Jamaica sanctions apartheid

Why should we send our goods?

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 2

'Revolting to the conscience of decent people throughout the world' was how the Jamaican government described apartheid, shortly after announcing a decision to enact trade sanctions against the regime.

This unprecedented decision would set the tone for the eventual international anti-apartheid movement.

On 1 July 1959, Jamaican newspaper the 'Kingston Gleaner' ran the front-page story 'Jamaica bans South African goods', followed the very next day with 'South Africa complains'.

The apartheid government were indignant, demanding that Britain, as the colonial power, intervene and annul the sanctions. The South Africans were no doubt concerned about the precedent such a declaration could set - Jamaica's policy of trade sanctions were, up to this point, unseen territory. The South Africans argued that as a matter of foreign policy, the British government had the power to stop the initiative.

However, Jamaica argued that the sanctions were, in fact, a matter of trade policy and since Jamaica had control of trade, through agreements on self-government, they had both the power and authority to enforce their decision.

On 6 July 1959, the Jamaican government announced that:

"The ban on trade with South Africa is a logical and proper act done in respect of a country which denies to its own people all the basic human rights and denies to coloured people all over the world every right of human rights intercourse... Since we cannot send a coloured athlete to South Africa, nor even a cricket team, with any pretence of dignity, why should we send our goods?"

Jamaica thus became the first country to impose sanctions against South Africa's apartheid government; setting a precedent that would take Western powers over 20 years to follow.

It should be noted that the Jamaican government's decision to introduce sanctions against South Africa was by no means an impulsive one. Internal discussions had been had in government for almost 2 years prior to public announcement. At that stage, the Jamaican government had even consulted Britain on the matter, who in turn requested that Jamaica not pursue it further. Jamaica, however, deemed that unacceptable and went ahead.

Jamaica's defiance in the face of colonial pressure to stand down would pay off, as international apathy towards apartheid eventually turned to disdain.

Sadly, conventional recounts of the anti-apartheid struggle omit the story of Jamaica. The focus tends to be on when European powers entered the fray while disregarding their initial reluctance to sanction or even criticise the apartheid regime.

Interestingly in 1984, a United Nations motion titled 'Comprehensive sanctions against the apartheid regime and support to the liberation struggle in South Africa' received 123 votes in agreement, and 15 votes in opposition - notable opposition votes include Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.