The United Nations (UN) was founded on the 24th October 1945 following World War II, which was marked by an estimated 70 to 85 million fatalities and included the Holocaust, which saw some six million Jewish people – around two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population – murdered because of their ethnicity.
On the 10th December 1948 the UN proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights of all peoples and all nations which were to be universally protected. Article Two of the Declaration states that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.
As such the principles of apartheid were the antithesis of those of the United Nations although South Africa was one of the original 51 founding members of the UN. From 1952 onwards, the issue of apartheid was brought before every session of the General Assembly, until finally, following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid was established on the 6th November 1962. The UN General Assembly and Security Council adopted no less than 27 resolutions condemning South Africa’s racial policies, and took the first steps towards the imposition of collective sanctions by recommending specific measures against South Africa, including “boycotting all South African goods and refraining from exporting goods, including arms and ammunition, to South Africa”.
In response, most of Africa, Asia, and a number of socialist European countries stopped trading with South Africa. By the time the 1963 session of the General Assembly was convened, 46 countries had formally severed all trade, political and other relations with South Africa, with another 21 countries publicly declaring that they had ended their trade and political relations with the country. Over half of the countries of the world had responded to the call for sanctions, and yet the South African economy continued to boom?
The 1963 session of the General Assembly added to its 1962 recommendation for sanctions by calling upon member states to stop the supply of oil to South Africa. The resolution was adopted by a majority of 84 to six, but unfortunately the six members who voted against the resolution included the United States, Britain and France, at the time the only suppliers of oil to South Africa.
While the majority of the world put their might behind the anti-apartheid struggle, North America and Western Europe continued trading with the apartheid government and between 1962 and 1963 these countries increased their exports to South Africa by well over a quarter, and continued to maintain their high volume of imports of South African products, responsible for over 60% of South Africa’s exports. So, what South Africa had lost through the trade boycott of the African, Asian and socialist countries, was more than replaced by the increased economic cooperation it received from the imperialist states.
In a memorandum to the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid, dated April 1964, Dr Yusuf Dadoo of the South African Indian Congress, addressed this vital issue:
I refer particularly to a few governments who would have us believe that they are the bastions of the free world, but who at the same time clutch South Africa to their protective bosoms. They endeavour to render ineffective the resolve of the vast majority of mankind to put an end to the shame of apartheid. The “Saracen” armoured cars, the machine guns and rifles which left 70 dead at Sharpeville and which are still used to answer every legitimate expression of political opposition, have their origin in the arms factories of these very countries.
Countries like Britain and the United States of America who make profit out of apartheid and who attempt to undermine every real effort for United Nations action are as much a part of this regime as if they were actually sitting in its executive councils.”
While there was significant public resistance to apartheid, such as the the UK’s Anti-Apartheid Movement, which became one of the most powerful international solidarity movements in history, the British, along with the American government, persistently voted against attempts to impose sanctions against South Africa.
It was only in the 1980s, some 20 years after the UN’s resolution to adopt sanctions, that these two economic power houses gave in to public pressure and started restricting trade with the South African government. In 1986, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act was enacted by the United States Congress, imposing sanctions against South Africa, and between 1986 and 1988 as many as 55 British companies sold off their subsidiaries in South Africa, with the number of British companies investing in South Africa falling by an impressive 20%. Within a few years the South African economy was brought to its knees and, on the 2nd February 1990, President FW de Klerk unbanned the ANC and began peace talks for a negotiated settlement to end apartheid.
The obvious question, which seems relatively easy to answer, is what would have happened had the West taken action sooner? What would the outcome had been had they listened to the words of Dr Yusuf Dadoo in 1964:
It is no longer a question of whether there will be a clash. It is a question of when and how many lives will be lost or ruined. A shirking by the nations of the world of their responsibilities will not, in the long run, prevent the inevitable victory of the people. It will make the coming struggle more protracted, more bitter and more bloody.