Sanctions against apartheid were effective

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: (Published 14 October 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:1025
  1. Raymond Hoffenberg
  1. Professor of medical ethics PO Box 129, Royal Brisbane Hospital, University of Queensland, Queensland 4029, Australia

    EDITOR,--Ralph Crawshaw has taken advantage of a book review to offer a diatribe about the sanctions applied to South Africa in the days of apartheid.1 In general, sanctions are regarded as an acceptable and at times effective instrument to bring about change, hence their application against Iraq, against Shell in the fiasco over the Brent Spar oil rig, and currently by many countries against France for continued nuclear testing. It is almost universally agreed that sanctions played a major part in achieving change in South Africa, which might not otherwise have occurred without serious violence, if not civil war.

    Although Crawshaw seems to agree that economic sanctions were most effective, his condemnation is aimed at the application of academic sanctions. Over the years the same objections were voiced about art, theatre, music, literature, and, especially, sport. The inclusion of all elements was critical in inducing a change in thinking. South Africans got tired of being the pariahs of the world and eagerly grasped de Klerk and Mandela's initiative when it was offered.

    While Crawshaw expresses sympathy with South African scholars who “experienced 20 years of frustration, anger, fear, and damaged self esteem,” could he for a moment put himself in the position of the country's 80% black population, who suffered all of these emotions--and more--for three centuries, as well as the ravages of poor or no education, housing, nutrition, and health care? Overwhelmingly, black people supported sanctions.

    Contrary to the rather silly editorial that Crawshaw quotes from the Cape Times, “the campaign” (for sanctions) did not play into the hands of the “destructive right-wing,” which is now an irrelevant force in South Africa. Rather, it led to the emergence of the remarkable Nelson Mandela and his government of reconciliation and the appointment of the able new minister for health, Dr Nkosazana Zuma. Like so many academics and professionals who were opposed to apartheid, she was forced into exile and suffered far more than mere “damaged self esteem.”

    Having publicly supported sanctions for over 30 years (even while I was an academic in South Africa), I now take the opposite view and urge the strongest possible links--academic or other--with the country to help repair the damage of the past and build the sort of country free of prejudice that most South Africans wish to see.