In 1993, on the eve of black majority rule in South Africa, Time magazine asked Nelson Mandela if economic sanctions against the country helped speed the demise of its apartheid system. “Oh, there is no doubt,” Mandela replied.
Throughout his 27 years in prison — and right up until he assumed leadership of the new South Africa — Mandela was an unequivocal supporter of sanctions as a weapon of global justice. Yet we’ve heard almost nothing about that legacy amid all the paeans to Mandela, who died last week at the age of 95.
That reflects our own cynicism about sanctions. From Iran and Syria to Cuba and North Korea, the conventional wisdom goes, American and international sanctions don’t accomplish their goals; if anything, they make things worse.
In some cases, that’s true. More than a half-century after the United States slapped sanctions on Cuba, for example, Fidel Castro and his brother Raul remain firmly in power. But as the South African example attests, sanctions can also be a force for change.
That’s exactly what exiled African National Congress leader Oliver Tambo told Nelson Mandela in the 1980s, near the end of Mandela’s prison term. “Don’t maneuver yourself into a situation where we have to abandon sanctions,” Tambo wrote Mandela, who had opened secret negotiations with South African President P. W. Botha. “We are very concerned that we should not get stripped of our weapons of struggle, and the most important of these is sanctions.”
So Mandela held firm: “To lift sanctions now would be to run the risk of aborting the process towards the complete eradication of apartheid,” Mandela declared in his first public speech upon leaving prison in 1990.
And he repeated the message later that year during his triumphal trip to the United States, which had instituted sanctions on South Africa over President Ronald Reagan’s veto in 1986. Like many opponents of sanctions today, Reagan insisted that they would harm, not protect, the victims of oppression.
Mandela wasn’t having it. “We still have a struggle on our hands,” Mandela told a joint session of Congress, insisting that sanctions should remain in place. The following year, when President George H. W. Bush lifted them, Mandela blasted him for acting prematurely.
Only with the establishment of a 1993 transitional executive council in South Africa would Mandela call for an end to sanctions. Yet he continued to claim that they had provided an important boost for black freedom in South Africa, praising the “millions of people across the globe” who had demanded them.
Those people included a young African American at Occidental College named Barack Obama, who spoke at a 1981 rally condemning the college’s investments in companies that worked in South Africa. “I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life,” President Obama recalled after Mandela died last week. “My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid.”
But it was also a protest against Americans who did business with apartheid. I participated in similar divestment rallies over the next two years at Columbia, where Mr. Obama became my classmate. We didn’t know each other, but we both believed that blocking economic activity in a tyrannical country could make it better.
There’s plenty of evidence that we were right, in South Africa and elsewhere. Consider Iraq, which was placed under tough sanctions by the United Nations after it attacked Kuwait in 1990. George W. Bush insisted that Saddam Hussein had evaded the sanctions and acquired weapons of mass destruction, which became a key pretext for the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. But weapons of mass destruction were never found, suggesting that the sanctions worked more than we knew.
The same arguments have been advanced in support of military action against Iran even though sanctions clearly played a central role in forging the recent nuclear agreement between Iran, the United States and other nations. We still don’t know if Iran will actually limit or reverse its nuclear program, as promised. But the promise itself stemmed at least in part from international sanctions, which brought Iran to the bargaining table.
So the next time you hear some pundit on TV say that “sanctions never work,” think again. Think of a youthful Barack Obama and the protests that helped remove a hateful regime from South Africa. Think most of all of Nelson Mandela, who never doubted that sanctions helped defeat apartheid — and that all of us could join hands to change the world.
Jonathan Zimmerman, the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” teaches history and education at New York University.