Monthly Archives: November 1986

1986.11.01: South Africa and the Sanctions Bill (MBBA Newsletter)

Metropolitan Black Bar Association (NYC) Newsletter, Vol. III, No. 2 (November 1986)
South Africa and the Sanctions Bill
Michael Letwin*

On October 2, 1986, the Reagan administration was dealt an important symbolic foreign policy defeat when Congress overrode Reagan’s veto to pass the most serious U.S. sanctions to date against South Africa. The new law bans new U.S. business investment in South Africa, forbids the import of certain South African products and cancels U.S. landing rights for South African Airlines.

However, the sanctions law stops way short of supporting immediate and total change. The law does not require that existing U.S. investments in South Africa be withdrawn; U.S. corporations will be allowed to reinvest existing profits and, as seen in the recently announced IBM & GM divestiture, U.S. companies can still sell their goods to South Africa. It does not prohibit the recently-revealed sharing of U.S. intelligence on the African National Congress (ANC) with the South African regime. Nor does it reverse Reagan’s military backing for South African- sponsored forces in Angola or the cutoff of U.S. aid to Zimbabwe.

Two questions arise from the new-found congressional support for sanctions. First, what accounts for the sudden break with Reagan on this issue? And second, why did Congress stop short of declaring total war on the Apartheid regime?

One reason for the change in Congressional attitude is that the growth of the mass movement against Apartheid in the U.S. campus protests, arrests in Washington and campaigns for local and state divestment have all placed South Africa on the national agenda. Politicians rightly recognize that in upcoming elections they have little to lose and everything to gain by courting the increasingly-mobilized Black vote by adopting a visibly anti-Apartheid stance. It costs less than taking a stance against racism nearer to home.

Thus the strange sight of California Governor Dukmejian — who won office by race-baiting Thomas Bradley — and Reagan supporter Senator Dole supporting the same sanctions which Reagan claims are “bad for black people”.

Perhaps more responsible for the new law is a desire to shape events in South Africa itself, which is seen by Western capitalism and its political representatives in Congress as valuable for its cheap profits, strategic natural resources and as an outpost of Western power in Africa.

Although the likes of Reagan and Jessie Helms believe the Apartheid regime is still a viable and acceptable way of protecting these interests, the militant mass movement of South African students and workers made clear to nearly everyone else — Republicans and Democrats alike — that the days of the racist regime in Pretoria are numbered; whether it falls this year or in five, it is doomed.

Realizing this, the more intelligent powers-that-be are attempting to quickly establish some anti-Apartheid credentials and even to open talks with the ANC. But, having done this, why didn’t Congress go all out to support the struggle against Apartheid?

The limited nature of the sanctions bill is clearly not due to any principle against using stronger U.S. action. In contrast to the limited sanctions law, Congress has recently approved another $100 million for the Contras to kill Nicaraguan peasants, has provided U.S. planes and personnel to transport the aid (as recently revealed in the loss of a CIA C-123 transport plane) and has sent thousands of U.S. troops and advisers to Honduras and El Salvador to implement Contra training and military support.

When did you ever hear of that kind of U.S. support for a genuine liberation movement like that in South Africa?

Rather the sanctions law reflects the desire of the majority in Congress to block fundamental change in South Africa. Their goal is an “orderly” transition to a form of Black political rule which would outflank and prevent the political and economic revolution that will result when the mass movement overthrows the Apartheid regime and takes power.

That movement is fighting for more than the right to vote. It is demanding control over the wea1th which Black people have created over the past four hundred years for their white masters. If the Apartheid regime is brought down by this movement, domination by Western capita1ism will riot be the popular choice. For this reason, the majority of Congress and those it represents wish to shore up Black “moderates” (i.e. Apartheid co11aborators) such as Zulu Chief Buthelezi.

In this scenario, Black workers in South Africa would not come to own the diamond, coal and gold mines, or the auto and steel plants of South Africa any more than Black American freedmen ever got their “forty acres and mule” after the Civil War. Rather, their hope is that Black South Africans would continue to be exploited and dominated by white domestic and Western capital in order to maximize their profits and keep South Africa “safe” for the West.

The bottom line, therefore, is this: Black South Africa will only win meaningful revolution through its own mass movement of young people and workers. That is the only force that has the power and the interest in seeing the revolution succeed.

For those of us in the U.S., the sanctions bill should be recognized as a sign that the revolutionary movement in South Africa and the anti-Apartheid movement in the U.S. are having a positive effect on U.S. policy. But the battle to completely divest U.S. capital of its South African holdings and to end its continuing toleration for the South African racist regime is still far from over.

*Michael Letwin is a Criminal Defense Attorney in New York City.