1986 Anti-Apartheid Act

In 1986 the United States of America passed an Act designed to help to end apartheid government in South Africa. The 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act was enacted into law by the US Congress to impose sanctions against South Africa. The Anti-Apartheid Act focused on preventing new trade and investment between the United States and South Africa, as well as working to end any current economic transactions occurring between the two nations.

The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act was initially introduced in 1972 and called for bans in trade, investment, and travel connecting to South Africa. The act was subsequently denied by Congress, which claimed that in its current state was too invasive. Another act was reintroduced in 1985 by Democrats in the Senate. This attempt also failed due to the apprehension of President Reagan, who noted that passing this act would intrude in his authority to conduct foreign policy. With the creation of the Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986 the United States government worked to ensure that the current president of the United States could be provided with “additional authority to work with other industrial democracies to help end apartheid and establish democracy in South Africa (Miljak, 1988, 261).” Along with the groundwork to work with allied democracies the act also established two measures that would help the U.S. further their political and economic goals in South Africa. The first “measures to assist the victims of apartheid, while the second measure helps to undermine apartheid (Miljak, 1988, 262).” It is within this second measure that the concept of economic sanctions comes into play, and further proved to be the most successful tool against the South African apartheid government.

President Ronald Reagan was adamant about vetoing the 1985 Act. Noting that he believed it was an infringement on his right to conduct foreign policy freely, Reagan walked a thin line and many believed his vetoing the act was a sign that he supported the apartheid government of South Africa. After vetoing the initial Anti-Apartheid Act, Reagan instituted some of his own sanctions, which Congress ruled were ineffective. During this time many Democrats also claimed “Reagan’s list of sanctions were watered down and a less effective version of the congressional measures (Desert News, 1985, A-1).” This act by the President highlighted a divide between the Republicans and the Democrats within Congress, which was further fueled by the re-introduction of a revised version of the Anti-Apartheid Act by the Democrats. Many Republicans in Congress wanted to give President Reagan’s sanctions time to settle in before determining if they were successful; the Democrats had other ideas. Reagan vetoed the act again in 1986 claiming that the sanctions were “economic warfare against South Africa” (Boca Raton News, 1986). While it was clear that President Reagan did not want barriers imposed against him and his ability to conduct foreign relations, on October 22, 1986 Congress overrode his veto with a vote of 78 to 21 in the Senate and 313 to 83 in the House. This override “marked the first time in the twentieth century that a president had a foreign policy veto overridden” (Norment, 1994). Many critics within the U.S. government warned that this could lead to further violence in South Africa, while many supports of the bill applauded the U.S. government.

Many Republicans were against passing such an act and instilling harsh sanctions against South Africa, pointing to concerns about job losses within South Africa. With the passing of the Anti Apartheid Act many congressmen highlighted the fear of forcing all U.S. corporations from pulling out their business in South Africa, “resulting in the loss of some 85,000 South African jobs (Times Daily, 1986, 2A).” With this extreme loss of jobs in the country you have to wonder who exactly will be losing those jobs? Is it the upper class white South African or the oppressed black South African? Although the fear of job loss is genuine, the sympathy towards those losing the jobs may be skewed.

Within three years of the Act being in place the head of South Africa’s central bank argued “that the nation was surviving the damage of Western economic sanctions despite a reduced annual growth rate (Wren, 1989).” And yet it has also been noted that these sanctions put in place by the U.S. and supported by other Western nations resulted in a net outflow of over 25 billion rand ($10 billion), some of which was in loan repayment, due to the fact that many foreign banks began calling on South Africa to repay their loans. During this same three-year window the South African banker, Gerhard de Kock, tried to argue against sanctions by suggesting that black South Africans suffered most from sanctions: “the burden of debt repayment resulting from sanctions has slowed the growth of South Africa and caused living standards to decline…the blacks are the first to suffer from such sanctions (Wren, 1989).” While de Kock may be correct in noting that the living standard and growth rate in South Africa was in decline it is difficult to fully embrace the idea that this decline of living standards was entirely due to the actions of the West. Living conditions for many marginalized black South Africans during apartheid was horrendous, often time many townships were without adequate water supply or proper sanitation, this was not the doing of the West, but the result of an oppressive, discriminatory apartheid government. During this same three-year period it must be noted that the General Accounting Office of the U.S. stated that “top Reagan officials had failed to apply elementary enforcement procedures in carrying out the anti apartheid law (Observer-Reporter, 1989, A-5),” focusing directly on sanctions against South Africa under the Anti-Apartheid Act. With the end of the Reagan era came an end to lax enforcement of sanctions and a complete overhaul in how the U.S. government was going to treat the apartheid South African government.

Many believed that President George H.W. Bush, who became president of the U.S. in 1989, would approach the situation much like his predecessor, with the same moderate hands-off approach. However, President Bush proved to be more invested in the ending of apartheid than President Reagan. It was stated that Bush’s policy regarding South Africa would be one of “constructive engagement and trying to persuade Pretoria to make reforms through gentle diplomatic pressure (Sheppard, 1989).” Herman Cohen, assistant secretary of state for African affairs during the Bush administration, was also quick to note, “Sanctions have played a role in stimulating new thinking within the white power structure (Sheppard, 1989),” highlighting how the new administration hoped to build on President Reagan’s mild sanctions.

By 1990, the President F.W. de Klerk announced the unbanning of the liberation movements and the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, as well as the repeal of the Land Act and the Population Registration Act, which classified South Africans into four racial groups. In the United States the news of the ending of apartheid was much welcomed, but many questioned how genuine this movement toward reform was. While the U.S. “welcomed the proposals from President de Klerk they noted that all political prisoners had yet to be released, as required under the U.S. laws governing the lifting of sanctions (Wren, 1991).” Many South Africans took to the streets to continue pressure on the South African government, while subsequently calling for an increase in black representation within the government. This proved to be a pivotal moment in South African history and resulted in the end of the Apartheid government of South Africa.

Throughout the years of the South African apartheid government the United States played multiple roles. They acted as a supporter of this government, economically and politically, as well a criticizer once the international attention gained momentum. The U.S. government sought to instill harsh sanctions against the country but often fell short of the strict regulations they sought to put in place. The passing of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986 “helped to send a warning shot that showed that domestic pressures would only escalate, especially as the political situation became more bleak” (Voorhes, 139). In the end the sanctions brought about by the United States and other western allies helped to bring an end of the apartheid government of South Africa by threatening to cripple their already dwindling economy at every level. The citizens of South Africa, regardless of social status or skin color, felt the effect of the sanctions imposed on them and in the end the South African government heard their cries. The road to end apartheid was not an easy one, but with the passing of the Anti- Apartheid Act of 1986 the push to end discrimination in South Africa became a global focus.