Sanctions finally imposed on SA by US for apartheid
Some key events from this week in history are reflected in the following reports from the archives of the Argus’s 160-year-old titles
FOR all the misgivings among some thoughtful South Africans about the intensifying sanctions against apartheid, by late 1986 there was no question that the problem was not the hostility of critics at home or abroad, but apartheid itself and the obstinate intransigence of those who defended it.
The National Party – and many others, including some of its political opponents – had drawn false comfort from the hospitable sentiments of America’s President Ronald Reagan and Britain’s “Iron Lady”, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, both of whom favoured what came to be called “constructive engagement” with Pretoria.
But patience with the idea of nudging the “apartheid regime” – as it was routinely called by then – towards reform was running out.
In the first week of October 1986 – a little more than a year after PW Botha had signally failed to cross the Rubicon (as an embarrassed Foreign Minister Pik Botha had privately assured key allies that he would) – the pressure ratcheted up with the news from Washington that Congress had swept Reagan’s veto aside and enacted sanctions.
The report of October 3 that year – “Sanctions: what SA is up against” – noted that this “puts the United States at the front of nations seeking to change apartheid”.
By then, other measures had been adopted by the UN, the 12-nation European Community (EC) and the 49 countries of the Commonwealth.
The report went on: “The new US measures were imposed by Congress yesterday over the strong objections of President Reagan.
“Here is a summary of the measures adopted: Ban on imports of South African uranium, coal, textiles, iron, steel, agricultural products, food, military equipment and ammunition; ban imports from companies owned or controlled by the South African Government; end new US loans, investments or other extensions of credit to the South African public and private sectors; write into law and make permanent a presidential order banning imports of Krugerrand coins and prohibiting exports of US nuclear and computer technology to Pretoria or its agencies; write into law existing UN arms and oil embargoes, and six months after enactment, urge Mr Reagan to cut off US military aid to nations circumventing the arms embargo; terminate landing rights for South African aircraft; earmark $40 million (about R88m) for South Africans disadvantaged by apartheid and $4m (about R8.8m) for US scholarships; bar the US Government from buying goods and services from South Africa and from promoting trade and tourism there.”
Congress agreed to “allow President Reagan to lift some or all of the sanctions if Pretoria met four out of five conditions, namely the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners; repeal of the state of emergency; legalisation of all political parties; repeal of Group Areas Act and Population Registration Act; and hold negotiations with representative black leaders”.
What few people knew in October 1986 was that jailed ANC luminary Nelson Mandela – then almost certainly the world’s most famous prisoner – had already initiated contact with PW Botha’s administration with a view to exploring the options for negotiations. It was an important but somewhat fitful exercise, and genuine talks would have to await Botha’s demise and FW de Klerk’s emergence as the man of courage and reason.
For both sides in the conflict, the inescapable truth of the mid-1980s was that they were locked in a stalemate. Not many years later, historian Nigel Worden summed it up by observing that “the state had lost the initiative but no one else had the power to seize it”.
The country was in political limbo.
On Friday, October 3, 1986, senior editors at the Argus felt constrained to caution readers against being distracted by the sanctions debate when the real topic that wanted addressing was apartheid itself.
In a leader headlined “US sanctions and the national debate”, the newspaper said: “The sanctions voted into law by the United States senate will start a chain reaction of considerable impact on South Africa and beyond. Aside from the potential damage to the economy, and the harmful consequences to lives, jobs and welfare, they may well encourage a hardening of political attitudes.”
But it went on: “Already there is dismaying evidence that the national debate in South Africa has been distorted by the sanctions campaign. Rather than concentrating on reform, many white South Africans not unnaturally are mustering their pioneering spirit in an effort to ameliorate the more immediate challenge of sanctions.”
If this continued however (“without thought to the reasons why South Africa is being punished so”) “it could gravely retard the peaceful dismantling of institutionalised racism, which is at the kernel of the present problems. It is a curse which only white South Africans have the constitutional power to exorcise, and there is a lesser chance of them dong so while their attention is diverted to what many see as a national struggle for survival, or at least a foreign challenge to their national self-respect.”
The most pressing challenge was something else entirely.
“The real struggle ought to be to end what even President Reagan, in his reaction to the senate vote, last night described as ‘a malevolent and archaic system totally alien to our ideals’.”
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher at the White House in 1988. The two saw eye-to-eye on South Africa but were powerless to stop sanctions against apartheid escalating.
The rising tide of anti-apartheid sentiment in the US is reflected in this cutting from the Vassar College student newspaper.
Ronald Reagan supported ‘ constructive engagement’ with Pretoria.