Tell me who you boycott and I’ll tell you who you are: On Indiana, S. Africa & N. Korea

As I write this, advocacy groups nationwide are recomposing the tested strategy of using economic isolation to coerce an oppressive, backward regime to improve its human rights practices. The regime, unfortunately, isn’t North Korea; it’s Indiana. That strategy, however, is a moral muscle memory to those of us who came of age as America and Europe mobilized to boycott and sanction apartheid out of existence. Then, when President Reagan came out for “constructive engagement” with South Africa, he was met with such universal outrage that congressional Republicans abandoned him and overrode his veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. Until F.W. de Klerk put South Africa irreversibly on the path to democracy, breaking the cultural or economic boycotts would have been career suicide for any celebrity, and would have risked a shareholder revolt in any corporation.

By May of 1990, however, Nelson Mandela was a free man, and South Africa was on that path, irreversibly. By then, it did not trouble my conscience to accept a temporary job there. I arrived there just late enough to watch apartheid die from the vantage of a conservative mining town just outside Johannesburg, one repeal at a time, but just soon enough to witness a system that was grossly unjust, profoundly loathsome, and only recently and reluctantly self-aware of this. The best thing that could be said of it was that it was a far cry from North Korea.

So it has always been. Tell me what you boycott and I’ll know what you hate; tell me what you hate and I’ll know what you believe; tell me what you believe and I’ll know who you are. I might even tell you.

In 1986, half of the Republicans in Congress (including then-freshman Sen. Mitch McConnell) defied President Reagan and voted to override his veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which imposed a wide range of trade and economic sanctions against South Africa, but relatively few financial sanctions. On that occasion, Edward “Ted” Kennedy, the Senate’s most important proponent of that legislation, said, “The Senate’s action today expressed the best ideals of the American people. The message to countries all over the world is, the United States will lead, and we’re proud to lead.” Can anyone imagine Jim Webb or Rand Paul saying such a thing today without recognizing it as a strip-tease of burlesque electoral cynicism?

Reading the text of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act today, I’m struck by the similarity of strategies between that bill and the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, although the bills’ specific legal authorities are very different.

Ted Kennedy’s leadership of anti-apartheid sanctions legislation is one of the issues where history remembers him the most fondly today. History has been less kind to Ronald Reagan’s opposition to it. Today, Ted and Bobby Kennedy’s anti-apartheid legacy carries on, through the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, which has emerged as the strongest liberal force for sanctions against North Korea. Say what you will about the Kennedy family — and no one will accuse it of political neutrality — but it’s hard to argue with the moral consistency of those positions on both South Africa and North Korea. Nothing speaks more highly of their principle than the fact that they’ve pressed the Senate to pass legislation that was drafted at the direction of a conservative Republican Committee Chair, Ed Royce.

Don’t tell me the sanctions didn’t work against South Africa. They certainly did not work in the way that North Korea sanctions would, but to many of the white South Africans I met then, the prospect of rugby and football matches against New Zealand and Australia did much to compensate for their fears about their future as a minority among an empowered majority. South Africans were also sensitive about their nation’s image, as all people are, and as Koreans are to a far greater degree than most. Yes, many South Africans expressed their resentment of the sanctions, but they also grudgingly accepted the importance of lifting them. That acceptance allowed de Klerk to win the general election of 1989 and the referendum of 1992 (by which time change was a fait accompli).

There are, of course, more differences than similarities between North Korea and South Africa. The former oligarchy is far more determined, malignant, and violent, but it is also more vulnerable to financial isolation. Unlike South Africa, North Korea does not sit on mountains of gold, diamonds, and platinum, and it has a relatively greater reliance on the hard currency that runs through our banking system.

From a strictly moral perspective, there is no principled argument that it was unjust to engage the apartheid regime, yet just to engage North Korea’s. For all its evils, apartheid did not consign hundreds of thousands of people to political prison camps, or starve a million or two to death. For that matter, North Korea is every bit as racist as South Africa ever was, and even manages to have its own system for imprisoning a majority of its people in economic injustice, poverty, and hunger from the cradle to the grave. (It also compounds the sins of mass starvation, domestic terror, arbitrary execution, and democide with both sexism and homophobia.) Despite the world’s unfocused outrage, North Korea denies the very commission of its crimes against humanity, a nearly sure sign that it means to go on perpetuating them, as long as we allow it to.

Let’s also be clear about this: all foreigners in North Korea are engaging with the regime — either intelligence agents, or a hand-picked elite beholden to its preservation and enrichment. Those who claim to be engaging with “ordinary” North Koreans are either fooling themselves, or trying to fool you. 

To me, however, the most striking thing about the comparison between South Africa then and North Korea now is the extent to which the arguments about engagement and isolation mirror each other, except with their polarities reversed. Today, it is conservative Republican Ed Royce who is the conscience of the Congress on North Korea policy, who is leading a bi-partisan coalition to isolate North Korea, and who is challenging the cynicism of the State Department. Below the fold, I’ve reprinted liberal Democratic Representative William Gray’s response to President Reagan on anti-apartheid sanctions. At one point, Gray even invokes North Korea sanctions (which then included sanctions under the Trading With the Enemy Act) as a comparison to those against South Africa.


