Sanctions Are the Price of Freedom : It’s Apartheid, Not Foreign Pressure, That Causes the Suffering

<i> The Rev. Allan Boesak is a founder of the United Democratic Front, South Africa's largest anti-apartheid organization</i>

As a black South African and a Christian, I must ask at this crucial moment in the freedom struggle in South Africa why some members of Congress and even the “liberal” U.S. press are refusing to support stronger economic sanctions against Pretoria.

The limited sanctions passed by Congress in 1986 and the House support on Thursday for comprehensive sanctions confirm my faith that the majority of the American people are with us in our struggle. Yet I am disturbed by editorials and legislation opposing sanctions, with an important Senate vote on comprehensive sanctions yet to come.

The white-minority government continues to choose a path that leads to more violence, instability and bloodshed. By imposing further restrictions, President Pieter W. Botha tried to seal the lid on a boiling caldron. Without positive change, this caldron is destined to explode. Last February the South African regime severely restricted 17 anti-apartheid organizations. In so doing it has closed off virtually all nonviolent avenues of opposition.


Having waited 40 years for a peaceful resolution to this institutionalized oppression, we now see our children shot down in the streets of Sharpeville, Soweto and Uitenhage and wasting away from malnutrition in the townships and Bantustans. We cannot and must not remain submissive, and some understandably resort to armed resistance. Without condemning their action, I continue to seek peaceful change.

Freedom for South Africans will ultimately be won by South Africans themselves. But the international community has a critical role to play in our struggle to eradicate apartheid. The United States, Great Britain, West Germany, Japan, France and Italy have imposed only limited sanctions against South Africa. For sanctions to be effective, they must be total, mandatory and monitored.

For that reason I support efforts by Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley) and Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) to pass comprehensive sanctions against South Africa.

Americans have witnessed the determination of the apartheid regime to escalate the level of violence and bloodshed since the 1986 sanctions were imposed, while the South African government, ironically, warns Americans that it is their sanctions that cause black suffering. The upshot is that some Americans are reluctant to support economic pressure. Americans would do better to remember that our people died in Sharpeville in 1960, in Soweto in 1976 and in countless incidents since not because of sanctions but because of police bullets. The majority of people in South Africa are asking for sanctions to bring a government guilty of these atrocities to the negotiation table, and they accept the associated hard-ship. There can be no liberation without suffering. History, including American history, is quite clear on this. Investment in and trade with South Africa have at no point spurred economic growth for blacks, nor will they end our pain and suffering.

Comprehensive sanctions will cause short-term economic distress and additional unemployment for black South Africans. We know that. But they are prices that we are willing to pay for our freedom. I am skeptical about the business community, which, when faced with the prospect of disinvestment legislation, is suddenly so concerned with the welfare of black South Africans, and I question its new-found and expedient social conscience. I am obliged to ask: Where were you when black people were suffering long before disinvestment became an issue? Where was your concern when we were not allowed to bring our wives and our children into urban areas to live as families? Where was your concern when we were forced off our lands and brought to the wastelands that the South African government calls “homelands”? Why can’t the business community be honest and say that its primary concern is for profits and not for people?

The South African government has made advocating sanctions a treasonable offense. This commentary could cost me a 10-year jail sentence, but I cannot watch my people suffer while I am silent. What price will American business pay to end apartheid?


It is apartheid, not sanctions, that causes incalculable suffering and agony in South Africa. Apartheid, not sanctions, keeps Nelson Mandela behind bars beyond his 70th birthday. Apartheid, not sanctions, continues to uproot people as the government again tightens restrictions on integrated neighborhoods.

The limited sanctions passed by Congress in 1986 are working in South Africa. Finance Minister Barend du Plessis, in presenting the budget to Parliament in March, indicated that sanctions were indeed hurting the economy. The resulting economic pressure led to a meeting between government officials, businessmen and the parliamentary opposition to discuss the future of South Africa--meaning that the limited economic pressure is bearing some fruit. Comprehensive sanctions by the United States and the international community, combined with internal resistance, will bear even more fruit.

Sanctions alone will not rid South Africa of apartheid. They are, however, part of a larger strategy, and are a definitive statement (economically, psychologically and morally) to black and white. Under the pressure of full sanctions, the South African government would be forced to reconsider its 13% budget expenditure on the military, as well as the expenditure of an additional 14% on apartheid schemes like the segregated homelands.

The implementation of comprehensive economic sanctions is just the first step on the road to abolishing apartheid. The United States and the international community can choose to use more economic and diplomatic pressure to bring about a solution, or they can choose to do nothing and watch as the South African government polarizes blacks and whites to the brink of still more violence.

No ruling power has ever in the history of the world voluntarily surrendered its power. For the sake of my people, impose comprehensive sanctions on South Africa. The only alternative is all-out war.