In the second of a two-part interview Norman Lewis tells Daniel Ben-Ami that it is untrue that the western cultural and economic boycott defeated apartheid South Africa. That is contrary to the claim frequently made by anti-Israel activists.
Q) Could you outline what the boycott of South Africa involved before the end of the apartheid regime in 1994?
It was the simple idea that you could put pressure on the apartheid regime by turning it into a pariah state. It would suffer a loss of international recognition. That would somehow make the regime more amenable to reform.
Economically it wasn’t just about boycotting South African oranges, although that had a high profile. It also, for example, involved stopping people from using Barclays bank because they invested in South Africa. The cultural boycott, which came later, involved such things as trying to stop western musicians from playing in South Africa and breaking sporting links.
In reality there were lots of companies that could have been chosen because many British companies had their hands very dirty in South Africa. These included firms in the motor industry and armaments.
There were two things fundamentally wrong with the cultural boycott. One was the silly idea that the sudden realisation that [for example, if] South Africans couldn’t listen to Paul Simon, so deprived of such joy, they would demand reform. It was based on the superficial idea that apartheid was an optional extra, a wrong mindset that could be just swept aside. This approach trivialised apartheid; failing to understand that apartheid was integral to the way that society operated.
As [FW] de Klerk [South African president from 1989 to 1994] said recently, the regime was not worried about the boycott. They had enough oil stored in South African for them to last for another 10-15 years without having to change anything. They were not being bled economically. That’s not the reason they changed.
Q) So why did the South African regime give up on apartheid in the end?
The essential reason they changed was because black resistance and increasing instability was making South Africa ungovernable. What enabled them to contemplate adopting a whole new approach to containing the black masses was, of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War [in 1989]. They recognised for the first time they could contemplate political change without it automatically becoming an anti-capitalist struggle. That’s what de Klerk and his international backers recognised. Marxism was dead; so there was an opportunity to democratise South Africa without the threat of it becoming an anti-capitalist struggle.
So that’s the first point. The idea that the boycott would sway this hard-arsed ruthless capitalist regime; that they would give up their power because they couldn’t listen to the Beatles, or people weren’t eating South African oranges, is not only ludicrous. It’s an insult to the thousands of people who lost their lives fighting for freedom.
It’s worth pointing out that while countless generations of black South Africans were being imprisoned or killed as they took on the apartheid state, the Anti-Apartheid Movement [in Britain] was effectively appealing to British capitalists and the British government [who were some of the greatest beneficiaries of apartheid exploitation] to ‘do something’ about apartheid. Who could have been surprised when [British prime minister Margaret] Thatcher described [African National Congress leader Nelson] Mandela as a terrorist? What ought to have been the strategy would have involved British workers taking industrial action to support the bloody struggle in South Africa. That is rather than calling on the British government to do something.
The third thing, and perhaps the most odious element, was the idea mentioned earlier, that there was some moral equivalence between choosing not to eat an Outspan [South African] orange while doing your shopping in a British supermarket and a black kid striking against [the compulsory teaching of] Afrikaans in Soweto in 1976 and being gunned down in cold blood while standing up for their rights.
The egotistical delusional fantasy that boycotts were bringing down apartheid is an insult to South Africa’s black masses. In reality the reason apartheid had to go was because it had become ungovernable because of the resistance of ordinary black South Africans. Their courage is what needs to be noted and brought to the fore. That’s the reason the reform had to be brought in. It had very little to do with the boycotts.
And the idea that somehow you could equate what the Anti-Apartheid Movement did in Britain with the struggle of workers in South Africa is beyond caricature. It is an immoral comparison in my view.
Of course someone might come back and say the stopping of investment might have made a difference. I think it did to some extent. But the main reason that people weren’t investing wasn’t the moral argument. It was that the country was becoming ungovernable, and investments would be truly threatened if the struggle became even more radicalised. It was easy for a company to become “anti-apartheid” after the fact when the target of its investment was no longer safe. It might look good, especially in our virtue signalling times, to proclaim your moral abhorrence of apartheid. But we all know that it was not the moral argument that won the day but hard-nosed expediency in the face of black courage and intransigence.
Unfortunately the ANC still has a reason for pushing that kind of narrative. They themselves are embarrassed. Because they don’t want attention drawn to the fact that the reason they ever got into power was because of the resilience of the black working class. It was not because of their arguments or how they organised the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Instead, it was an opportunist move prompted by geopolitical changes that enabled the apartheid regime to contemplate regime change by bringing a moderate ANC into government. Just like the Afrikaner nationalists who created apartheid, the ANC always aspired to becoming part of the capitalist class, an aspiration they were able to realise thanks to the sacrifices made by the same black masses that cultural boycotters now want to hide from history.
History has already been rewritten. And that’s why anti-Israel BDS campaigners can claim to be following the South African example, as if the argument had been won. There is no need to have an argument about this. They just claim it worked in South Africa so it will work against Israel. Without analysing anything they establish a narrative that equates Israel and apartheid South Africa, an analogy which is totally inappropriate and historically illiterate.
Today’s BDS campaigners miss the point in both cases. Their childish analogies betray a kind of contempt not only for people struggling for freedom, but ordinary people’s capacity to understand complexity. The more they assert their superficial analysis as a moral absolute in order to simplify things, the more it and they becomes a barrier to grasping what’s really going on.
To read last week’s piece on apartheid South African as a form of racialised capitalism click HERE.