With politicians showing unusual agreement among themselves and media focused on the "global" tribute to Nelson Mandela, there has been unanimous praise in France for the South African leader and the struggle against apartheid he embodied. However, when Mandela was still laying in jail for life, things were very different. France and its major corporations were among the most loyal supporters of Pretoria’s racist regime, to which they sold arms, nuclear and industrial technologies, in total disregard of UN sanctions. At the time, there was little protest.

This article was originally published in French. Translation: Olivier Petitjean

1964. Nelson Mandela’s conviction to life imprisonment seems to leave Western powers total indifferent. And it doesn’t move many people in France. 1964 is also the year when De Gaulle’s government decides to strengthen its trade relations with South Africa. Within a decade, French exports to apartheid South Africa, excluding arms sales, would increase threefold, reaching a value of more than one billion francs at the time. Including the sales of arms and other military equipment, France became the second largest foreign partner of the racist regime, behind the United Kingdom but ahead of the United States and West Germany. And a “strategic supplier”, as French nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) complained at the time.

By then, 85 French companies were operating in South Africa. And they were investing on a massive scale. Compagnie générale d’électricité (CGE) and its subsidiaries – ancestors of today’s Alstom and Alcatel – provided electricity or railways materials to South Africa and manufactured television sets in the country (under the Thomson brand). Renault and Peugeot sold engines to several plants. The Wendel family, a major player in the French steel industry (as a shareholder of Usinor, now part of ArcelorMittal), sourced its coal in South Africa and had it sent to France to power its steel mills. Construction firms, including Dumez (which later became part of the Vinci group) and Spie Batignolles, built port terminals, hydroelectric dams and highways, for instance in Johannesburg. Compagnie française des pétroles, which became Total in 1991, had significant interests in South African refineries, and partnered with Shell and BP to drill off the Cape Coast.

A nuclear plant for the “white economy”

EDF and Framatome - now integrated into Areva - even built the first South African nuclear plant! In 1976 France signed a contract for the construction of the Koeberg nuclear power station, pledging to train a hundred engineers and technicians for the maintenance of the plant. The French banks Crédit Lyonnais and the Banque d’Indochine and Suez [now a subsidiary of Crédit Agricole, ed] provided 82% of the investment, explained at the time the South African anti-apartheid writer Ruth First, who was murdered by order of Afrikaner officers in 1982 [1] .

If business was booming, with large private and public French companies investing heavily in South Africa, the reason was that the apartheid regime and its “white economy” could provide "abundant and inexpensive" black labour. "It is true black people are working for us”, said in April 1968 the South African Prime Minister, John Vorster. “They will continue to work for us for generations, although ideally we should be completely separated (...). But the fact that they work for us can never allow them to claim political rights. Not now, nor in the future, nor under any circumstances.” French government and business leaders knew very well in what kind of economic and political system they were putting their money.

Abundant workforce and forced labour

An indirect “system of forced labour". This was how the International Labour Organisation (ILO) described this system when it excluded South Africa in 1964 [2] . Two separate labour legislations, one for whites, one for blacks; black workers excluded from collective bargaining; non recognition of black unions; violent suppression of black workers’ strikes… Such are the features of this “white economy” and its treatment of the black workforce. In 1975, a black worker in South Africa’s coal mines – where the Lorraine steel industry sources its fuel – earns ten times less than a white worker. In the construction and in the industrial sectors, where several major French corporations are active, the salary of a black worker is five times lower than a white’s. This is how Ruth First describes it: “Apartheid results in African workers suffering from a double oppression: as Africans, they suffer from the discrimination inherent in the apartheid system, which institutionalises their subordination; as workers, they suffer from the overexploitation of their labour, imposed through an almost absolute control by the state over the determination of black people’s wages, on which the whole system is based”. All this is made possible by foreign investment, which at the time controls 80% of South Africa’s industrial capacity, particularly in the mining and gold industries.

As a defence against criticism, foreign investors and transnational corporations claimed to be acting as “reformers” in South Africa. Because of the shortage of labour, were not new opportunities opening for black people? Was not the emergence of a skilled black workforce paving the way for the creation of a “black middle class”, which would in turn open new market opportunities for consumer products? The American Baptist minister Leon Howard Sullivan is representative of this approach. This first African-American to serve on the Board of a major corporation (General Motors), he advocated a ‘code of conduct’ for US firms active in South Africa, the ‘Sullivan Principles’, including equal pay for black and white workers, abolition of any form of segregation within the firm, freedom of association, black participation in collective bargaining… A harbinger of today’s ‘corporate social responsibility’? In 1978, a hundred North American companies, of the 500 or so operating in South Africa, had formally adopted the code of conduct. Five years on, Sullivan acknowledged that although his Principles had begun to bring some change, they were not achieving the desired results rapidly enough. He called on the White House to make the Principles mandatory for US firms, with fiscal sanctions, and exclusion from public procurement, for those who would refuse to comply.

