to ever hand over their nuclear weapons.
    Just saying the facts and sources sourced are very contradicting and doesn’t explain the situation very well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s