When a new president takes office in January 1989, one of the major challenges he will face is to craft a coherent and sustainable policy toward southern Africa. His ability to meet this challenge will be affected greatly by developments over the next six months. Current congressional efforts to pass new sanctions against South Africa could further politicize the apartheid issue and result in actions that would restrict the next administration’s ability to deal resolutely and effectively with Pretoria.

Moreover, the outcome of U.S.-sponsored talks currently under way between Angola, Cuba and South Africa to bring about the independence of Namibia and the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola will greatly influence the opportunities for a new relationship with the Angolan government, as well as the possibilities for removing this conflict as a source of tension in U.S. relations with Moscow and Havana. Unfortunately, the potential impact of developments in the final months of the Reagan era on the options available to the next president has not been widely recognized.

The process of building a broad bipartisan consensus that will enable the next president to grapple with southern African issues quickly and confidently should begin immediately. Building such a consensus requires a balanced understanding of the sources of recent policy failures, a clear recognition of the deep-seated nature of conflict in southern Africa, and a willingness to reexamine U.S. policy objectives.


Southern Africa has always been difficult terrain for U.S. policymakers. The several failures involved in the collapse of the Reagan Administration’s policy of "constructive engagement" are only the latest in a long series of frustrated initiatives. Over the past three decades, Republican and Democratic officials alike have repeatedly miscalculated the stability of white rule, the strength of black resistance and the significance of Soviet and Cuban involvement in the region, with equally damaging consequences.

In their efforts to promote political change in southern Africa some administrations have relied on strategies emphasizing "quiet diplomacy" and "positive measures," others on strategies emphasizing pressure and isolation. Both approaches have been tried several times, and each time they have failed to produce quick results. As one approach has fallen into disfavor, the other has been revived, and the cycle has started anew.

Never before, however, has U.S. policy toward southern Africa been in such disarray as it is today. The conflict between the Reagan Administration and Congress over sanctions against South Africa has been widely publicized. But equally important, albeit less understood, differences exist both within and between the Administration and Congress on most other important issues on the regional agenda.

Within the Reagan Administration, there are at least three areas of disagreement concerning southern Africa. These reflect broader differences between Administration moderates and Administration conservatives.

President Reagan’s remarks on South Africa have often contributed to a perception that his views differ from those of his advisers on a number of questions, including the significance of South African reforms, the causes of black unrest and the right of the South African military to attack facilities in neighboring states alleged to belong to the African National Congress. For example, in a July 22, 1986, speech on South Africa (his only comprehensive statement on the subject during his two terms in office), the president cited acts of "calculated terror" by ANC elements and said that "the South African government is under no obligation to negotiate the future of the country with any organization that proclaims a goal of creating a communist state and uses terrorist tactics to achieve it." In congressional testimony the very next day, however, Secretary of State George Shultz, while expressing "serious questions about the ultimate objectives of the ANC," urged the South African government "to communicate with all parties," and suggested that the United States should and would do the same.

Differences also exist within the Administration over policy toward Angola. The decision in late 1985 to aid UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), which has waged a 13-year military struggle against the MPLA (Popular Liberation Movement of Angola) government in Luanda, represented a significant change from the more neutral posture assumed by Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker in his effort to broker a settlement in Namibia and facilitate the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. This shift was a victory for proponents of the so-called Reagan Doctrine, who see the war in Angola as part of a global struggle for freedom. In the aftermath of the Iran-contra scandal on one hand, and the apparent beginning of a new chapter in U.S.-Soviet relations on the other, those who favor diplomatic efforts to encourage regional accommodations may have regained their earlier bureaucratic ascendancy. But the underlying tension remains.

A more subtle conflict exists over policy toward Mozambique. Since early 1984, when Mozambique signed the so-called Nkomati agreement with South Africa, the United States has been committed to providing support for the government of Mozambique. In fact, many officials in the State Department regard rapprochement with FRELIMO—the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front—as constructive engagement’s most important achievement. Within the Defense Department and other agencies, however, there have always been doubts about FRELIMO’s ability to survive. These differences have manifested themselves in a sometimes bitter dispute over intelligence assessments of the nature, strength and future prospects of RENAMO (the Mozambique National Resistance), a band of insurgents supported by South Africa. There does not appear to be any significant support within the Administration for providing aid to RENAMO. But some officials favor pressuring FRELIMO to negotiate with RENAMO, and others would prefer that the United States steer clear of the issue entirely.


