Computers and the Apartheid Regime in South Africa


The practice of apartheid existed in South Africa for more than forty years and came to an end when Nelson Mandela (see also African National Congress) was elected president in 1994. During those forty years control of the power and wealth by the white minority was systematically increased through laws enforced with enthusiasm, resulting in the extreme repression of the majority native African population. As the world community became more aware of the abhorrent practices of the white oligarchy, a chorus of condemnation and approbation resulted in local and international actions designed to force change. Chief among these measures were economic sanctions.

The first United Nations arms embargo on South Africa was passed in 1963, but it was not until 1977 that the embargo became mandatory. The embargo addressed shipments of traditional arms, but did not address the general technological backbone of arms development. Consequently, the South African government pursued a course of developing an indigenous arms industry with the support of multi-national corporations as well as countries such as Taiwan and Israel.

In response to these U.N. actions, the U.S. government enacted laws and regulations designed to restrict the flow of resources to the South African military and police. These acts had little effect on the flow of computer technology due to its multi-purpose nature. When the legal actions were backed up by public outcry and product boycotts, corporations "saw the light" and began to change their practices, or at least put them at an arms length.

Central to the ambitions of the oppressive minority government was the use of enabling technology such as computer hardware and software. As the primary developer of new technology, the United States and the multi-national technology companies based here had a central role in providing these tools of repression. The very profitable South African operations had resulted in explosive growth of investment during the 1970's by several large American technology corporatios, chief among them IBM. These companies now found themselves accused of supporting the racist power structure.

The case of apartheid's use of technology is unusual in several respects. Unlike many ethical issues, there is little debate about the practice of apartheid: just about everyone considers it wrong and considers the support of it wrong. Because such a small minority of the population was striving to control so many people so completely, reliance on technology was high. Because the nature of the control went into so many aspects of life, many tools developed for innocuous purposes in democratic societies could be utilized for repression with little or no customization.

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.


Topics of Interest

[CS Dept.] [Stanford] This is a CS201 Final Project (completed in the spring of 1995) by: