The European Position towards South Africa during the Apartheid Period

By Konstantinos G. Margaritis & Katerina M. Dokianaki

Published on July 1, 2010

In a broad sense, European countries played a major role in the history of South Africa. From the 15th century, when Portuguese navigators first discovered the coast, European countries interfered more and more in the social, political and economic reality of South Africa.

A widespread example of interference which demonstrates the direction of political decisions taken from the 17th century and above until nearly nowadays is that of Afrikaners which led to the establishment of a set of racial discrimination laws better known as apartheid.

The political position of International Organisations and countries acting individually varies during the apartheid period. Taking into consideration the leading geo-strategic location of South Africa, some of the European countries (basically Great Britain) and the United States of America continued to promote their economic interests despite the general animadversion to the racial policies taken in South Africa, an animadversion expressed by the United Nations with many Resolutions.

After the elimination of apartheid and the transition to democracy, South Africa’s situation at the international level rapidly evolved. Being considered one of the major developing economies South Africa excited many countries’ interest and as a result, economic agreements were signed.

The role of the European Economic Community in the beginning and the European Community/European Union, after the enforcement of the Treaty on European Union, is significant in the during-apartheid period as well as in the post-apartheid period in South Africa.

In the early nineties, European Union was the major trading partner of South Africa and a strong ally in the development of democracy after the end of the apartheid regime.

This paper will focus on and will briefly analyse the diplomatic and economic relationship between the European Community countries and South Africa during the apartheid period up to and including the efforts during the transitional period to democracy. The position of the UN, a major international organization on human rights issues will be included.

European Policies in South Africa During Apartheid

In that point, a brief historical retrospect would be useful for a better understanding of the apartheid regime. Apartheid was a racial based law which was introduced by the National Party after winning the elections of 1948.

The idea of apartheid as a policy was coined in the decade of 1930 and was used as a political slogan by the National Party later on to win the 1948 elections. It was systematized under the law and started to be implemented within South African society during the premiership of Daniel Francois Nolan. Apartheid is based on the idea of the superiority of white people; a superiority that originates from the time of the country’s colonization.

Citizens of South Africa were segregated into racial groups (white, black, mixed-colour and Asian). For making the implementation of the apartheid regime more effective, the governments of South Africa, especially in the decade of 1950, inaugurated statutes and acts of law that strengthened the whole system. Perfect examples can be the Group Areas Act (1950), the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949) and the “Bantu” Education Act (1953). In other terms, the idea of apartheid had developed into a severe reality that nobody could override.

During that period the European countries were struggling with the consequences that were a result of World War II in both the economical and social spheres. Therefore, most of the countries in Europe could not really focus on problems outside their borders, especially in a far away from Europe country like South Africa, even though the apartheid matter was put on the United Nations agenda in 1952.

The decades of 1960 and 1970-The first steps

South Africa was not a big issue for the new-established European Economic Community (EEC) even though the development of prosperity of European and overseas countries, in accordance with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations was an objective clearly mentioned in the Treaty. Position concerning the political process in South Africa was an internal matter of each country in Europe.

In the early 60s British Prime Minister Harold McMillan during a public speech criticized the apartheid policy. Despite the harsh criticism that had started to become international, Great Britain continued to involve economically in South Africa by applying trade agreements.

The only international organisation that dealt with the apartheid regime in the decade of 1960 was the United Nations by adopting Resolutions that condemned apartheid (Resolution 1761 in 1962) and led to a voluntary arms embargo (Resolution 181 in 1963). While all EEC Member States had implemented Resolution 181, Great Britain announced an arms embargo in 1964 after the Labour Party came into power.

During the first years of the 1970’s there still was not any collective political action on behalf of the EEC. When the United Kingdom entered the EEC in 1973, the Community aligned the UK position in the case of South Africa as it was generally believed for this matter to be more “British”.

Meanwhile, the United Nations moved to the reinforcement of the arms embargo in South Africa by adopting Resolution 232 in 1970, a resolution without any binding effects as the UK, France and the USA did not participate in the procedure. This fact demonstrates the contradictory positions that some of the European countries had adopted. On the other hand, the pressure on the South African apartheid government was increased on the part of some countries in Europe.

