No good deed goes unpunished, as many U.S. corporations are finding out in South Africa. Despite expectations that they would be welcomed back warmly by a black African-run government, PepsiCo, Apple, AT&T, McDonald's, and dozens of other companies that shunned South Africa are getting the cold shoulder.
Instead, it is those companies that either outright defied the anti-apartheid movement, such as Ingersoll-Rand Co., or who maintained an indirect presence in South Africa, such as IBM and Ford Motor Co., that are getting the largest contracts from local corporations and state-run businesses. This is even truer for European and Japanese companies who, by and large, did not join the U.S.-led boycott of the white government in the 1980s. Germany's Siemens and France's Alcatel Alsthom remained in the country selling their goods and services and, indeed, locked up many markets, such as phone lines and switches, with contracts for up to 15 years.
The problem is twofold. First, much of South Africa's clubby corporate elite remains white, and its memory of American companies leaving in order to force a change in government remains fresh in their minds. They aren't inclined to reward those whom they regard as their betrayers. Since much of the government remains in white hands, many U.S. companies who left are also being frozen out of contracts with state-owned businesses.
Second, the government of Nelson Mandela can't afford to antagonize all those companies that defied sanctions and remained behind because they are so important to South Africa's economic future. Ingersoll-Rand's regional unit, for example, exports 35% of its $48 million in sales to South Africa's neighbors, providing jobs, tax revenues, and hard currency.
What is to be done? South Africa's $122 billion economy is growing at 3% annually. There should be some room in that rich and expanding arena for all companies, including those who, pressured by domestic U.S. constituencies, felt compelled to honor the anti-apartheid sanctions. Certainly, there should be political will on the part of South Africa to make sure that these companies are not punished.
The slogan for the African National Congress' 1994 election campaign was, "Forget the past. Show us the future." Even if the new South African government refuses to remember those corporations who stood by the ANC in the past, it should not forget that getting to the future requires all the help it can muster.