Sanctions against apartheid South Africa should inspire the Palestinian people

Palestinian women, children and men waiting at Huwara checkpoint. (Arjan El Fassed)


The South African people, led by the African National congress (ANC), fought for decades to free themselves of apartheid. The ANC departed from its non-violent policies in the early 1960s and Nelson Mandela was one of the leaders who guided the ANC in this shift, becoming actively involved in the armed liberation struggle. The violence used by the ANC was directed at government institutions, economic targets and the forces involved in oppression. Nelson Mandela was arrested and imprisoned for almost 30 years. International solidarity movements supported the ANC by organising massive campaigns for sanctions and public boycotts against South Africa to apply pressure to end the apartheid regime. The South African example can be a source of inspiration for the Palestinian people.

In this article the writers look back on activism during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, offering the perspectives of a Dutch anti-apartheid activist, and a South African ANC supporter whose father was imprisoned for 10 years on Robben Island for his involvement in the resistance.

Motivation for punitive action

In the Netherlands there is a rich history of public boycott campaigns against South Africa between 1960 and 1990. The motivation for these campaigns was that the unacceptable racist policies of the white apartheid regime denied basic human rights to black citizens, who made up the majority (80%) of the South African population.

Black South Africans had no right to vote and the ANC was banned. The black population was confined to live in the so-called “Bantustans” due to the exploitation policies of the white regime; they were deported from their homes and their land to the poorest parts of the otherwise rich lands. There was no freedom of movement and black South Africans were even required to obtain a permit in order to leave the Bantustans, which became reservoirs of cheap labour. Labour conditions on the farms were appalling, particularly with the implementation of a “dop system” in the vineyards; part of a “salary” was paid in kind, namely with alcohol, creating massive addiction among the workers.

The income that was generated in the South African economy was mainly spent on the white population. Health services, education, housing, electricity and sanitation were scarcely provided to the black population. With the increasing resistance, the regime used extreme violence to oppress the black majority. The police and the army brutally attacked people during demonstrations and liquidated leaders when they wanted. Under apartheid, an infrastructure was built that literally separated white South Africans from black South Africans and until this day this infrastructure has not been completely destroyed.

The Palestinians are in a position to judge whether there are similarities between the apartheid in South Africa and their current situation. A senior ANC veteran, who visited Palestine several times, once commented to a Palestinian from the West Bank that “compared to what you Palestinians have to deal with, we had a picnic.”

Call for sanctions

It took almost 20 years of lobbying before strong punitive measures against South Africa were taken. The developing countries played a crucial role, being the first to impose sanctions against South Africa in the 1960s. The United States and the United Kingdom continued their friendly relations with South Africa for a long time, but ultimately also decided to participate in boycott measures.1

In the 1970s, the call for disinvestment and consumer boycotts became stronger. Initially the Dutch general public responded with a great deal of scepticism. Quite often we heard concerns about the effects of sanctions on the black population; would they not lose their jobs? Our argument was that the situation was already fairly desperate, so if people were really concerned, they should join our campaigns.

After the bloody oppression of the uprising in the black township of Soweto, near Johannesburg, the United Nations Security Council decided on an arms embargo in 1978. Pressure increased in 1982 when the UN, condemning apartheid, called for sanctions against South Africa. The Dutch solidarity movement collaborated closely with the ANC and the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid.

Public campaigns in the Netherlands

‘Boykot apartheid’: poster of the Dutch Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1981. (Niza)

Trade with the Western countries played a vital role in the growth of the South African economy and the country was highly dependent on its external trade. European countries, Japan and the United States were major trading partners that bought agricultural products, gold, diamonds, uranium and coal. In 1984, the European Union took two-thirds of South Africa’s export of fruit and vegetables, half of its minerals, more than a third of its base metals and two-thirds of its textiles.2 This inspired Dutch anti-apartheid organisations to organise public campaigns such as a fruit boycott. Consumers were asked to stop buying Outspan brand oranges and grapefruits in the early 1970s. In 1986, after another short but intensive information and public pressure campaign, almost all agricultural products from South Africa disappeared from the shops.