In France, the anti-apartheid movement remains politically isolated

In English-speaking countries, transnational corporations active in South Africa, such as Shell and Coca-Cola, were the target of major boycott campaigns. A Shell spokesman acknowledged in 1986 that the apartheid systen was “morally indefensible”, while also claiming the boycott of his firm’s petrol stations was “unfair and misguided” [3] . Nothing like it in France. In the 1970s, the organisation campaigning against apartheid were very few. Political activists of the PSU (Parti socialiste unifié), migrant support organisation Cimade, local solidarity groups set up by Christian activists (particularly from CCFD) and documentation centres on Third World issues – which would later give birth to the Ritimo network and Peuples solidaires – did what they can to raise awareness among French public opinion. And they felt quite isolated.

“At the time, we were not very many. The Communist party gave us only lip support. Apart from a few inpiduals, politicians were not interested in the issue”, recalls Michel Capron, a member of Cedetim (Centre d’études et d’initiatives de solidarité internationale) who is now the vice-president of the official French CSR Platform launched in June 2013 by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. "This was when Giscard was the French president. There was no feeling of bad conscience whatsoever, and even less guilt, among French companies. Rather a sort of haughty contempt towards those who supported the ANC [African National Congress, Nelson Mandela’s movement, ed.] ‘terrorists’”, he says. There was, however, one boycott campaign which is still remembered today, targeted at the Outspan-branded oranges imported from South Africa. “We achieved some results: orange exports to France fell by 30 %.” Given the current praise lavished on Nelson Mandela in France, such indifference is puzzling.

France, a leading supplier of weapons for the racist South African state

1964 is also the year when France became the leading supplier of arms of the South African apartheid regime. Although France, alongside the US and the UK, was not in favour of economic sanctions, it had not formally opposed the resolution approved one year earlier, in 1963, by the UN Security Council, which recommended an arms embargo. This resolution was not binding. While in the UK the Labour party, having just won the general elections, did impose an arms embargo, the French were happy to fill the gap. In 1971, Dassault sold the apartheid regime technologies and licenses to manufacture ‘anti-insurgency’ fighter aircraft, of the ‘Mirage-Milan’ prototype, to suppress ANC’s guerrilla activity. Between 1970 and 1975, 48 Mirage F1 were exported to South Africa, as well as helicopters (Alouette, Frelon, Puma), light armored vehicles and missiles. Dassault, Matra (Lagardère group), Panhard (later acquired by Renault), Turbomeca (Safran group) and Société nationale industrielle aérospatiale (now EADS) were at the forefront of this lucrative trade with the racist South African regime. "France accepts to provide virtually any type or amount of arms to South Africa, regardless of the official restrictions usually imposed," noted the Special NGO Committee on Human Rights in Geneva in 1974 [4] .

On 16 June 1976, thousands of students from the township of Soweto (Johannesburg) demonstrated against school segregation. The protest was brutally suppressed. "At first, the police unleashed dogs on the crowd. Then, to amplify the panic, they fired tear gas and live ammunition,” recalls Jeune Afrique journalist Tshitenge Lubabu. At least 575 were left dead. A year later, the UN finally approved a binding embargo. Who cares! "South Africa has already purchased enough weapons, including fifty Mirage F1. Only the navy programme remains incomplete: and it is precisely in this area that the embargo on arms sales remains unapplied," said a newspaper of the National Party, then in power. The racist regime held another 15 years.

A French amnesia

"Far from being an obstacle to economic growth in South Africa, racial capitalism - apartheid - is the cause of the extraordinary growth rate of its economy. In addition, the increase in foreign investment has resulted not in changing the system but in making it stronger," argued Ruth First in 1979. History proved her right. Between the life sentence given to Nelson Mandela and his election as the first President of a democratic South Africa, three decades would pass.

In the United States, there are still pending legal procedures initiated by apartheid victims against several major companies such as General Motors, Ford, IBM, Daimler and Rheinmetall [5] . In Switzerland, Mandela’s death led to the reopening of ancient wounds. Several banks, including Credit Suisse and UBS, had continued to invest in apartheid South Africa - without any kind of sanction. “It was the Cold War. The Soviet Union was doing everything it could to get hold of South Africa, a strategic country with Cape Town controlling a major shipping route. The aim of our group was to prevent South Africa from falling into communist hands”, explains today the Swiss far-right leader Christoph Blocher. So far, France has chosen not to confront this dark past, which is not so remote.

Ivan du Roy

End Notes

[1] Imprisoned then banished from South Africa, she went into exile in London in 1964, and later moved to Mozambique, where she received a letter bomb on Aug. 17, 1982 . Her article “La filière sud-africaine. L’investissement international dans l’apartheid”, published in the Tiers Monde magazine in 1979, is available (in French) on the scientific journals library Persée. It is an adaptation of her 1973 article “The South African Connection. International investment in apartheid”, which is not available online.

[2] The ILO declaration on apartheid is available here.

[3] Source: Los Angeles Times.

[4] The original document available online at Persée.

[5] See here for more detail.