By the 1980s, the apartheid political system in South Africa and its brutal oppression of people of color had become increasingly shocking to the world. Sustained global opposition resulted in the system’s collapse by the beginning of the next decade.
In the United States, anti-apartheid efforts pitted community leaders, states, and cities against the federal government and the Reagan administration, along with numerous corporations and their business groups. By withholding public contracts and other financial benefits, cities and states sought to sanction U.S. businesses that were profiting from the South African apartheid system.
They were met with fierce opposition from the Reagan administration, whose stated position was to fully support the racist government of South Africa through “constructive engagement,” claiming that policies to address apartheid should be developed by the federal government, not states or cities, and that economic sanctions would “exacerbate” the situation of black South Africans.
The clash between the Reagan administration and cities and states over apartheid teaches important lessons that provide guidance today. The tools wielded by the federal government to thwart cities and states during the anti-apartheid struggle continue to inhibit local innovation in public contracting today. How cities and states fought back also provides lessons for policymakers contending with threats from the Trump administration to punish “sanctuary” cities and other state or local communities that are resisting aggressive measures by the federal government.