Published: July 23, 1986

Following are excerpts from the Democratic response yesterday to President Reagan’s speech in Washington on South Africa, as delivered by Representative William H. Gray 3d and recorded by The New York Times:

Good afternoon. Today President Reagan declared the United States and Great Britain co-guarantors of apartheid. By joining Mrs. Thatcher in opposing economic sanctions, the President protects Pretoria from the one weapon it fears most.

The President failed to recognize what the American public, the Congress and the world community have known for a long time – the Administration’s policies in South Africa have failed.

In 1985 the Congress bipartisanly passed the Anti-Apartheid Act, changing our policy and opposing sanctions. The President, through executive order, adopted weaker measures and asked Congress to wait nine months. We have waited, but conditions have worsened. That is why just one month ago the House of Representatives passed the toughest possible economic sanctions: total disinvestment and a trade embargo, the measures we already have imposed on Cuba, North Korea, Cambodia and Libya. However, the President tells us that sanctions will only hurt the blacks, the people we are trying to help.

But blacks have suffered for years, not because of sanctions, but because of apartheid. They suffer because by law they cannot vote. They suffer because they are 72 percent of the population squeezed onto 13 percent of South Africa’s most barren land. They suffer because they can be arrested without charge or trial.

More than 6,000 blacks have been detained in the past month alone. They are allowed no contact with lawyers or families. The Government refuses to even identify the detainees. Under a sweeping state of emergency, they simply have disappeared. Killings, detentions, people disappearing – a modern-day Holocaust is unfolding before our very eyes. Against such a backdrop, how can sanctions hurt black South Africans when apartheid is killing them? Jobs Versus Justice

Out of 28 million black South Africans, only 47,000 – one tenth of 1 percent – hold jobs with American companies. These numbers alone tell us that the issue in South Africa is not jobs, but the loss of life and the denial of justice. Archbishop Tutu, Reverend Boesak, Doctor Naude, Winnie Mandela, countless other South African leaders have pleaded with us to impose sanctions and raise the cost of apartheid – even the labor union leaders.

The Eminent Persons Group, representing 49 Commonwealth nations, urges economic sanctions as the only remaining non-violent pressure for change. The governments of six other nations surrounding South Africa have issued a joint statement supporting sanctions as the means to help end apartheid, even if it means some hardship for their own nations and economies. They all recognize that without economic sanctions, without pressure, without increasing the cost of apartheid, there is no reason for South Africa to dismantle apartheid.

President Reagan tells us that sanctions don’t work. Why then have we imposed sanctions against Libya, Nicaragua, Poland and Cuba, and some 20 nations throughout the world? Those sanctions express our profound distaste of the policies and the actions of those nations. We imposed them not because we thought they would bring down those Governments, but to disassociate us from all that those Governments stand for while raising the cost of behavior we abhor.

Why not South Africa? Why the double standard? That’s the question the oppressed majority keeps asking the land of freedom and liberty.

The President says our strategic interests would be jeopardized if violent elements assume power in South Africa, but the President’s own policies put our strategic interests at risk. He condemns apartheid but he refuses to back it with meaningful action. In doing so he gives black South Africans no choice but to accept support from other nations who offer it. That does not serve our long-term strategic interests. That does not put us on the side of the future in South Africa. The Fight for Freedom

The President has always stressed a single message in his foreign policy. That message is strength. Why does he refuse to show strength toward South Africa? The President has preached that the Reagan doctrine is to fight for freedom wherever it is denied. Why is the doctrine being denied in Pretoria? Where is that doctrine in Cape Town, in Port Elizabeth, in the hellholes of Crossroads and Soweto?

What is needed is not simply a condemnation of apartheid, while we provide economic support for South Africa’s oppression through our loans and investments. What is needed is a new policy that clearly dissociates us from apartheid and calls for the complete dismantlement of that system, not cosmetic reforms.

Our policy must demand the release of all political prisoners and the start of negotiations between the black majority and the white minority to develop a timetable for full democracy, which is one person, one vote. We agree with the President on that.

The policies of this Administration, known as constructive engagement, clearly have not achieved these bipartisanly endorsed goals. Therefore, we are asking the question: Where is the progress that our President tells us about? Where is the influence when South African police are killing more blacks now than ever before?

Where is our influence when the regime keeps behind bars, bans or banishes the leaders with the widest popular support, including Nelson Mandela? Where is our influence when President Botha rejects President Reagan’s personal request not to impose a new emergency restriction?

Today the President sent a message to South Africa. To the racist majority regime of Pretoria he said, ”We are your friends, don’t cut our friendship off. We want your minerals. We want to work with you and continue our investments and loans.” Then the President said to the 28 million majority, whose rights have been denied, whose lives are being lost and whom justice is being denied, ”Maintain your hope, but do nothing to end that oppression.” Is this the message of America? Have we not learned from Nuremburg what will happen in Johannesburg? And why the Western democracies must raise the cost and totally disassociate from apartheid if we are to accomplish our goals?

Thank you.