Conflicts between the Reagan Administration and Congress over southern Africa have been more obvious than those within the Administration, but the lines of contention have not been consistent. The most dramatic instance of executive-legislative disagreement was the overwhelming vote of Congress to override the president’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. Although the act contained a wide range of different and conflicting provisions, the vote was basically a referendum on apartheid, constructive engagement and sanctions. Since passage of the act, policy has been in a schizophrenic state, with the Administration legally obliged to pursue an approach that it openly opposes.

In a required report submitted to Congress on September 30, 1987, the president declared that "there has not been significant progress toward ending apartheid since October 1986. . . . Moreover, the South African government’s response to the act over the past year gives little ground for hope that this trend will soon be reversed or that additional measures will produce better results." Congressional proponents of sanctions share the president’s negative assessment of the current South African situation, but have a different view of the implications for policy. They advocate stronger sanctions and an international campaign of economic and diplomatic pressure directed against South Africa. The gap between these two views is unlikely to be bridged before the end of President Reagan’s term.

The Reagan Administration and Congress have also been at odds over the question of aid to Mozambique. In this case, however, Congress has adopted the more conservative position. A conflict first developed in 1985 when the Administration proposed a package of economic assistance including very limited nonlethal military supplies for the Mozambican government. By a substantial margin (247 to 177) the House of Representatives imposed conditions effectively prohibiting all but food assistance. Since then, restrictions on economic assistance have been somewhat loosened, but not those on military assistance. In 1987 Senate conservatives delayed the confirmation of Melissa Wells as ambassador to Mozambique for over 11 months in an effort to pressure the Administration to establish contacts with RENAMO.

On other regional issues majorities in Congress have also been less supportive of the so-called Frontline States (Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe) than the Administration. For example, in May 1987 the Senate passed an amendment by Senator Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) denying aid to countries in southern Africa that had not renounced "necklacing," a brutal tactic for executing suspected collaborators, despite the fact that there was no evidence suggesting that any government in the region had ever supported that practice. In the case of Angola, it is often forgotten that the real impetus for aid to UNITA came from Congress in mid-1985, at a time when most officials in the State Department thought such aid would be ill advised. Similarly, it is conservatives in Congress who have been actively seeking restrictions on U.S. economic relations with Luanda.

Over the past three decades congressional majorities have generally been more conservative on southern Africa than the president. For example, in the early 1970s Congress placed the United States in violation of a U.N. embargo of Rhodesia, and then in the later 1970s nearly derailed the Carter Administration’s attempts to facilitate a negotiated settlement in that country. The only major exceptions have been 1975-76 legislation preventing the Ford Administration from intervening in the Angolan civil war and the recent sanctions measures.

Divisions within Congress over southern Africa policy are just as significant as those between Congress and the president. Despite passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 by landslide votes, a congressional consensus does not exist on policy toward South Africa, much less other regional issues. The coalition supporting the act was composed of at least four groups, each with a different set of motives.

—Leadership and core support for anti-apartheid legislation is provided by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, liberal Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans. This vocal group has a long-standing interest in southern Africa. Although it comprises about 25-30 percent of the membership, this bloc will never be the swing factor in congressional votes on southern Africa.

—A smaller group of young Republican conservatives in the House of Representatives centered around Jack Kemp (N.Y.), Newt Gingrich (Ga.), Vin Weber (Minn.) and Robert Walker (Pa.) provided unexpected support for sanctions. They believed that their opposition to right-wing oppression in South Africa would enhance their ability to win support for "freedom fighters" waging wars against Marxist regimes in other countries. They also saw opposition to apartheid as a way to attract black support for the Republican Party. Support from this group gave the sanctions movement in Congress a substantial boost.

—The most passive, but nonetheless essential, bloc in the sanctions coalition was comprised of moderate and conservative Democrats with little ongoing interest in southern Africa. They were primarily concerned with domestic politics. At a time when the public and the media were seized with the issue of apartheid, it seemed unwise to cast a vote that might be construed as support for white rule.

