Sanctions did not liberate South Africa

And whatever the vainglorious campaigners against Israel say, boycotts and sanctions won’t liberate Palestinians either.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), a pro-Palestinian organisation, has, for the past four years, been trying to do to Israel exactly what it says on its campaign tin: boycott, divest and impose sanctions against it unless ‘it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights’. Until Israel began its assault on Gaza, it was a call that had largely gone unheeded.

Now, however, as the war in Gaza enters its third week, really, really strongly worded condemnations featuring the phrase ‘utterly disproportionate’ are ringing a little hollow. In their stead, demands for more concrete action along the lines advocated by BDS have come to the fore. Enter anti-globalisation activist Naomi Klein, who, in a widely republished article ‘Israel: Boycott, Divest, Sanction’, cited ‘economic sanctions’ as ‘the most effective tool in the non-violent arsenal’. She continued: ‘The best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation is for Israel to become the target of the kind of global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa.’ (1)

For the long-distance activist, Klein’s appeal to the Anti-Apartheid Movement is resonant. The invocation of the similarly well-intentioned Anti-Apartheid Movement revives memories of what can be achieved through sporting exclusions and trade embargos. For without the boycotts, and, more importantly, without the economic sanctions of the latter half of the 1980s, racial segregation, as Klein implies, would surely still be in force in South Africa.

Or it would be, at least, in the narcissistic fantasy world of the contemporary anti-war protester. However, it is not all about them – not now, and certainly not then. Reports of the role of economic sanctions in the demise of apartheid continue to be greatly exaggerated. If anything, the collapse of the apartheid system was brought about, not by moral indignation from without South Africa, but by the mass, disenfranchised working classes within.

From the mass movements of civil disobedience in the 1950s, such as the African National Congress, or later, the Pan African Congress, to the Durban strikes of 1973, in which action spread out from brick workers to the Natal textiles industry, political consciousness was growing consistently in South Africa. Collective action had kindled a confidence and purpose that not even state repression, brutally apparent in the Soweto uprisings of 1976, could contain. Couple that with the success of liberation movements in Angola and Mozambique and the threat to the embattled apartheid regime was all too clear.

By the mid-1980s, class struggle had spread in South Africa from urban areas to the townships. And it had done so in the context of a deep recession. That capital was taking flight from South Africa before the widespread imposition of economic sanctions was hardly surprising, given the volatility, not to mention the increasing unprofitability, of a system of rationalising and brutalising a cheap labour force on racial grounds. Once lucrative, apartheid was becoming a liability. As Professor Richard Hall wrote in 1985, ‘The embarrassment of staying in South Africa, on moral grounds, is being compounded by reduced future profitability’ (2). Or, in the words of an economist over 10 years later, ‘South Africa’s most debilitating economic problems largely predated the imposition of economic sanctions’ (3). Indeed, with rocketing levels of inflation (up to 25 per cent by 1984), low levels of productivity, and a resilient, riotous working class, South Africa was not looking like the shiny investment vehicle it had appeared to be during the years of postwar boom. Sanctions and boycotts, while clearly possessing a feelgood factor for their protagonists, did not ‘put an end to apartheid’; they merely embellished its self-destruction.

That apartheid fell when it did, in 1990-91, did owe something to the international situation, but that something was not sanctions – it was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Having provided financial and military support for the ANC’s insurgency efforts, the USSR’s disintegration left President de Klerk and his Pretoria government facing a far less threatening political movement. It was a fortuitous moment, enabling South Africa’s white rulers to manage the transformation by splitting the militants and dealing with the milder reformism of the then recently released Nelson Mandela.

The nostalgic recollection of anti-apartheid sanctions and boycotts is not just a delusion. It serves a purpose. By associating the action of foreign states, not to mention consumers, with the end of racial oppression in South Africa, the fantasies of the anti-apartheid activists place potential action against Israel in a specious tradition of state-sponsored anti-imperialism. In this sense, economic sanctions, far from being an arbitrary exercise of Western power, are instead legitimised as the exercise of a moral imperative. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given their desperate search for the good fight, many British politicians have been growing extremely enthusiastic about the possibility of sanctions against Israel. Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell argues that if any other country had behaved as Israel had, economic sanctions would have already been imposed; and former foreign office minister Chris Mullin has urged the British government to start talking to the European Union about sanctions (4).

While it’s understandable that elected representatives of the British state might enjoy the role of international adjudicators, why would a left-wing activist like Naomi Klein seek to encourage it? Indeed, why, when British and American states are seen as the principal enemies in the eyes of those opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, would the same people seek the support of these states in opposition to Israel? For Klein the answer is unashamed pragmatism: ‘In [Israel], a country so small and trade-dependent, it could actually work’, she says (5). In other words, a sanction-backed boycott against Israel is a fight that we can win. This is not a principled defence of Palestinian self-determination, let alone an assertion of anti-imperialism; it’s a search for the most viable arena for personal vainglory.

And this is the real aspect that today’s anti-Israel lobby shares with the Anti-Apartheid Movement. They are both born of narcissism, an inability, as the social theorist Christopher Lasch defined it, to distinguish the self from the external world. Instead, the world appears as little more than a mirror of the self. Be it a conflict in the Middle East, or an anti-colonial struggle in Africa, both are experienced in terms of the self, and its frustrated desire for meaning and purpose. Little wonder that the ultimate horizon of such narcissistic solidarity with spectacles of suffering is the boycott, as if the act of individual consumption contained within it the potential for world revolution. Do we really want to turn Palestinians into the pet victims of Western liberals, in the same way that the Anti-Apartheid Movement did with black South Africans 20 years ago?

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Israel, Starbucks and the new irrationalism, by Brendan O’Neill

Creating their own private Gazas, by Nathalie Rothschild

Gaza is not Warsaw, by Nathalie Rothschild

There is no such thing as a ‘good lie’, by Tim Black

Who made Gaza into a bloody trap?, Brendan O’Neill

The antithesis of anti-imperialism, Brendan O’Neill

Whose war is it anyway?, Brendan O’Neill

War without ends?, by Mick Hume

The first Twitterwar, by Nathalie Rothschild

‘We are all Gazans now’, by Tim Black

Read more at spiked issue: War in Gaza

(1) Israel: Boycott, Divest, Sanction, Nation, 7 January 2009

(2) Financial Mail, 14 July 1985

(3) Why South Africa’s Apartheid economy failed, Contemporary Economic Policy, Volume XV, July 1997

(4) Cross-party fury of MPS at Israel, Scotsman, 13 January 2009

(5) Israel: Boycott, Divest, Sanction, Nation, 7 January 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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