With Nelson Mandela’s recent passing, the news has recently been flooded with retrospective stories about not only Mandela, but South Africa, Apartheid, and other political issues related to Mandela’s life and legacy as well.
Yesterday, the news naturally focused on Mandela’s funeral. But an interview segment that I listened to on NPR touched on an issue that has come up less often: economic sanctions against Apartheid-era South Africa, particularly in the mid-1980′s during the Reagan Administration. One of the guests of the show, who was an anti-Apartheid activist in the 80s, spoke glowingly about the positive role that sanctions played in ending Apartheid, and said that South Africa provides proof that sanctions can work, at least under the right circumstances.
The conventional wisdom on the subject holds that sanctions played a big role — perhaps even a decisive one — in ending Apartheid. Despite opposition from the Regan and Thatcher administrations, sanctions legislation became law by 1986, when Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti Apartheid Act (CAAA) over President Reagan’s veto. By 1990, Mandela had been released after more than a quarter century in prison, and by 1994 he had been elected president in multi-racial elections. Many people therefore believe that sanctions were crucial to ending Apartheid. I think that this is a prime example of crude post hoc ergo prompter hoc reasoning.
The “sanctions toppled Apartheid” narrative allows many Westerners who participated in the Anti-Apartheid cause to feel that their activism in the 80s helped end the regime. This desire is understandable. Apartheid was a morally repugnant system, and many activists devoted a great deal of energy towards drawing attention to it from outside of South Africa. Additionally, as I have written elsewhere, Anti-Apartheid activism served as a kind of substitute for the Civil Rights Movement for people who had been too young to participate in the latter. Basically, believing that sanctions worked in South Africa allows people to pat themselves on the back.
This just doesn’t smell right to me. I tend to be highly skeptical of the effectiveness of political sanctions in general. I believe that they generally harm the people of a targeted nation while at best doing little to weaken targeted regimes and at worst strengthening domestic support for them. Decades-long sanctions against Iran, Cuba, and North Korea have not led to internal reforms. Sanctions against Iraq and Cuba led to untold human suffering. I suppose that there are times when sanctions can be a judicious geopolitical strategy to weaken a hostile regime, but it seems to me that as a tool for causing internal reforms, they are bunk. South Africa, however, is often held up by proponents of sanctions as an example of a time they were used effectively and coaxed internal political reform.
A paper I recently had the chance to read by Yale’s Phillip Levy argues that international sanctions played little if any substanative role in ending Apartheid. It’s a great read, accessibly written and compellingly argued, so take a peek at it if you get the chance. I’ll highlight some of the key arguments below. Keep in mind a key date as you read this: 1986, the year the US Congress passed the CAAA sanctions.
- Actions by foreign governments did little to damage South Africa’s economy. In the years after the imposition of sanctions but before the end of Apartheid, South Africa’s GDP growth rate was actually higher than it’s overall average of 1.8% from 1974 to 1987. In 1987 (the first full year after multilateral sanctions took effect), the country’s growth rate was 2.6%, and in 1988 it was 3.2%. Additionally, the volume of South Africa’s exports rose by 26% between 1985 and 1989. Losses due to sanctions only amounted to $354 million, or 0.5% of GNP.
- Private divestment played a much larger role in hurting the South African economy than political sanctions. Starting in the mid-80s, a large number of private international businesses began taking their investments out of South Africa. Private investors generally did not divest as a result of political pressure for activist groups, but because they feared political instability in the region would compromise their assets. This was a result of the effectiveness of internal political opposition to Apartheid within South Africa, as well as the economic inefficiency of Apartheid-era economic policies, rather than pressure from outside the country, and cannot be counted as evidence for the effectiveness of sanctions.
- During the sanctions regime, the South African government increased repression of the country’s black population. In 1984 – just before the imposition of multilateral sanctions – the South African government introduced several reformist measures which allowed increased political participation by Indians and Coloureds, but continued to exclude blacks. In 1988, with sanctions firmly in place, the government banned all political activities by nonwhite opposition groups and labor unions.
- Apartheid was ended not by sanctions but instead by effective internal opposition to the system by the black majority, the economic backwardness of the Apartheid model, and the fall of the USSR. Afrikaners in the Apartheid government feared that the ANC was a communist front group, and that they would align the country with the Eastern Bloc. The fall of the USSR and the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola effectively eliminated these fears and made a deal with the ANC conceivable.
Overall, while the intentions of pro-sanctions activists in the South African case are laudable, this paper provides a very persuasive cumulative case that sanctions did little if anything to measurably weaken the Apartheid regime. Perhaps their psychological effect – which signaled the extent of South Africa’s international isolation — was more substantial, but their material effect was negligible.
So don’t go counting the downfall of Apartheid as evidence that sanctions can work.