Lessons From the Campaign for Sanctions on Apartheid South Africa

Poster protesting against the planned 1970 Springboks cricket tour of England and Wales. The tour was called off after widespread protests. This image was provided by the AAM Archives Committee. Source: africanactivist.msu.edu Poster protesting against the planned 1970 Springboks cricket tour of England and Wales. The tour was called off after widespread protests. This image was provided by the AAM Archives Committee. Source: africanactivist.msu.edu

Campaigns for freedom usually seem impossible at the start and inevitably successful at their conclusion. It has become common for opponents of the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign to insist that it cannot emulate the success of the fight to isolate apartheid South Africa. The South African sanctions campaign, we are frequently told, enjoyed moral legitimacy in the West which the Palestinian cause is denied. BDS is thus doomed to fail. This shows deep ignorance of the obstacles which the South African campaign overcame.

“There is no reason why BDS should not achieve the same results as the campaign for sanctions against apartheid”


In the United States, anti-apartheid campaigners faced a policy environment in which a memorandum by then national security adviser Henry Kissinger had committed the Nixon administration to offering covert support to apartheid South Africa. As late as the mid-1980s, the Reagan Administration’s policy of ‘constructive engagement’ relied on talking politely to, rather than placing pressure on, the apartheid state. In Britain, the Thatcher government resisted sanctioning South Africa throughout the apartheid period.

The popular campaign in South Africa helped change the country not because of advantageous conditions,  but because activism and political action turned a hostile climate into one which was conducive. External conditions mattered - campaigns must always deal with obstacles not of their own making. Conditions in the West and Southern African sometimes aided or obstructed this campaign. But without activism and the strategies that underpinned it, apartheid might still exist.

The obvious message to Palestine is that obstacles can be overcome and political climates can be changed. While no campaign can be a model because circumstances change, the South African campaign offers important lessons for its Palestinian equivalent.

Too Important for Governments: A Citizens’ Campaign

The campaign for sanctions against apartheid was initiated by different groups in different countries using different tactics. But it always had two features in common – it was most effective when it relied on citizens rather than governments and was linked, openly or discreetly, to South African resistance organisations, primarily the African National Congress (ANC).

The ANC decided even before it was banned in 1960 that an international campaign against white domination would be crucial. In Britain and much of Western Europe, pressure for sanctions was launched directly by exiled members of South African resistance movements, who formed links with British activist groups, trade unions and churches. In the United States, the ANC was far less visible. Instead, the initiative was taken by civil rights campaigners who saw a link between the African American condition and that of black South Africans – demands for action against apartheid were voiced almost from the beginning of the movement for racial justice in America but grew substantially as resistance within South Africa grew. The ANC presence was less obvious in the United States, but it maintained links with sanctions activists.

In some countries, the campaign did enjoy government support – India imposed sanctions shortly after it became independent while the African and Asian states of the non-aligned movement, and Scandinavian states such as Sweden, were supportive throughout. But none of these countries had leverage over the apartheid state – its sources of sustenance were in North America and Western Europe where governments opposed sanctions.

In the United States, activists began by lobbying government, but the campaign only began to gain ground when it began to rely on activism by citizens’ groups. Its high points were the 1985 decision by Citibank to call in loans to the apartheid government and the 1986 passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. In both victories, citizens’ campaigns helped to persuade reluctant bankers and politicians that the costs of supporting apartheid outweighed the benefits.

In Western Europe and North America, the campaign relied on winning over public opinion: an environment was created in which it became embarrassing to be seen to support apartheid. This ensured the passage of the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid law despite opposition from Reagan who was forced to give way by a rebellion in his own party .

It was essential to frame the campaign in moral terms because only this would persuade citizens that events on the Southern tip of Africa were important and that support for apartheid was indefensible. The campaign had some advantages, such as public disdain towards state-imposed racism following Hitler’s defeat and the end of the colonial era in Africa. But this did not make success inevitable. A climate of opinion that raised the costs of supporting apartheid was a product of activism, not an advantage it enjoyed at the start.

Throughout this, the fact that black South Africans were represented by identifiable leaders and organisations added to the campaign’s effectiveness. Figures such as Albert Luthuli and Oliver Tambo, ANC presidents in the period just before and after it was banned, could speak to people in the West about the morality of their cause countering the image of the anti-apartheid resistance as a group of savage terrorists (The depth of prejudice against the resistance movements is illustrated by the fact that, years after democracy was achieved, the internationally renowned Nelson Mandela remained on a United States list naming him as a member of a terrorist organisation until his 90th birthday in 2008!).

An organized movement is not necessary to produce persuasive public figures, but the fact that South African sanctions centered on demands raised by an identifiable organisation made the campaign’s aim seem achievable, not vague wishful thinking. Additionally, identifiable leadership meant the activists’ campaign could rally behind clear demands. These factors helped ensure that a movement which began life as a collection of activists on the margins of society became one of the key pressures that would destroy apartheid.

Implications for Palestine


“Why do Western academics and organisations committed to democracy promotion insist that everyone should be entitled to elect a government of their choice – except Palestinians? The reasons are complex but one factor is surely the extent to which Israel is a deeply rooted symbol of Western civilization and Palestine an equally deep exemplar of threat.”

It should be apparent that the anti-apartheid campaign has two key strategic implications for Palestine’s BDS campaign.