—Moderate Republicans provided the final, and most decisive, source of support for the Anti-Apartheid Act. Included in this group were Senators Richard Lugar (Ind.) and Nancy Kassebaum (Kan.), both of whom had initially been strong supporters of constructive engagement. In 1986, as it became apparent that President Reagan was either unwilling or unable to demonstrate U.S. opposition to apartheid, Lugar and Kassebaum assumed leading roles in shaping a congressional alternative.

Given the diverse interests and objectives of this coalition, it is not surprising that the 1986 act is a jumble of provisions. It contains some 18 different types of sanctions, including investment and loan bans, trade restrictions and the termination of commercial air travel between the United States and South Africa. It calls on the president to develop with other countries a multilateral program to end apartheid, and to recommend additional unilateral sanctions if progress toward ending apartheid is not made. The act also authorizes a broad range of assistance to the victims of apartheid. In addition, it requires a number of reports, including ones on the role and activities of the South African Communist Party, health conditions in the South African "homelands" and measures to reduce U.S. dependence on strategic minerals. In short, it contains something for just about everyone. Unfortunately, however, it does not provide a basis for an effective long-term strategy.

A major problem is the gap that exists between the strategic assumptions and intentions of proponents of sanctions and the political realities that determine outcomes in Congress. None but the most naïve advocates of sanctions expected the 1986 act to cause the South African government to dismantle apartheid and enter into genuine negotiations with black leaders. Instead, the sanctions contained in the act were seen by anti-apartheid strategists in and out of Congress as the first in a series of escalating pressures. That view was not shared by most members of Congress. For some, the most important consideration was the need for a symbolic statement of U.S. opposition to apartheid. For example, Senator Kassebaum commented: "We aren’t fooled that sanctions work very well or will cause the South African government to buckle under. . . . But if we want to be perceived by South Africa and all sub-Saharan Africa as a player in the future we have to show whose side we are on." Many other members of Congress, probably a majority, saw the issue in even more limited terms. For them, the act was a political quick fix to get apartheid off the domestic agenda. In the absence of highly publicized violence in South Africa and renewed domestic protests over apartheid such as occurred in 1984-86, it is doubtful that Congress can be counted on to pass measures that will steadily tighten the screws on South Africa.

A second problem with the Anti-Apartheid Act derives from provisions within it concerning the ANC. Although urging the release of imprisoned ANC Life President Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of opposition political parties including the ANC, the language of the act suggests an underlying congressional ambivalence. For example, the act required the Administration to submit a report on the role of the South African Communist Party in the ANC, and prohibits assistance to any organization that supports or encourages "necklacing," which some ascribe to the ANC and its supporters. The act urges the Administration to encourage the ANC to (1) suspend terrorist activities, (2) make known its commitment to a free and democratic post-apartheid South Africa, (3) agree to enter into negotiations and (4) reexamine its ties to the South African Communist Party. Viewed in isolation these provisions are unobjectionable, but they portend a potentially bitter American debate over policy toward black leaders and organizations in South Africa; such a debate could quickly shatter the sanctions coalition in Congress.

In this regard, it is important to remember the Carter Administration’s experience with Congress over sanctions against Rhodesia. In April 1977 President Carter managed to get Congress to repeal the Byrd Amendment, which had placed the United States in violation of a U.N. embargo on Rhodesia, by substantial majorities. Fourteen months later, Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) narrowly failed to win Senate support for a bill that would have lifted all U.S. sanctions against Rhodesia. What accounted for this sudden reversal? In the spring of 1977, the sanctions vote was widely regarded as a referendum on white rule. In mid-1978 the terms of the debate were different. By drawing Bishop Abel Muzorewa and several other black leaders into a coalition government, Ian Smith allowed his supporters in the United States to present the issue as a choice between "pro-Western" black "moderates" and "radical" black "terrorists" aligned with the Soviet Union. By failing to anticipate and respond to this change, the Carter Administration came very close to having its Rhodesian policy sabotaged by Congress. If the South African government were to succeed in drawing Zulu Chief Gatsha Buthelezi or other prominent black "moderates" into a multiracial national structure, congressional debate over South Africa could shift along the same lines it did in the Rhodesian case.

