Loosing the Bonds:
The United States & South Africa in the Apartheid Years

by Robert K. Massie,
832 pages,
ISBN: 0385261675

Post Your Opinion
Anti-Apartheid Epic
by Cranford Pratt

Contained between the covers of Robert Kinloch Massie's 1998 Lionel Gelber prizewinning volume, Loosing The Bonds: The United States and South Africa in the Apartheid Years, are two distinct and separable books. The first is a wide-ranging review of the modern histories of the separate struggles in South Africa and the United States to undermine and replace thoroughly entrenched systems of white domination by societies firmly committed to racial equality. The second is a detailed study of the successful efforts of American anti-apartheid activists to mobilize a variety of pressures on American banks and corporations investing in South Africa; by the early 1980s, their purpose was increasingly to convince them to disinvest and to cease trading with South Africa. Although this second "book" is clearly part of the story told by the first, it is far more thoroughly researched, far more closely argued, takes up over half of the book's total length, and is the basis of the legitimate claim that the volume is an important and original work of scholarship.

The long sections on the anti-racist struggle in South Africa and in the United States, and the major discussion of the evolution of the policies of the American government towards South Africa, it seems clear, are intended primarily for the interested general reader. They rely substantially on secondary sources. They are often anecdotal in flavor. They include a good number of lengthy biographical sketches of the major participants. And they are masterfully written. Massie is wonderfully acute in identifying telling quotations and revealing episodes. He successfully conveys the mood and feel of an era, and provides compelling insight into the motivations, values, and prejudices of the major actors. He does not conceal the dark side of the anti-apartheid struggle (for example, the "neck lacing" of black South African collaborators with the regime is not excluded). Nevertheless, overall, Massie's telling of the story is inspirational rather than analytical.

Massie makes clear that no American government, and in particular neither those of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson nor those of Nixon and Reagan, ever made the weakening of the apartheid regime in South Africa a central focus of their foreign policy in Africa. The rhetorics they deployed certainly differed. Kennedy had an empathy for the newly independent African states which was lacking in Nixon and Reagan, and he tried harder to woo their leaderships. Moreover, in the Kennedy era, there were, within the administration, strong liberals such as Wayne Fredericks and "Soapy" Williams who worked valiantly to shift policy decisively into an oppositional stance towards South Africa. In contrast, a barely concealed racism was common within the most senior ranks of Nixon's policy advisors. Massie tells us, for example, that Alexander Haig was given to drumming on the table as if playing African drums when a subordinate black official argued for a more critical policy. Nevertheless, under Kennedy and Johnson, just as under Nixon and Reagan, policies towards South Africa were set time and again by what were perceived as military and geopolitical requirements of the Cold War rather than by a principled hostility to apartheid. Thus, for example, Kennedy was ready to sell attack submarines to South Africa and B-26 bombers to Portugal for use in its colonial wars in Africa, to retain respectively the American radar-tracking stations in South Africa and the American bases in the Azores. Massie characterizes American policy under Kennedy as "commendable in form but empty in substance. He set a pattern for American presidential dealings with Southern Africa which endured with minor variations for the next generation. The pattern combined overt condemnation with covert cooperation, symbolic opposition with substantive support."

When it became clear in the late 1960s that government policies towards South Africa were not going to change and seemed impervious to activist pressures, concerned Americans turned their attention instead to the role of U.S. banks and corporations in South Africa. These efforts not only became a major feature of protest politics in the United States in the years between 1970 and 1989, they also began to score significant successes, contributing finally to that major withdrawal of U.S. capital from South Africa which Massie argues, and which South African black leaders agree, contributed in a large way to the collapse of apartheid and the peaceful transition to the new South Africa.

Over half of this very long but entirely readable book is given over to a closely researched and subtly argued study of how a mixed group of African-American, Church, and student protestors succeeded in this extraordinary accomplishment. It is a heartening tale demonstrating that ethical values do matter and that ethically-committed activists can, by effective lobbying, by detailed research, and by imaginative political initiatives, succeed in making even the most powerful corporations more responsive to ethical values and the requirements of social justice.

Massie identifies three separate origins of this assault on corporate America's complicity with apartheid South Africa. The first was the student protests. They were moved as much by moral repugnance that their universities should invest in companies and banks which profited from apartheid as by a conviction that their protests might assist the popular struggle against apartheid in South Africa. They sensitized a whole nation to the fact that U.S. banks and corporations, by investing in South Africa, were profiting from oppression and were aiding and legitimizing its racist regime.

Student protests were quickly augmented by shareholder action by American churches. Their involvement was solid and sustained. They too protested that their institutions were benefitting from investments in corporations with South African subsidiaries. They were profoundly offended by the easy claims of apartheid apologists that the racial subjugation they defended was rooted in their Christian faith and had biblical legitimacy. As their involvement grew, the American churches developed close and reaffirming contacts with leading South African Christian opponents of apartheid. Indeed, Massie persuasively presents South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a major contributor to the anti-apartheid movement in the United States: his courage, absolute moral clarity, and eloquence were crucial in sustaining the resolve of the American churches to provide leadership within the anti-apartheid movement in the United States.

