In an acknowledgment of democratic reforms under way in South Africa, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to end its anti-apartheid policy, which directed tens of millions of dollars away from companies doing business in the country.
The policy--which divested city pension funds from South Africa and disallowed contracting with companies doing business there--took effect in August, 1986. It made Los Angeles one of the first U.S. cities to take a strong stand against the white-controlled South African government.
“When you combine what we did with what the rest of the country did, the sanction movement packed quite a wallop,” said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who authored the law. “There were companies that ceased and desisted their business in South Africa to do business with us. It was an economic noose around South Africa’s neck.”
But officials acknowledged that the city policy often interfered with normal contracting and resulted in 3,549 exemptions totaling millions of dollars in the past seven years.
Councilman Nate Holden questioned the policy’s effectiveness because officials overrode it so often.
“The policy prompted good discussions in the council,” Holden said.
Exemptions over $500 were granted if the council deemed it in the best interest of the city or if the company in question offered substantially higher quality than its competitors. Small contracts, which accounted for most of the exemptions, could be awarded by department heads.
In August, a company with indirect ties to South Africa was selected for a $3-million contract managing the seismic and historical upgrade of City Hall. The debate prompted even staunch advocates of the city’s tough anti-apartheid policy to question whether its usefulness had passed because democratic reforms were being negotiated in South Africa.
Still, officials said Los Angeles took a strong and early stand against South Africa’s racist practices and today ought to be just as quick in acknowledging change in the country.
“When Los Angeles passed this, very few government entities and pension funds had done this,” Yaroslavsky said. “It was really blazing some new trails. We went far beyond what others did and really led the sanctions movement.”