To bypass the sanctions introduced against South Africa, the apartheid government acted proactively, laid the necessary legislative foundation so that the work to circumvent the sanctions could be carried out under the cloak of secrecy, and showed a willingness to use flexible (and not always legal) schemes for the uninterrupted supply of strategically important goods, as well as for the export of raw materials and local products, writes Lora Chkoniya.
To understand the main lessons of the sanctions against South Africa, it is necessary first to bring together, into a single picture, all the contradictions of the apartheid period, which lasted from 1948 to 1994. On the one hand, the white authorities kept it afloat for decades, finding loopholes and solutions that allowed their system not only to survive, but also, despite the sanctions pressure, to create the most combat-ready army in the region, develop nuclear weapons and build the only nuclear power plant on the continent, as well as launch gas production from coal, based on the country’s own advanced technology. On the other hand, the country was engulfed in clashes, sabotage and fear, as well as condemnation from the international community, but it continued to grow, reaching its peak in the mid-80s, when the world community introduced a collective and united sanctions package, which led to increased political and economic isolation of South Africa. As a result, the cost of keeping the apartheid regime alive became too high for them to maintain the intended political course.
This was certainly facilitated by international and unilateral sanctions. Restrictions were introduced gradually. Only 15 years after the National Party came to power and adopted the first discriminatory laws, the first international sanctions were introduced, namely the UN embargo on the supply of weapons). For many years, the sanctions did not have legal binding force, and were often not respected; sometimes they performed more of a symbolic than a real function. In addition, the absence of a truly functioning mechanism for secondary sanctions created gaps in the system, thanks to which the apartheid regime was able to maintain partnerships with those who were either isolated themselves or were ready to turn a blind eye to the immorality of the policies pursued by the white authorities.
Israel and South Africa signed their Secret Agreement on cooperation in the military sphere in 1975, the main result of which was the development by the apartheid regime of its own nuclear weapons (later, during the last years of apartheid, South Africa became the first and only country in history to voluntarily give up the atomic bomb and shut down its nuclear programme). Until the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran actively supplied oil to South Africa, thus playing an important role in circumventing the oil embargo. Later, during the Iran-Iraq war, South Africa supplied weapons to Iran in exchange for oil. Finally, against the backdrop of the gradual refusal of other countries to cooperate with the apartheid regime, the government of Charles de Gaulle successfully cooperated with South Africa. In 1964-1974 French exports to South Africa tripled, with strong exports of equipment for power plants and railways, engines, the construction of hydroelectric power stations and highways, as well as offshore drilling off the west coast. France, in turn, actively imported coal. These examples are only a small part of a larger picture of allies (hidden and public), sponsors and partners of the apartheid government, who drew a clear line between economic and political interests. At the same time, the scales often outweighed in the direction of the first.
However, the changing external geopolitical situation, the end of the Cold War (the White apartheid government, on the one hand, was a prominent opponent of communism; the liberation movement, on the other hand, received significant material and non-material support from the countries of the communist bloc) as well as the growing general international condemnation of racial discrimination had led to tougher measures and the adoption of unilateral sanctions by those who previously completely abstained from them or participated in them with little enthusiasm. Americans and Europeans, for example, stopped seeing the white regime as an ally in the fight against communism, and in 1986 the US passed a Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which provided for restrictions on trade, investment and tourism, as well as the requirement to return loans previously issued by South Africa. A year before, the European Economic Community adopted sanctions, which consolidated the arms embargo and refusal to cooperate militarily, the oil embargo (while before that there were already restrictions on oil exports in some European countries), as well as the rejection of new agreements in the nuclear field. Sanctions were also introduced by the countries of the Commonwealth of Nations in 1986, providing for a ban on the issuance of new government loans to the government of South Africa, the organisation of state trade missions, the sale of computers (which could be used by South African security forces), cooperation in oil, nuclear and military technology, and cultural exchanges.
To summarize, soft measures were introduced from the 1950s to the 1970s, and the most severe sanctions arrived in the 1980s; against this background, various methods were developed so that South Africa could circumvent restrictions and survive in isolation.
First, the authorities acted proactively. Taking into account the lack of oil fields in South Africa and the country’s dependence on imports, it was decided to increase the strategic stocks of oil until the introduction of an international embargo. In addition, there had been a continuous development and improvement of national technologies; one of the results was the production of synthetic liquid fuels from coal by the company Sasol. This became possible thanks to the rights, acquired by Anglovaal in the 1930s, to use the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. An early decision was also made to build the Koeberg nuclear power plant to ensure energy security.
Second, the state had laid the necessary legislative foundation so that the work to circumvent the sanctions could be carried out under the cloak of secrecy. For example, the Defence Act of 1957 and the Armaments Act of 1968 were passed, the second of which provided for imprisonment for the disclosure of information about military activities. The logic was simple – it is impossible to stop processes that no one knows about.
Third, the authorities showed a willingness to use flexible (and not always legal) schemes for the uninterrupted supply of strategically important goods, as well as for the export of raw materials and local products. A network of secret partners, intermediaries, fictitious companies and banks was created to purchase weapons or necessary components for their own weapons (produced primarily by ARMSCOR), which were then exported using these networks. For example, French technology and weapons were transferred to South Africans through Morocco in exchange for the training of the Moroccan military, and independent specialists and consultants from around the world were attracted to participate in projects that necessitated advanced international competency.
Finally, all of the above was possible due to the high level of technical education (especially among the white population), and the prevention of a massive exodus of highly qualified personnel until the last years of apartheid.
In the end, despite all the efforts of the National Party, the sanctions worked. At the same time, answering the question about the true reasons for the collapse of the regime, the last president of white apartheid in South Africa, Frederik De Klerk, singled out the political factor.
Undoubtedly, it was also caused by excessive spending on circumventing the sanctions (between 1973 and 1984, 22 billion rands were spent on circumventing sanctions alone), and falling prices for exported raw materials (mainly gold, diamonds, platinum), combined with a decrease in the volume of its mining since the early 1980s and underdeveloped domestic production to create value chains, as well as the beginning of the debt crisis in the country in 1985. Loopholes and informal channels for trade were exhausted as the screws were tightened, and in 1985 a state of emergency was declared throughout the country due to increasing internal conflict.
Finally, the white regime failed to convince its electorate, primarily educated English-speaking residents, of the need to maintain the regime, and in 1992, in a reform referendum, the white population voted to end apartheid. Two years later, the first black president, Nelson Mandela, came to power in South Africa, which was already free from apartheid. 46 years of international loneliness had come to an end, and a new chapter in the history of the country began, which continues to be written to this day.