The firstis the importance of framing the campaign in a manner that can appeal to citizens of the countries on which the Israeli state relies for support. This presents two related challenges. One is the frequent representation of Palestinian demands as an expression of an Islamic campaign to destroy the West – just as anti-apartheid movements were portrayed as blood-thirsty communists. These attitudes may seem to be restricted to the far-right fringes of Europe and America. In reality, they may be deeply rooted in the consciousness of ‘moderates’ and liberals too. Why has Palestine become the scandal of Western liberalism, in the sense that liberals support the right of everyone everywhere to human rights – except Palestinians? Why do Western academics and organisations committed to democracy promotion insist that everyone should be entitled to elect a government of their choice – except Palestinians? The reasons are complex but one factor is surely the extent to which Israel is a deeply rooted symbol of Western civilization and Palestine an equally deep exemplar of threat.

The BDS movement needs public figures who can address the conflict in a language mainstream Western opinion understands. Like the South African campaign, it will meet resistance but can defeat it – if it is able to frame a message which can convince the unconvinced.

One lesson of the South African experience is that words are not enough – cultural resources such as music, posters, and T-shirts are crucial. And humour is an important asset because people are less threatened by those who joke (One of the hardest-hitting posters of the campaign for sanctions against a touring South African cricket team pictured a white policeman beating up a black demonstrator. The caption read: ‘If you could see their national sport, you might be less keen to see their cricket’.).

A second obstacle is a widespread tendency in media reportage and public debate to see the conflict as one between two ethnic groups squabbling over land. This may be the most common understanding in the West shared by many who wish Palestinians no harm. People are unlikely to take a moral stand if they think they are simply choosing sides in a fight over real estate.  

The conflict needs, therefore, to be framed as one in which one group dominates another and deprives it of basic rights – a clear moral issue. This tends to ‘South Africanize’ the conflict by drawing the link between apartheid and the domination of Palestinians. It is almost trite to point out that this worries the Israeli state the most – which is why it devotes so much effort to denying the analogy.

While this dynamic is well-known among BDS activists, a second strain of Israel’s response is less discussed but equally important. Defenders of the Israeli state discredit the South African sanctions campaign by claiming that, as a result, it installed a greedy black government which lords it over whites and blacks. This element sometimes crops up in attacks on BDS. If the BDS campaign succeeds in presenting the conflict as an apartheid-like case, it seems likely that the skewed portrayal of post-apartheid governments will be stressed more loudly, creating a common challenge for South Africans and the BDS campaign.

More may be required than a simple comparison with the South African case. BDS is silent on whether the campaign seeks a separate Palestinian state or a shared democracy. This broadens support and may be a strategic necessity. But a framing of the conflict which envisages two groups living apart is likely to strengthen the belief that the issue is really one over ethnic-based control over land. The campaign’s strategists will have to consider how they convey the message that the problem is of one group dominating another in what should be a shared space.    

There are other important strategic implications of a campaign that requires the support of citizens. The need to form alliances is crucial - excluding anyone who is not considered sympathetic enough to the cause is damaging. Similarly, moral purism is likely to weaken the campaign – morality attracts supporters, moralizing repels them. A successful BDS campaign will need to reach out to many who have been ignored and seek out engagement with many who have been avoided.

The secondissue raised by the South African experience is, of course, organization. BDS at present is a campaign, not an organization. That is a strength if it makes room for the energies of many more people. But it is a weakness if there is no organization which acts as a focal point for campaigners. The campaign will not liberate Palestinians on its own: its role is to force the Israeli state to a balanced negotiation table. But to negotiate with whom? There is no answer yet. Until there is, it seems likely that BDS will remain a protest rather than a movement for change.

“The campaign will not liberate Palestinians on its own: its role is to force the Israeli state to a balanced negotiation table. But to negotiate with whom?”

Organization was important in South Africa in another way too. Sanctions did not replace mobilisation against apartheid within South Africa – indeed, they fed off of it. As domestic resistance grew, so did the power of the sanctions campaign. While the ANC was not in direct control of this mobilization, most of those who participated were loyal to it and this helped to ensure that the internal and international campaigns complemented each other. BDS will need to be complemented by organized resistance within Palestine if it is to succeed.        

Realizing the Promise

Despite the obstacles which the fight for Palestinian freedom faces, a South African-style sanctions campaign is not only necessary, but also possible.

A boycott, divestment or sanctions campaign is necessary because one of the many parallels between the Palestinian and South African conflicts is that the dominators are militarily strong, but politically vulnerable. Palestinians will not be freed by weapons –apartheid could have survived a military assault indefinitely and so can the Israeli state. But they can be freed by effective politics.

BDS may be even more important in Palestine than the sanctions campaign was in South Africa. It is frequently pointed out that black South Africans had one weapon which Palestinians lack –that the dominators needed their labour. This created opportunities for organisation which may not be feasible in Palestine. There are many possibilities for grassroots Palestinian mobilization which could be developed and, as in the South African case, these are essential to strengthening the campaign. But the fact that the Israeli economy is not dependant on Palestinian labour may mean that the international BDS campaign is even more important than in South Africa.


“the fact that the Israeli economy is not dependant on Palestinian labour may mean that the international BDS campaign is even more important than in South Africa.”

Despite the constraints which BDS faces, the South African experience shows that unfavourable power balances can be altered by effective citizens’ campaigns. Building a BDS movement which can duplicate the South African success will require a new politics and new organizing – it will need important changes in the way Palestinian resistance is conducted. But, if the campaign makes the adjustments towards which the South African experience points, and it is acknowledged that even successful campaigns take decades to succeed, there is no reason why BDS should not achieve the same result as the campaign for sanctions against apartheid.