The third and most important source of leadership within the anti-apartheid movement was provided by African-American political leaders. It was they who, led initially by Martin Luther King, merged their struggle for the rights of blacks in America with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. King saw the two struggles as part of a global struggle against racism. He urged that economic boycotts and sanctions be centrally employed in both the domestic struggle and the international campaign. Kennedy had believed that American blacks would remain so preoccupied with their own struggles that they would not take a significant interest in apartheid. Within a very few years after his assassination, this expectation was confounded. African Americans in increasing numbers became a constituency vastly more significant than any that could be reached by either student or Church protestors. By 1985, African American Congressmen were able to win sufficient Congressional support to overturn a Reagan veto of a strong sanctions bill.

Those in authority in the corporations, the banks, the universities, the major pension funds, and the state and municipal finance committees deeply resented these efforts of outsiders to influence their exercise of power. They also had a battery of arguments and apologists ready to suggest that their duty was to maximize the profits earned by their institutions; that it would be improper for them to intrude into the political affairs of South Africa; that the South African government was a good friend of the United States, a bastion of anti-communism, and the proper custodian of the interests of its black population; and that, in any case, foreign investment was essentially liberal in its impact on apartheid, and its withdrawal would only hurt South African blacks.

Massie tells in wonderful detail the full story of how citizens' movements had such an astonishing impact on corporate policies and practices. The first breakthroughs came when several leading American universities were persuaded to support socially responsible shareholder resolutions and to consider divesting their holdings in companies with South African subsidiaries. Then major foundations such as the Ford Foundation, and a growing number of U.S. pension funds, municipalities, and states began their agonizing transition towards becoming responsible social investors by supporting a variety of shareholder resolutions, submitted, in particular, by Church coalitions. These were designed to make the corporations less complicit with the apartheid regime. Banks also faced the threat and reality of account transfers by individuals and institutions that opposed their continued practice of loaning to the South African government. Indeed, several banks were among the first to limit their involvement in South Africa. Corporations, including such giants as IBM and General Motors, were at first cajoled and bullied into paying more regard to the conditions of black employees in their South African subsidiaries, and then were pressed to withdraw these investments.

The retreat of American capital from South Africa began in 1976 when the Chase Manhattan Bank announced that it would cease loans which "tend to support the apartheid policies of the South African government or reinforce discriminatory business practices". Ten years later, the trickle of departures became an avalanche. In the twenty-eight months beginning with January 1986, 114 American companies pulled out of South Africa, including many of the most important. Massie argues persuasively that the withdrawal of international capital is crucial to any explanation of why the South African government opted in 1989 to embark on a negotiated settlement with the African National Congress. Without that threat of severe long-term damage to its economy which continued capital flight would surely generate, the South African regime might well have been emboldened to continue its determined effort to crush all black resistance and to defy international opinion.

In the case of the banks and those corporations that might be susceptible to consumer boycotts, it is reasonable to accept that activist lobbying was a major cause of their decisions to withdraw. However, for many of those investors who chose to quit South Africa, the reason was more straightforward. The vigour and breadth of the resistance of South African blacks to the regime oppressing them and their capacity to render whole townships virtually ungovernable were rapidly making South Africa a far less attractive country in which to invest.

There is little evidence that citizen protests and shareholder actions won many corporate executives over to the view that they should use their influence and power to advance the welfare and to protect the rights of the weak and the oppressed. Even as they left, they denied that their decision to quit had any ethical component. The CEO of IBM expressed a common corporate view when he said of IBM's pending departure: "If we elect to leave, it will be a business decision. We are not in business to conduct moral activism, we are not in business to conduct socially responsible action. We are in business to conduct business."

Though, in most cases, the decision to withdraw was not the product of any conversion to "moral activism", the sustained efforts of ethically motivated citizens' movements through shareholder actions, consumer boycotts, extensive campaigns to increase public awareness of the reality of apartheid, and persistent and effective lobbying of major pension funds and of municipalities and state legislatures substantially supported the struggle of black South Africans against their oppressors. These activities provided reinforcing domestic reasons to move corporate America toward policies and initiatives it certainly was most unhappy to endorse. Desmond Tutu frequently now reminds those who had advocated and supported disinvestment and international economic sanctions, that the transition to majority government in South Africa was far less violent and its outcome far more certain because of their efforts. Massie's sympathetic, but detailed and authoritative study does full justice to this great human achievement. 

Cranford Pratt is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author or co-author of four books and numerous articles on Africa. Recently, he has concentrated on Canadian foreign policy, in particular in relation to the Third World, and has edited and contributed to Canadian International Development Assistance: An Appraisal.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us