African National Congress: Memorandum to the Special Committee against Apartheid on Economic Relations between France and South Africa
Up until the 1950s, economic relations between France and South Africa could be summarized in one word: wool. Year in and year out, France bought from 40 to 60 per cent of South African production. When the rest of the country – except for rugby players – largely ignored the existence of the Republic, South Africa was almost a household word in Mazamet, where the skins are treated, and in Roubaix, where the wool is spun. The importance of this commodity was so great that one of the biggest French banks created a South African subsidiary to cater primarily to the needs of the wool buyers. This is now the French Bank of South Africa, born in 1949. South Africa was only remotely mentioned in connexion with exotic names of gold mines, the shares of which were traditionally found in most investment companies.
The French Government seemed to take notice of the existence of South Africa for the first time only after the 1958 takeover by General de Gaulle, when France sought allies for her position on the Algerian question, which had come up for debate at the United Nations. The previous regime, left-to-centre oriented was satisfied with the dormant relations between the two countries, exclusively in the hands of the private sector: Banque de l`Indochine, Compagnie Maritime des Chargeurs Réunis, Compagnie des Messageries Maritime, U.T.A. and the big “lainiers” (wool buyers) of Roubaix.
General de Gaulle was to change this. To express his gratitude to one of the very small number of countries which wholeheartedly supported his position applied to the Algerian war, he never publicly mentioned apartheid. Added to this mild satisfaction, South Africa drew great comfort from De Gaulle`s conservative adviser Jacques Rueff, one of the first economists to call for a revaluation for the official gold price.
In 1960, South Africa was equally in desperate need of friends, when, after the Sharpeville killings, traditional links with Britain and the Commonwealth were at a breaking point. Strong France-South African ties were, therefore, a natural response to urgent political circumstances; and the two countries lost no time in giving concrete form to their new friendship. South African army officers were sent to Algeria to train in anti-guerrilla tactics, and soon after French arms were sold to South Africa. The early military support South Africa drew from France is undoubtedly at the origin of the present “success” of French firms in South Africa.
Given that the South African economy is widely controlled by British-oriented capital, France could not have found a better way to penetrate the South African market than through the Afrikaner-controlled Government and armed forces. Well over half of all loans and orders placed by South Africa in France emanate from the State Corporations, strongholds of the Nationalist Party. The Nationalist drive for rapid development of an autonomous industry received its greatest encouragement from France. The role of France in South Africa should be judged on its strategic importance, rather than on its purely commercial aspects.
The study of the relations between the two countries is hampered by the usual difficulties encountered in any attempt at a precise analysis of relations between South Africa and the rest of the world. However, in the case of France these difficulties are more serious. French exports to South Africa are predominantly of a military nature, and strict censorship of details concerning these transactions is applied by both sides. Therefore, when official statistics list France as South Africa`s sixth trading partner, she is in fact higher in rank.