In 1975, Belgium (EEC Member State) stopped providing assistance to anybody immigrating to South Africa. Furthermore, Spain and Austria ended their visa agreements with South Africa and initiated stricter measures for South African citizens to apply for visas.

During this decade the UN is struggling against the apartheid regime with the adoption of severe measures. The most important is Resolution 418 in 1977 which revised Resolution 232 by introducing mandatory arms and oil embargo in South Africa. In the interim, in 1976, the UN General Assembly had adopted Resolution 3I/6K by which the UN Members were pressed to reduce their investments to South Africa. Another important document could be Resolution 33/183 in 1979, a proposal for financial loans to be stopped in the case of South Africa.

The Code of Conduct

The first synchronized attempt on behalf of the EEC came out in 1976 from the President of the Council of Foreign Ministers at that time, the Luxembourgian Prime Minister Gaston Thorn who explicitly stated “the condemnation of the policy of apartheid in South Africa”. Therefore, it is clear that a common European policy to remove apartheid from South Africa had been inaugurated. Movements for establishing a new political situation in South Africa were made and coordinated actions were announced in order for the EEC to achieve the target mentioned above by funding non-white South African organizations and as a result facilitating non-white people access to education, providing them with medical aid and generally decrease the social inequalities between white and non-white.

The position of the UK in relation to those particular actions was not totally harmonized with this of the other Member States.

The UK refused to participate in the funding of the largest non-white South African organization, the African National Congress (ANC), and other organizations related to ANC, as the UK had described it as a terrorist organization. Once again, the EEC failed to adopt common actions within a specific problem.

The first and only measure that has been employed (in 1977) to achieve the target of removing the apartheid regime was the Code of Conduct for Community firms operating in South Africa. Containing a series of guiding principles with regard to the format of enterprise in an apartheid environment, the Code underlined the need of promoting social rights for workers in South Africa, especially fundamental rights like the right to equal pay, the right of non-discrimination in the workplace, the right to establish trade unions. As an outcome, the Community firms that wanted to extend their activities in South Africa shall implement those principles.

Although the Code of Conduct enclosed the political will of the EEC to restrict the “doctrine” of apartheid, especially in the workplace and to promote the principle of equality and in general, the rule of law in South Africa, criticism has been flayed concerning the effectiveness of the measure.

The major critics were focused on the fact that there was no official EEC institution for observing the compliance of the firms with the Code. As a result, it was part of national competence to monitor the progress of the implementation of the Code, something that varied from country to country. From a practical point of view, there were main differences in the way that EEC Member States introduced the Code into their national legislation.

Another important weakness of the Code was the lack of sanctions in case of noncompliance. That absence gave to the Code a non-compulsory character and hence could not deal with the problems in the most efficient way.

To sum up, the Code of Conduct was the first organized attempt by the EEC to combat the social inequalities in South Africa. In that sense, despite the scarcities that have been mentioned, it demonstrates a political decision of an international organization which exerts influence to oppose the apartheid regime.

The 1980s During the decade of 1980 the international pressure for the abandonment of the apartheid regime became stronger. Most of the European countries, acting individually, have strengthened their restrictions against the apartheid government. Italy, Denmark, Sweden, France, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Austria, and Ireland reinforced their embargo on South Africa in both economic and military fields. The declaration of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme “apartheid cannot be reformed; it has to be eliminated” is evidence of the dominating political opinion in Europe.

Furthermore, the role of the UN became more active during this decade. Restrictions mentioned in Resolution 566 in 1985 are to be adopted by the UN Member States “that have not done so”, Resolution 569 in 1985 introduces new sanctions against the Republic of South Africa.

The European Special Programme (ESP) Even though the EEC had already declared its opposition to apartheid, a common political position was difficult to be adopted due to the UK’s main disagreement. In 1985 the Commission proposed measures in a both positive and restrictive way. Being pressed by the international environment the UK finally agreed with the proposal of the Commission which led to the adoption of the European Special Programme (ESP) in the same year.

The positive way was in a form of financial aid to people who were suffering because of the apartheid policy and to non-violent anti-apartheid organizations.