The final problem with the Anti-Apartheid Act is that it does not adequately take into account the regional context. The issue is not whether the Frontline States would suffer from the imposition of sanctions against South Africa. The governments in these states all support Western economic sanctions against South Africa, but, as their leaders readily acknowledge, they are themselves in no position to impose such sanctions. The South African government understands this fact; it will occasionally retaliate against them to remind the international community of its ability to do so. But Pretoria’s primary response to sanctions that are not comprehensive will most likely be to expand its economic links with most of the surrounding states in order to compensate for lost markets elsewhere and facilitate sanctions-busting, while intensifying its military efforts to establish itself as a regional superpower.

As long as South Africa’s regional economic and military predominance are unchallenged, the effectiveness of sanctions in eroding Pretoria’s self-confidence will be limited. To change this situation would require a substantial and sustained commitment of resources to the Frontline States; providing economic aid without security assistance would be futile. This issue was not seriously addressed in the 1986 act.

The leaders of the liberal bloc of the sanctions coalition see such aid as a logical next step in the struggle against apartheid. But their view does not appear to be shared by the rest of the coalition. The domestic politics of economic and military aid to the Frontline States are very different from the domestic politics of apartheid and sanctions, especially at a time of huge U.S. budget deficits. Moreover, it is difficult to consider seriously challenging South Africa’s regional policy when the United States is engaged in a tacit alliance with it to support UNITA in Angola, and Congress is busy imposing restrictions on U.S. aid to Mozambique.

At the time it was passed, the Anti-Apartheid Act was both necessary and useful. The collapse of constructive engagement and the president’s refusal to develop a serious alternative left congressional leaders with no choice but to act. Not to have passed sanctions would have sent the wrong message to white South Africans. Just as important, without sanctions it would have been impossible for the United States to begin to reestablish lines of communication with the black opposition in South Africa. But it would be a mistake to ignore the act’s limitations and attempt to use it as a building block for future policy.

Legislation that would impose additional sanctions on South Africa is currently under consideration in Congress. There is a possibility that a new bill will be approved by the House of Representatives. It is less likely that it would win approval in the Senate. Moreover, any significant sanctions measure that was approved by Congress would almost certainly be vetoed by the president. In the final months of the Reagan era, it makes no sense to force a replay of the battles surrounding passage of the Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986.

A much more productive approach would be to lay the groundwork for executive-legislative cooperation in developing a new and more coherent approach. For example, congressional hearings on the problems of creating an effective multilateral sanctions program, ways to protect the Frontline States from retaliation, and South African military and technological vulnerabilities could provide a new administration with the knowledge base that will be necessary for sustained confrontation with Pretoria.

Strong sanctions will and must be a part of any new policy. Before further steps are taken on sanctions and other tactical issues, however, it is necessary to go back to basics and reassess the objectives of U.S. policy.


The first prerequisite for an effective policy toward South Africa and southern Africa in general is the establishment of a set of realistic objectives. Realistic in the sense, first, that there is some chance they can be achieved in a reasonable period of time, and second, that they are generally in accord with U.S. public values and expectations.

The highly political nature of the American foreign policy making process places a premium on results. When policies fail to produce visible successes, the clamor for an alternative usually grows quickly. By establishing goals that are unlikely to be achieved in a timely manner, an administration creates an easy opening for its critics. A better approach is to underpromise and overdeliver; as Assistant Secretary Crocker has learned, however, such advice is easier to give than to heed. Practical considerations aside, policy objectives must be defined in terms that are broadly acceptable to the American public. Policies that appear to be "soft" on racism or terrorism—no matter how expedient—will never win lasting political support.

In April 1976 Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made the first comprehensive statement on U.S. policy toward southern Africa by a high-ranking American official. In his speech Kissinger identified three goals for U.S. policy:

—a negotiated settlement in Rhodesia that would ensure a majority rule while protecting minority rights,

—a U.N.-supervised transition to independence in Namibia,

—a peaceful end to "institutional inequality" in South Africa.

The first two goals were realistic both pragmatically and politically. There was at that time a reasonable prospect that they could be achieved, and they met the test of public acceptability. From 1976 to the present, however, American policymakers have had great difficulty defining workable objectives vis-à-vis South Africa.

Kissinger’s goal of ending "institutionalized inequality" was realistic in the sense that it was possible to envision an "enlightened" South African government embarking on a program of domestic reform that would eliminate the more egregious features of apartheid and begin to eliminate discrimination in the workplace. By the mid-1970s, however, such limited reforms were already insufficient to satisfy the minimum demands of black South Africans. Luckily for Kissinger and the Ford Administration, they left office before they were put to the test on this issue.

