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Paperwork Helped Bury Apartheid

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 California, whose economy ranks as one of the 10 largest in the world, sanctions have been a factor in scores of public contracts and investments affecting untold billions of dollars, government officials say. In 1986, as the sanctions movement was gaining momentum nationwide, George Deukmejian, who was then governor, approved a bill forcing the state's huge public employees' and teachers' pension funds to phase out their South Africa-related stocks over three years.

The law also allowed University of California regents to take the same action. All three systems held about $7.2 billion worth of targeted stocks at the time.

The bill appeared to bring results. After it passed, more than 100 companies withdrew operations from South Africa, leaving about 123 on investor blacklists, according to Moses of the Washington-based IRRC.

But the action also proved expensive. The state employees pension, CalPERS, held about $2.3 billion in South Africa-related assets in its $71-billion portfolio, the nation's largest public fund. CalPERS winnowed out those stocks while forsaking potentially fruitful investments in companies that ignored the boycott. One of those firms was Merck & Co. Inc., the pharmaceutical giant.

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