Rep. Wolpe, whose mother was involved in civil rights causes, had a doctorate in political science and spent his early career teaching African political studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1978 representing southwestern Michigan and made his greatest mark serving for a decade as chairman of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa. Rep. Wolpe was among a core group of congressmen who championed sanctions against South Africa because of its violent, white-minority rule.
The debate over divesting financial interests in South Africa also reached colleges and corporate boardrooms. One of the largest employers in Rep. Wolpe’s district, Kellogg’s, had operations in South Africa and objected to sanctions. The company also funded efforts to unseat him, but Rep. Wolpe managed to keep his seat in large part by staying attentive to the needs of his constituents.
Taking on the issue of apartheid paid few, if any, dividends among his constituents. He took other political risks by frustrating the Reagan White House’s policy of “constructive engagement” in southern Africa.
The White House’s approach was aimed at ending South Africa’s segregationist system without isolating the country, a vital Cold War ally of the United States.
In 1985, Rep. Wolpe criticized constructive engagement, saying that it was likely “to increase the violence” in South Africa “because the intransigent [white] elements have been led to believe they can engage in repression without any real cost or American response.”
Rep. Wolpe worked to pass a trade embargo on South Africa that would prohibit all U.S. companies from conducting business there. The Senate approved a slightly milder bill, and Rep. Wolpe was persuaded to accept it with a promise that the Senate would override a presidential veto. In the end, both chambers overrode President Ronald Reagan’s veto.
The bill became the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which banned most new trade in South Africa and included the release of political prisoner Nelson Mandela as a condition for lifting the sanctions. Rep. Wolpe continued to press for further sanctions, even after Mandela was freed in 1990.
John Campbell, a former U.S diplomat in Africa who is a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York, said the actual economic impact of sanctions on South Africa is “quite debatable.”
The political ramifications, he said, were much more important and showed supporters of the apartheid government that they “really were pariahs.” Moreover, Campbell said, the sanctions persuaded South African liberation movements to move away from socialist ideals to a “more nuanced” political platform agreeable to the West.