Gloria Steinem was right about isolation (of South Africa)

Gloria Steinem can look back on a life of activism that has built deep reserves of good will among many people. Steinem must have spent heavily from those reserves last week, when Women Cross DMZ attracted largely critical media coverage (and I suspect, an even more critical public reaction). As NK News informs us, its events were stamped from the same propaganda assembly line as those put on for the clown-shod Quisling Alejandro Cao de Benos.

To what end would Steinem jeopardize that good will by entangling herself with a regime that treats women the way Pyongyang does, and whose state media ejaculate this level of misogyny? Steinem’s answer is interesting and telling: “The example of the isolation of the Soviet Union or other examples of isolation haven’t worked very well in my experience.” A prepared (but not as well edited) statement by Women Cross DMZ was on-message: “If history has taught us anything, it is that isolating people only alienates them.”

But Gloria Steinem clearly didn’t believe this on December 19, 1984, when she was arrested outside the South African Embassy while protesting against Ronald Reagan’s “policy of seeking change in South Africa through quiet diplomacy.” The demonstrations were coordinated by the lobby TransAfrica, which led America’s (and ultimately, the world’s) movement to isolate South Africa, and to force it to repeal its apartheid laws.

I first learned this bit of trivia from an article in the agitprop site Foreign Policy in Focus, to which Women Cross DMZ organizer Christine Ahn is a frequent contributor. An article there by Francis Njubi Nesbitt, “The Peoples’ Sanctions,” reminds us that Steinem once joined a movement that targeted “South African consulates, federal buildings, coin shops that dealt in gold Krugerrand coins, and businesses with South African interests . . . to cut apartheid South Africa off from the rest of the world.”

By the 1980s, most of the world’s countries had imposed political, economic, and military sanctions on the South African regime. The exceptions were South Africa’s major trading partners: the United States and Britain. These countries disingenuously argued that sanctions would hurt black Africans most.

In the United States, however, a vigorous grassroots movement demanded that cities, states, pension funds, banks, and universities divest their resources from companies doing business in South Africa, making it a liability for anyone to do business in the racially segregated state. Eventually, international corporations pulled out in a massive exodus that helped to bring down the apartheid system. [FPIF]

So deep was the connection Steinem built to the anti-Apartheid movement that she later married David Bale, a South African-born anti-Apartheid activist, and the father of actor Christian Bale.

Anyone who lived through the 1980s knew that enforcement of the People’s Sanctions was as much a function of social pressure as it was of law. Then, breaking the boycott of South Africa would have been career suicide for any celebrity, and would have risked a shareholder revolt in any corporation. Yet although Apartheid-era South Africa was banned from most sporting events, North Korea was welcome at the 2010 World Cup … in Johannesburg. “Constructive engagement” with North Korea falls within the acceptable norms of hipster chic, and attracts press coverage that, if not wholly sympathetic, certainly isn’t unsympathetic. The author Mark Bowden wrote a lengthy article that was largely devoted to the charms of Kim Jong Un’s hospitality, as if this trait were more revealing of Kim’s misunderstood nature than his tendencies to starve his citizens and slaughter his minions.

By any objective standard, North Korea’s human rights abuses vastly exceed those of South Africa, yet as our friends in Europe are coming to realize, North Korea shows no glimmer of “engagement” aimed at moderating, much less ending, those abuses. Reading Nesbitt’s article, one can’t help observing (again!) how much the political polarities in the contest over South Africa policy have reversed on the question of North Korea.

What explains this disparity? Was it racism that made Apartheid uniquely evil? North Korea is almost certainly more racist than South Africa ever was. For all the petty racism one could see during Apartheid’s death-rattle, its state media would not have called a foreign leader “a monkey in a tropical forest,” “a crossbreed of unclear blood,” or “an ugly subhuman.” Whatever you think about the recent clamor to isolate Indiana, no public official this side of Kampala could survive calling a respected jurist “a disgusting old lecher with 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality.”

Today (as then) most of us accept that the liberals were right about South Africa policy. Nesbitt goes on to narrate the history of how economic isolation brought down Apartheid. He hails decisions by Citibank and Chase Manhattan to refuse the South African government short-term credit, which had “a devastating effect on South Africa’s economy.” He is rightfully triumphal about the passage of the Comprehensive Anti-apartheid Act in 1986, when half the Republicans in Congress joined Ted Kennedy to override President Reagan’s veto. He writes that Congress later “strengthened sanctions against South Africa, banning all trade, investment, and bank loans.” He tells how U.S. leadership inspired Europe to impose its own sanctions, which “meant total isolation for the apartheid regime” and brought South Africa’s economy to “the verge of collapse” within months. All of this was very much to the good, and Steinem is rightfully praised for her role in this movement, even today.

To Nesbitt, it was isolation that eventually forced F.W. DeKlerk to negotiate the end of apartheid. This rings mostly true, though not entirely. I arrived in South Africa in May of 1990 for a summer job in the mines, three months after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. I did not see an economy on “the verge of collapse,” but an economy that was steady, yet punch drunk and bleeding, and a population (regardless of race) that was tired of being ostracized from global sporting events and culture. South Africa sits on vast deposits of gold, platinum, and other minerals, so it might have resisted sanctions for another decade or more, but sanctions had broken the will of most of the white minority to resist, and encouraged the black majority to defy Apartheid. North Korea, by comparison, has a greater will to resist, but fewer means to do so for long. When the U.S. imposed financial sanctions on North Korea in 2005, Kim Jong Il defied demands to disarm for a little more than a year before agreeing to them.

One final point on the subject of hypocrisy: the organizer of Women Cross DMZ, Christine Ahn, supports a movement to divest from Israel. Never let it be said, then, that Ahn and Steinem are philosophically opposed to isolating regimes they despise. Having exhausted all principled distinctions, we can only wonder if there might be less principled ones.

1 Comment

  1. I think it was the white-black optics of South Africa that made its racism such a powerful element in that fight. Since everyone is the same color in North Korea, its racism seems to become invisible. Very frustrating.




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