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Recently, journalists and scholars have remarked on the double standards and racism embedded in U.S. foreign policy. They point to the United States’ swift denunciation of Russian atrocities in Ukraine, which have been described as shocking because they have occurred in “civilized” Europe. Meanwhile, similar atrocities in the global south are often all but ignored.

In the same vein, the United States and Western Europe have been quick to deploy strong sanctions against Russia. Yet historically, they have rejected or delayed enacting economic penalties against regimes whose atrocities were committed against Black populations.

For example, even as a chorus of voices — including the international community, significant movements within the United States and local activists — called for sanctions against the White minority-ruled states of South Africa and Rhodesia, which exploited and killed Africans, the United States declined to act or responded only slowly. This gave the White regimes time to redirect their economies before sanctions were imposed. The reasons for this disparity are rooted in White supremacy, geopolitics and greed.

During the Cold War, the United States valued the White-ruled colonies of Southern Africa as dependable anti-communist allies and good business opportunities. Whereas most African colonies won their independence in the 1960s, the White-ruled territories of South Africa, Rhodesia and South African-occupied Namibia clung tenaciously to power.

The United States collaborated with the White-ruled governments to guarantee their security and to protect U.S. investments, trade and access to strategic minerals. By 1981, the United States accounted for 20 percent of South Africa’s total foreign investments. U.S. corporations controlled the most strategic sectors of South Africa’s economy: 33 percent of the motor vehicles market, 44 percent of the petroleum products market and 70 percent of the computer market. Even more significant was the transfer of U.S. technology and expertise, which helped develop South Africa’s nuclear and military programs. U.S. bank loans allowed South Africa to build its military, stockpile oil and finance major infrastructure projects, further entrenching White power.

Turning the tide against U.S. support for South Africa took enormous effort. The African National Congress — South Africa’s most significant liberation movement — first called for worldwide economic sanctions against the apartheid regime in 1959. With the exception of a voluntary arms embargo imposed in 1963 and mandatory arms embargo imposed in 1977, the United States vetoed all U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions for more than three decades.

In cases where sanctions were applied, significant loopholes remained. During the John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson administrations, the United States continued to supply South Africa with armaments “for defense against external threats” — including anti-apartheid insurgents with outside support — as well as spare parts for military craft and highly-enriched uranium for Pretoria’s U.S.-built nuclear reactor. The Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations relaxed compliance with the voluntary arms embargo, encouraging trade and investment, and intensifying nuclear collaboration. The Jimmy Carter administration made exceptions for some equipment that had both civilian and military applications, while the Ronald Reagan administration revoked most of Carter’s tougher enforcement standards and stepped up previously forbidden exports.

The Reagan administration also rescinded a no-contact policy with the South African military and police officials and brokered the delivery of nuclear fuel through European proxies. Most significant, perhaps, was Reagan’s successful 1982 lobbying campaign in support of a $1.1 billion IMF loan to Pretoria — an amount that approximated the costs of South Africa’s wars in Namibia and Angola between 1980 and 1982.

Weakened by internal resistance and a declining economy, the White minority regime was in dire straits by the mid-1980s. Only then, when South Africa’s cheap labor economy was no longer profitable, did the United States act.

In 1985, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution calling on member states to impose their own sanctions, including a cessation of new investment, a ban on the sale of Krugerrands, suspension of export loan guarantees, a ban on new nuclear contracts and an end to the sale of computer equipment that could be used by South African security forces. The United States and the U.K. abstained, which allowed the resolution to pass. However, both vetoed a subsequent resolution making the sanctions mandatory.

The following year, the U.S. Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. The 1986 legislation banned new investments in South Africa, bank loans and computer sales to the government, the transfer of petroleum, nuclear and military products and cooperation with the South African military and police. It also prohibited the importation of South African iron, steel, coal, uranium, textiles, gold coins and agricultural products. Finally, it ended direct flights to and from South Africa and prohibited South African aircraft from landing in the United States.

A longtime defender of the apartheid regime, President Reagan vetoed the Anti-Apartheid Act. However, with significant public support, the Republican-dominated Senate and the Democratic-majority House overrode the veto in October 1986. Even so, the United States continued to oppose forceful, mandatory U.N. sanctions.

As in South Africa, U.S. actions against the White minority-ruled state of Rhodesia were also gradual and long-delayed. Enacted between 1965 and 1979, they moved from partial to comprehensive and from voluntary to mandatory. The lag time of two-plus years between the initiation of sanctions and the imposition of comprehensive mandatory sanctions by the U.N. Security Council gave Rhodesia time to restructure its economy, to develop new markets and to devise sophisticated means of disposing of its products clandestinely.

What conditions prompted the call for sanctions? Previously a British settler colony, Rhodesia declared independence in 1965, while refusing any move toward majority rule which would have empowered the country’s Black population. The U.K. refused to recognize the renegade state. However, it quickly showed its hand.

Describing the Rhodesian outlaws as British “kith and kin,” Whitehall declared that it would not use force to bring Rhodesia back to legality and opposed all-out economic warfare. Instead, the U.K. proposed a limited set of economic sanctions, the purpose of which was not to bring the rogue prime minister to his knees, but to make him “reasonable.” It urged the international community to do likewise. The U.N. Security Council followed suit, enacting selective voluntary sanctions that prohibited the sale of military equipment and petroleum products to the Rhodesian regime. One year later it added selective mandatory sanctions.

It was not until May 1968 that the Security Council imposed comprehensive mandatory economic sanctions, prohibiting any economic or diplomatic relationship with the rebel regime. Meanwhile, Rhodesian political and economic leaders had engaged in a concerted effort to circumvent the international embargo. They found willing partners on several continents.

In flagrant violation of international law, a number of U.N. member states openly flouted the sanctions on Rhodesia. South Africa and the Portuguese colonial regime in Mozambique served as conduits for Rhodesian imports and exports, supplying the country with petroleum, military equipment and foreign exchange.

France, Britain and the United States looked the other way as their oil companies exported petroleum to Rhodesia. Between 1971 and 1977, the United States, through the Byrd Amendment to the Military Procurement Authorization Act, overtly contravened international law by allowing the importation of “strategic and critical” materials from Rhodesia — including chrome, ferrochrome, nickel, copper and asbestos — so long as there was no similar ban on the importation of such materials from communist countries.

A Rhodesia lobby, supported by pro-segregation southerners in the U.S. Congress, and U.S.-owned Allegheny Ludlum Steel, Foote Mineral and Union Carbide — which ran Rhodesia’s largest chrome mines — had lobbied hard for the amendment. The U.S. loophole was a major boon to the Rhodesian economy, providing it with the foreign currency needed to buy weapons and oil. It added years to the life of the White minority regime.

Imperfect as they were, economic sanctions ultimately pushed the White regimes to the bargaining table. In both South Africa and Rhodesia, declining economies and internal unrest or war, together with sanctions, forced the White governments to negotiate settlements that resulted in majority rule.

While the United States rightfully condemns Russian atrocities in Ukraine, its past failure to act quickly and effectively in Southern Africa betrays its deeper concern with protecting its own geopolitical and economic interests. In the Ukraine war, the United States sees the opportunity to weaken Russia politically and reduce its capacities in the region. President Biden has even suggested his support for regime change in Russia. The message many Africans hear is that Black states just don’t rate.



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