The Ethical Questions Posed for the International Community

Although the conditions in South Africa were unique, the lessons learned from studying the actions, motives, and results are universally applicable since the essential topic is political and economic power and the use of technology to support it.

PICTURE OF DEAD CHILD The evidence in the two sections above leave little doubt that apartheid was immoral. It was a living vestige of the colonial racism that emanated from Europe in the early days of Imperialism. In modern times, power structures that sustain racism have come under close scrutiny. History has shown that systematically disempowered classes eventually rise to right the imbalance, frequently "by any means necessary." The historical development and natural wealth of South Africa had combined to support a political anomaly, a contemporary country caught in the morals of Imperial Europe.

The interesting ethical consideration in the case of apartheid is not whether the system itself was right or wrong, but rather what the ethical stand of the governments, corporations and people outside South Africa was and what it should have been. In this section we discuss international reactions to South Africa, particularly with regards to its use of computer technology.

As explained in section three, computers were key components in the machinery of apartheid. Since whites were a tiny majority, they employed technology extensively to support control of the majority. It follows that if the computing resources of South Africa had been withdrawn then apartheid would have fallen, or at least been mitigated.

In the late 1970's through the 80's, a spirit of collective responsibility as well as cold war politics compelled nations to take actions against South Africa - to pressure the South African government to clean up its act. The U.N. issued a series of declarations urging member states to embargo South Africa:

There are two important points concerning these declarations. First, they only embargoed goods destined for the police and military. "Thus classified as civilian material, computers and electronic equipment [were] still being exported to South Africa."[Slo90] Second, the U.N. never took any significant measures to enforce the embargo.

Though well intentioned, the embargo against South Africa was ineffective at stopping the exports. Here we list some of the major problems with the technological embargo:

The embargo of technology to South Africa was weak. The 1949 Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export (COCOM) embargo provides an example of a stronger and more successful technology embargo. The aim of the COCOM embargo was to prevent the Warsaw Pact countries from receiving technology they could use for military purposes. Three lists of strategic goods were developed that listed items that couldn't be exported to the Warsaw Pact Countries. The participants then established a complex system of permits which required complete and explicit recording of who was receiving goods from companies in the COCOM countries. The final and key ingredient of this embargo was enforcement. The U.S. government in particular monitored and punished countries that broke the embargo.

In the case of South Africa, nations including the United States did not demonstrate a conviction to make the embargo work. We can speculate as to why this was the case. South Africa was a profitable market for computer equipment; multi-national corporations with South African investments became an effective lobbying group against strong enforcement. Unlike the case of the Warsaw Pact countries, South Africa was not perceived as a threat to the U.S. So the main advantage of the South African embargo for the U.S. was to make its human rights policy look good. One group wrote regarding the technological embargo of South Africa:

The embargo is at best a mild irritant to the South Africans. More than anything, it appears to be largely irrelevant to the flow of technology from U.S. suppliers to South African end-users. [NAR82]

Although the sanctions were not effectively enforced by the U.S. government, they provided a basis for voluntary compliance. Compliance was "encouraged" in the U.S. by civil protests magnified by media exposure. Technology and other companies that had substantially dealings with South Africa were embarrassed by the exposure brought to light by student and other activists. The damage to the corporate image had a tangible effect on profitability and so translated the ethical issue into terms that the corporate system is designed to respond to.


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