The Carter Administration erred in the opposite direction. By allowing himself to be trapped into calling for "one man, one vote" following a meeting with Prime Minister John Vorster in July 1977, Vice President Walter Mondale contributed to the perception that this was the Administration’s objective. That objective was appealing in domestic political terms, but it was never practical in the sense that the policies being pursued could bring it about before the end of President Carter’s term.

In his exposition of constructive engagement in Foreign Affairs, Crocker criticized the Carter Administration for failing to recognize the strength and resolve of South Africa’s white rulers. This failing, he argued, caused that Administration to adopt an unattainable set of objectives. Unfortunately, the Reagan Administration went to the other extreme in overestimating the commitment of the South African government to "reform" and underestimating the ability of the opposition in South Africa to mount a serious challenge to white control. As a result, it pursued policies that have proved just as impractical, if not more so, than those pursued by the Carter Administration. The Reagan Administration’s difficulties have been exacerbated by its further failure to understand the need for goals that could be defended in domestic political terms.

The Reagan Administration’s initial objective for South Africa was the beginning of an evolutionary process of reform that "was open-ended and consistent with a nonracial order." To promote that objective, Crocker believed the United States should be willing to indicate support for positive steps taken by Pretoria, even if those steps fell short of what the United States believed would ultimately be necessary. This proved to be a serious miscalculation.

One of the complaints about U.S. policy most frequently made by South Africans is that Americans are constantly moving the goal posts. In their view, the reforms instituted by the Botha government went a considerable way toward satisfying earlier U.S. demands, but instead of approval South Africa received new demands. The "shifting goal posts" debate is a direct result of constructive engagement’s focus on near- and medium-term reforms rather than ultimate goals.

Reforms, no matter how substantial, that fail to win substantial black support in South Africa will never be politically acceptable to a majority in the United States. In implicitly suggesting that they might, Crocker misled the South African government. The only reason that this did not become clear earlier in Reagan’s term was that the apartheid issue was not yet on the public agenda.

As long as the promise of an early settlement in Namibia seemed credible and the political situation in South Africa was relatively calm, the Reagan Administration was able to avoid putting its definition of progress in ending apartheid to a political test. By mid-1983, however, Congress was beginning to grow impatient with constructive engagement. It was at this point that Administration officials began to cite reforms, especially the unveiling of a new tricameral constitutional structure that would grant limited political rights to Coloureds and Asians, as evidence of positive change in South Africa. In the fall of 1984 the credibility of these claims was shattered by the widespread unrest that accompanied the inauguration of South Africa’s new constitution and the attempt to put in place new structures of black local government.

Within the U.S. foreign policy establishment it is now clearly understood that merely encouraging "reform" is not sufficient. In January 1987, for example, the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee on South Africa recommended "against U.S. endorsement of ‘reforms’ that fail to address the fundamental concerns of black South Africans." There is in this, however, a danger that Americans may be adopting a new set of objectives that are equally unrealistic, i.e., not achievable.

In his September 1987 report on the Anti-Apartheid Act, President Reagan declared the goal of U.S. policy toward South Africa to be "doing all that is possible to bring the peoples of South Africa together for meaningful negotiations leading to the creation of a democratic society." The act’s stated goal is "an end to apartheid" and "the establishment of a nonracial democracy." It is difficult to quarrel with the ultimate desirability of these objectives. But they are not practical in the near to medium term, and giving them operational priority might prove counterproductive. Sooner or later, negotiations will bring about an end to white rule in South Africa as we now know it. That is a certainty. When that will occur, who will sit at the table and what will result are all open questions.

Obviously, it would be best if negotiations occurred before the current violence escalates into a bitter and bloody civil war; if they included representatives of all important groups; and if they resulted in the establishment of a democratic, nonracial political system committed to protecting human rights and promoting economic opportunity. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that such an outcome will occur before the end of the next president’s first term in office. Establishing this as a goal to be achieved by that date would, therefore, almost certainly ensure failure from the start. Moreover, by focusing on negotiations to end apartheid, policymakers may forfeit an opportunity to pursue other, more attainable objectives and, paradoxically, delay rather than hasten achievement of that ultimate objective.

