Council Puts S. Africa Question on Ballot as a ‘Gift’ to Mandela


In a gesture of support for Nelson Mandela, the Los Angeles City Council came to work early Friday and decided to place before voters a proposal that would toughen the city’s anti-apartheid measures by banning nearly all city contracts with firms that do business with South Africa.

The council voted unanimously for the proposed change at a special 8:30 a.m. meeting, ordering the city attorney’s office to draft a ballot measure that is expected to go before the voters in November.

The proposal calls for an amendment to the City Charter that would disqualify companies and individuals from bidding on city contracts if they have business ties with South Africa.

“This city has always stood for individual freedom and human rights,” said Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who sponsored the proposal with Councilman Robert Farrell. Flores called the proposal “a gift . . . we can give to Mr. Mandela to take back with him to the people of South Africa.”


An ordinance approved in 1986 imposed a partial South African ban that applied largely to contracts of $25,000 or less--about 10% of the contracts granted by the city. The city awards about $296 million in contracts each year, but only $27 million worth fall under the current ordinance.

The new proposal, first made last September, languished in a City Council committee for nine months, but was revived last Monday and quickly sent to the full council in time for it to be passed just hours before Mandela arrived at City Hall.

If the voters approve the Charter amendment, it would affect some of the country’s largest businesses, including IBM Corp., General Motors Corp., Xerox Corp. and General Electric Co., all of which bid on and hold contracts with the city of Los Angeles.

Bill Ott, a Los Angeles spokesman for General Motors, said that the company and its chairman, Roger Smith, have long had a “major commitment” to the use of economic sanctions against the South African government. He said that GM had no comment Friday on the action taken by the City Council.


A spokesman for IBM said the company could not comment until it had a chance to study the language of the proposed charter change.

Attempts to reach spokesmen for the other companies were unsuccessful Friday.

No company representatives spoke against the proposed ballot measure during the brief council debate.

The four companies have sold off their South African subsidiaries, but all still have distribution or licensing agreements in South Africa, which would make them ineligible to bid on contracts under the proposed measure.

Although the vote was unanimous Friday, there was a brief period of controversy as Councilman Nate Holden complained that too many exemptions had been granted over the last four years. The 1986 ordinance has been amended twice to cut down on exemptions, but some are still necessary, city officials said.

The council has approved 13 exemptions since 1986 and city departments have granted 1,200, according to George Wolfberg, who works in the city administrative office.

Wolfberg told the council that the most recent exemptions have gone to the Salvation Army for a homeless project, to two banks that would have been disqualified under a “technicality” because they had old, outstanding loans to South African ventures, and to the owners of some property where the Fire Department needed to place signal relaying equipment.