Hints of Russia’s Future in South Africa’s Sanctions Past

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, allied nations have unleashed a suite of sanctions so rapid and broad in its reach that there are no true precedents. Even, say, curbs on Iran or Venezuela — both oil producers cut off from global finance — are by necessity imperfect.

But there’s another commodity exporter whose experience offers less obvious lessons for sanctioning nations and for Moscow: South Africa. Facing ignominy over its apartheid policies, repression and military aggression beyond its borders, Pretoria found itself isolated and severely constrained from the mid-1980s, for a period that lasted until after opposition leader Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. Yes, Russia is a far larger economy, and it exports oil instead of importing it. The world is more integrated than back then, raising the cost of imposing pain.

It’s still striking how four decades ago, despite the moral outrage that drove the measures, sanctioning nations left loopholes because they wanted natural resources, and how South Africa was able to find alternative trade partners, much like Russia has. While there were unintended consequences for Pretoria’s domestic economy, not all were negative — a familiar tale. And yet, for all those weaknesses, restrictions did contribute to the demise of White minority rule, largely because South Africa in the early 1980s, like Russia in 2022, was already an uncompetitive economy overdependent on extractive industries when the measures hit. The edifice collapsed.