Most conflicts eventually end in negotiations, but embattled regimes almost invariably agree to negotiate with their principal opposition only after they have tried to negotiate with everyone else and have concluded that they cannot defeat their principal opponents by force. South African whites are far from reaching this point.

Although shaken by the events of 1984-86, the South African government is still in a strong position. Since the state of emergency was imposed in mid-1986 the government has pursued a ruthless strategy designed to eliminate organized political opposition inside the country, curtail foreign assistance to opposition forces and redress some of the underlying socioeconomic grievances that fueled township unrest. This strategy has succeeded in eroding the revolutionary optimism that had begun to develop in the black community. But the struggle is still far from over.

President Botha’s recent announcement of his intention to offer new formulas for inclusion of blacks in the national government is evidence that Pretoria recognizes that a strategy based solely on repression and socioeconomic co-optation cannot succeed over the long term. Before seriously considering negotiations with its main political opponents, however, the Botha government will attempt to entice "moderates," including most prominently Chief Buthelezi, to accept a role in the government. Moreover, once they do decide to talk to the real opposition, especially the ANC, they are likely to spend considerable time trying to identify and hive off "moderates" with whom they might be able to cut a better deal than the one demanded by "radicals."

In the face of these realities it would be quixotic for U.S. policymakers to launch grand initiatives "to bring the parties closer together." U.S. interests—and the ultimate interests of South Africans—would be served best by honestly pointing out how far away a solution appears to be in South Africa, while emphasizing the potentially catastrophic costs of continued stalemate.

A related problem with putting emphasis on negotiations is the current effort to establish a set of preconditions or interim steps that can be defined as significant progress toward a settlement. The most widely accepted such step is the call for the release of Nelson Mandela. The Commonwealth’s "Eminent Persons Group" report, the 1986 Anti-Apartheid Act and the report of the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee have all suggested different lists of steps that should be taken. These lists risk starting a new "shifting goalposts" debate. The problem with them is that a politically adept South African government could fulfill—or at least create the impression that it had fulfilled—a number of these preconditions without being prepared to negotiate an end to white dominance. In fact, U.S. policymakers should be prepared for the day when South Africa decides to satisfy many of these demands, not to clear the way for genuine negotiations involving the ANC, but rather as part of an effort to avoid them. This risk is particularly high with regard to the release of political prisoners. Such a development would almost certainly further polarize the policy debate in the United States and, as a result, reduce the ability of a new administration to restore U.S. credibility and influence in southern Africa.

What is the alternative? A simple statement is required to the effect that U.S. officials are in agreement that resolution of the South African conflict will ultimately necessitate a settlement that is broadly acceptable to South Africans of all races. The South African government needs to recognize, once and for all, that the United States is not responsible for defining what constitutes sufficient or desirable change for South Africa. That is something that can only be done by the South African people. If a broadly acceptable settlement is reached it will be fairly easy to tell, and the specifics will not much matter. U.S. officials ought to do what they can to foster conditions that will make negotiations possible eventually, and be prepared to play a useful role once they begin. But, at least for now, promoting negotiations should not be the immediate objective of U.S. policy.


Emphasizing the objective of ending apartheid through reform and/or negotiations has concentrated American attention on the white factor in the South African equation. Despite dramatic developments in black politics over the past four years, this situation has changed only marginally. Crocker defended his emphasis on white politics in the following terms:

The importance of internal white politics derives from the fact that, on the one hand, whites continue to hold effective power and cannot be forced to share or transfer it; on the other hand, the way white leadership plays its cards will help to shape the question of who sits at future bargaining tables and under what circumstances.

Critics have attacked the Reagan Administration for paying too little attention to black politics, but their alternative strategy—escalating pressure—operates on very similar assumptions about the political centrality of whites. Both strategies—constructive engagement and escalating pressure—assume that the most urgent policy objective is getting whites to the bargaining table. What they differ on is how that can be achieved. Both sides largely discount the importance of black politics; when Americans do discuss it, all too often the talk centers on black attitudes toward sanctions.

