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Paperwork Helped Bury South Africa Apartheid : Human rights: Sanctions leave a worldwide legacy of high ideals, red tape and unevenly shared duty.

September 25, 1993|DAVID FERRELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Half a world from the crumbling apartheid government of South Africa, George S. Wolfberg is a soldier in the fight for human rights. His war room is a cluttered office at Los Angeles City Hall.

Armed with computer printouts, affidavits and reference manuals, Wolfberg oversees enforcement of the city's economic sanctions against South Africa. In seven years, he has tabulated more than 3,400 companies ineligible for Los Angeles contracts because of ties to the white-ruled nation.

He revises the list constantly. Some firms, such as Bristol-Myers-Squibb and NEC Corp., are household names; others are anonymous conglomerates or subsidiaries--a phone book's worth of banks and development firms, photography labs and munitions factories. In more than a few cases, Wolfberg said, companies seeking lucrative city deals try to hide their South Africa connections.

Wolfberg plays sleuth to ferret them out.

"There are companies you never heard of that are billion-dollar companies," the chief administrative analyst said, shaking his head. "It's incredible."

The scrutiny that Wolfberg brings to the task has helped give Los Angeles a reputation for leadership in the extraordinary worldwide effort to end apartheid. That campaign reached a milestone Friday, as Nelson Mandela and other black leaders of South Africa began calling for sanctions to be lifted. Unless political events change, Los Angeles and scores of other government jurisdictions in the United States are poised to begin dismantling the machinery of censure, even as scholars and elected officials try to gauge its importance to the South African struggle.

As the sanctions era nears an end in the United States, it leaves behind a legacy of high ideals, red tape and unevenly shared commitment to a common cause. More than a decade after the first few cities adopted sanctions, the movement still shows strength. Today, at least 30 states, 109 cities and 39 counties and other public agencies impose trade and investment restrictions against South Africa, according to one independent research organization.

Even after the federal government withdrew its own sanctions in 1991, lesser jurisdictions--some of them obscure--continued to make costly sacrifices to keep the censures in place. One California public pension fund, for example, has estimated its losses from missed stock opportunities at $800 million after it eschewed investments in thriving pharmaceutical companies that do business in South Africa.

The scope of the overall commitment to sanctions in the United States has been "absolutely unprecedented," said William Moses, a senior analyst with the Investor Responsibility Research Center Inc., a Washington-based organization that provides impartial analysis of business and public policy issues. Moses, who carefully tracked the sanctions, said they drew support from a surprisingly broad cross-section of America--from whites and blacks, rich and poor, in all geographic regions.

"This incredible latticework of sanctions just overhangs the entire country . . . from Louisiana to West Hollywood," Moses said. "It is striking to think that the plight of South Africa's black majority struck such a chord with the American people."

Whether that commitment made much difference is a matter of debate, scholars said.

"Clearly, struggles (for human rights) are won internally--they're not won because somebody imposed sanctions," said UCLA professor Edward A. Alpers, president-elect of the international African Studies Assn. Still, Alpers believes that the American activism was important in accelerating the reforms.

"It's been a very big effort, and it's been significant," he said of the sanctions.

In Orange County, word of Friday's appeal by Mandela offered encouragement to some government officials who help oversee the investment of public funds.

Mary-Jean Hackwood, administrator for the Orange County Employees Retirement System, which holds $2.2 billion in investments on behalf of some 20,000 current and retired government workers, said the prospective lifting of sanctions could free the retirement systems to invest more money in companies doing business in South Africa. Some argue that these companies generally offer a higher rate of return than other firms.

"I think that definitely would be true," she said. "Investment firms that have been very sensitive to financial decisions on a social level--rather than an economic basis--would now be able to evaluate their investments by a different standard," she said.

The retirement system has continued to invest through the years in companies doing business in South Africa, despite periodic calls for divestiture. It held more than $70 million in such investments in the mid-1980s, but Hackwood said she did not know what the total is today.

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