The apartheid regime, unable to fund the costs of oppression with its own economy, had to borrow money from international banks. Banks were therefore called to end their relations with South Africa. The selling of the golden Kruger Rand was very profitable for South Africa. In 1982, a campaign that urged consumers to close their bank accounts and hold picket lines at the entrance of banks dealing with South Africa was highly successful. Within one year the three major Dutch banks, ABN, AMRO and RABO, decided to stop selling the golden Kruger Rand coin. In February 1985, the sale of Kruger Rands was entirely stopped in the Netherlands.3

The South African economy was further weakened by an absence of oil, making them completely dependent on oil imports. As oil was fuelling the apartheid economy, a campaign for an oil embargo was organised. In this campaign Shell was the major target, being an Anglo-Dutch company and present in South Africa, and thus making profits at the expense of the black population. Consumers were urged not to fill their petrol tank at Shell stations as long as Shell was benefiting from apartheid policies: the consumers responded in large numbers to the call. Although the majority of the Dutch political parties supported the boycott, the Dutch government did not stop the export of oil to South Africa.

Elsewhere, the Arab countries had an oil embargo against South Africa already, and there were similar campaigns for this in other countries. As a consequence of these actions South Africa was forced to pay more for its oil. In the campaign for an oil embargo the Dutch campaigners worked closely with the ANC. It is important to take note of the request of the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation to the solidarity movement to testify on apartheid and the oil sector.4

A campaign in the Netherlands to isolate South Africa through a sports boycott was inspired by the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee. There were also calls for a cultural boycott and an academic boycott. The message to apartheid South Africa was that if they continued their racist and oppressive policies, the Netherlands should attempt to cut its ties with the country.

South African response

Sanctions and boycotts against apartheid South Africa have been the subject of many studies in relation to their impact in South Africa and the Netherlands.

In her studies into the role of the anti-apartheid organisations in the Netherlands, the South African scholar Genevieve Lynette Klein draws the following conclusion: ” It needs to be remembered that the white South African apartheid regime identified the Netherlands’ anti-apartheid actions as highly dangerous and effective. This is another reason why the Netherlands’ actions are considered so important, but it has little to do with the actual nature of the actions. Already in 1965, when the Netherlands’ government offered 45.000 euro to an organisation that gave legal assistance to political prisoners, the South African government reacted very extremely. This was because South Africa interpreted actions by the Netherlands’ government and public as much more serious than actions by other countries. The Afrikaner still looked to the ‘blood-bond’ experienced at the start of the 20th century, and in the light of this, expected the Netherlands to support them.”

Boycotts supported the liberation struggle

Life in South Africa under apartheid was harsh for black South Africans. The sanctions and boycotts against apartheid gave them great hope during the liberation struggle. One must remember that for at least a decade, following the ban of their movements and the imprisonment of their leaders, it seemed like the world had forgotten them or was oblivious to their plight.

Bangani Ngeleza, a black South African who was a university student in South Africa at the time of the sanctions and boycott movement commented that “the anti-apartheid organisations and related campaigns gave us a sense that the world was with us and therefore freedom was within reach. The courage to continue even in the face of a regime that was becoming more and more intransigent and murderous was reinforced by the knowledge that sooner or later, the sanctions would squeeze them to a point of collapse. We, as students at universities during the eighties, could then speak more tirelessly and launch regular and more emotive protests against the system and all those that supported it, both inside and outside the country, knowing that the world was watching and that these were telling blows because we saw companies leaving week after week, governments withdrawing diplomatic relations, etc. You can imagine the momentum that this gives to an otherwise difficult, daunting and dangerous struggle against racial oppression.”

A token of hope for many

Bangani Ngeleza was one of many black South Africans who faced the trauma of a family in tatters. His father was in prison, while his brother was in exile. His own mother had experienced prison, having been involved in the women’s movement with Ma Sisulu and others. However, he offers a token of hope, saying that campaigns served many purposes, motivating and encouraging an oppressed people: “Remember that the system then was at its most ruthless, with prison deaths reported week after week and speculative raids into neighboring countries. Our movements were also launching raids into the country and experiencing casualties with freedom fighters captured and executed at alarming rates. These campaigns and sanctions therefore gave hope to many that the dark cloud would soon lift, that the system would be defeated and as it happened that we would once more be united with our families and friends. This is the kind of contribution to human emancipation that cannot be over-emphasized. Sanctions no doubt play a huge and important part in the ultimate demise of illegitimate or oppressive regimes.”

Adri Nieuwhof is a human rights advocate based in the Netherlands, Bangani Ngeleza is a consultant based in South Africa. They contributed this article to EI.

End notes

  1. Jeroen Corduwener, “Een wereld van sancties,” Internationale Samenwerking, January 2001

  • Richard Moorsom, The scope for sanctions, London, Catholic Institute for International Relations, 1986
  • G.L. Klein, The role of anti-Apartheid organisations in the Netherlands, 1960-1995, University of Pretoria, 2001
  • Richard Hengeveld, Submission on Apartheid and the oil sector to the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, 4 September 1997


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