The negative way contained a package of restrictions at the economic and diplomatic levels which will have as an outcome the achievement of the Community’s ultimate target concerning South Africa: the elimination of apartheid.

A politically commonly accepted method to deal with this particular issue was difficult to be espoused among the EEC Member States. The UK insisted on the initial position of “limited economic sanctions” therefore, it has been argued that the ESP enforcement was delayed for a few years. Indeed, statistics prove that in 1986 and 1987 the funds disbursed to organizations according to ESP plan increased compared to those of 1985. In particular, in 1986 10 million ECU were spent on behalf of the EEC; an amount that was doubled during 1987.

It is commonplace that further steps were taken against the apartheid rule. EEC Member States agreed on a political framework of actions that must be taken; still, once again, a lack of consensus can be observed.

This lack of consensus is related to the general political approach that some Member States had adopted with regard to this matter. In order to promote its own economic interests and take into consideration that South Africa is an important investing partner; the UK strongly disagreed with the full economic sanction plan and proposed “limited economic sanctions”.

On the other hand, the Nordic countries and France were strongly in favour of a total ban in all ways. Sweden, Denmark and Norway had many times in the past condemned the apartheid system and developed mutual relationships with anti-apartheid organizations like the ANC.

As Nelson Mandela argued, “Only Norway and Sweden were forthcoming with contributions to the ANC, providing assistance and scholarships, money for legal defence and humanitarian aid for political prisoners”.

With the effectiveness of the measures adopted at a Community level being doubted, the EEC did less than could possibly do.

The Transitional Period (1990-1994)

It is indisputable that the international pressure on the apartheid issue contributed to the downfall of the regime. After 1990 negotiation procedures started among the leading powers (the National Party and the African National Congress) in South Africa for the changes needed for the transition to true democracy. During this period, apartheid laws were repealed and elections based on the principle of “one man-one vote” were proclaimed.

As it is mentioned above the EC Member States individually and the European Community (EC) as an organization had put sanctions on South Africa in key areas (diplomatic, military, economic, cultural) due to the apartheid regime. The abolishment of those sanctions was a slow and difficult procedure which started in 1990 after the leader of the ANC Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

The first free elections took place in South Africa on 27 April 1994. For the accomplishment of that objective, brand new for South Africa, assistance would be needed in order for violent reactions to be avoided and for the credibility of the election process to be guaranteed. The EC supported this by establishing an electoral commission, the EU Electoral Unit, which was constituted of 307 observers including police officers. A very important action on behalf of the Community that demonstrated the political will to restore democracy in South Africa.

The outcome of this effort has been characterized as successful. The smooth transition to democracy in South Africa became a top priority for the European Union. Plus, it is of much importance that all Member States agreed to the package of measures that must be adopted for the achievement of a difficult issue.

Concluding Remarks

From the time of colonization, South Africa played a significant role for European countries and as a result, the country was affiliated with the most important trade partners for Europe, especially the Netherlands, the UK and France.

After the establishment of the apartheid regime in 1948, the political situation in South Africa had been relinquished, as Europe passed through the post-World War II period with the reconstruction of the area to be set up as first priority. The UN, as an international organization, adopted several resolutions for fighting apartheid, a policy that was not always acceptable to some of the members.

The attempts on behalf of the EEC to take common measures (the Code of Conduct in the late 70s and the European Special Programme during the 80s) were not enough.

Unfortunately, the EEC showed no appropriate political will to truly change the apartheid regime as its politically “strong” members focused more on their own interests. Nevertheless, it can be observed that some steps were taken, the problem was described and in more general terms the basis was set.

In the decade of the 90’s after the abolishment of the apartheid regime and the transition to democracy, the EU/EC tried to create a strong economic relationship with South Africa.

The strong political and economical relationship after the democratisation of the country in 1994 is apparent as the EU was and remains the leading partner of South Africa in every field of interest.

The Authors

Katerina M. Dokianaki is a Tax Officer, Head of the Legal Division of the 2nd Public Financial Service of Heraklion.

Konstantinos G. Margaritis is a PhD candidate at the Law School of National and Kapodistrian at the University of Athens, an Attorney at Law, member of the Heraklion Bar Association.

Article picture: falco via Pixabay


Law & Philosophy