Some analysts have suggested shifting the focus of policy from whites to blacks, but little effort has been made to think this through in strategic terms. Recommendations usually involve urging greater dialogue with representative black leaders and providing assistance to "the victims of apartheid." Over the past four years, this advice has been increasingly acted on, but efforts have been largely ad hoc, lacking any clear focus or larger objective.

One effective black-oriented strategy would be to concentrate on enhancing the black opposition’s ability to create autonomous organizations and independent economic and social support networks, thereby reducing black dependence on white-controlled agencies and structures and enabling blacks to challenge the state more effectively. Such an idea is implicit in the phrase "black empowerment," which is being used increasingly by officials in the Reagan Administration.

In July 1986 Alan Keyes, then assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, gave a speech in which he said, "the question for Americans and others in the international community is not with what well-intentioned gestures can we show our hatred of apartheid and our sympathy with the suffering of its black victims but rather how, with concrete acts, we can support the expansion and use of their positive power." In practice, however, the Reagan Administration has used the concept of black empowerment in an extremely narrow and self-serving way to argue against disinvestment and sanctions. This limited formulation should not deter others from exploring the strategic potential inherent in the concept.

Focusing on black empowerment would highlight the fact that the primary battleground in the struggle against apartheid is not in the halls of Congress or the meeting rooms of the U.N. Security Council, but inside South Africa. The most that any U.S. actions can achieve is to reinforce internal pressures for change. In this regard, it is useful to remember Nelson Mandela’s words to the Conference of the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa in January 1962. While calling for strong international action against apartheid, he warned that "it would be fatal to create the illusion that external pressures render it unnecessary for us to tackle the enemy from within. The centre and cornerstone of the struggle for freedom and democracy in South Africa lies inside South Africa itself."

It is the nature and pace of black empowerment, not white predispositions or maneuvering, that is the most critical determinant of the prospects for genuine negotiations. Until there is a decisive shift in the balance of power in South Africa there is little prospect that whites will agree to negotiate. Black empowerment is precisely the process of shifting that balance. Similarly, it is the political, social and economic character of black empowerment, not the largely white-dominated discussions of possible constitutional formulas, that will ultimately be most important in shaping a post-apartheid South Africa.

The expansion of black power has been under way in South Africa for several decades. Economic forces such as the emergence of a powerful independent trade union movement are only one factor. Equally important is the growth in the late 1970s and early 1980s of a diverse array of politically conscious organizations at the local, regional and national level, and the emergence of the church as an active political force.

Over the past three years the South African government has taken a series of wide-ranging actions to reverse this process of black empowerment and crush internal political opposition. It has arrested and detained thousands of individuals, including most of the national leadership of the United Democratic Front. The political activities of most organizations have been severely restricted. The news media’s ability to report on developments in the country has been tightly circumscribed. New regulations are being put in place to block the flow of foreign funds to progressive organizations inside the country. These developments have caused many people to conclude that efforts to assist internal organizations are foolhardy, but this conclusion is short-sighted.

Despite the government’s actions, the vast majority of the progressive organizations that emerged inside South Africa over the past decade continue to function, albeit in different guises. Rent strikes and stayaways continue in much of the country. The independent trade union movement has grown stronger and more unified. Church leaders have assumed a greater role in articulating opposition to government policy. The alternative media has found ways to report on events. Universities such as the University of the Western Cape and others are still working to lay the groundwork for a nonracial South Africa. Most important, a climate of determined resistance to white rule continues to exist throughout the country. In short, the government has succeeded in suppressing political opposition, but it has not been able to establish its authority and legitimacy in the black community. As one South African analyst has observed, the most the government can hope to achieve is compliance, and over the long run compliance without consent and cooperation is not enough.

One of the main current tasks of a strategy of black empowerment should be to find ways to help progressive organizations inside the country survive. Many private and public efforts to do this have already been undertaken. As the South African story has received less attention in the media and as U.S. firms have withdrawn from the country, however, resources for these efforts have begun to dry up.

Creating a wide range of personal and institutional ties between black South Africans and individuals and organizations in the United States can greatly complicate Pretoria’s efforts to isolate and demoralize its domestic opponents. Trade unions and churches in the United States and Western Europe are already playing a major role in assisting their South African counterparts. Other groups, e.g., professional associations, service organizations and student groups, should be encouraged to do so as well. Increased financial support should also be provided to independent organizations working in South Africa on community development, health projects, child care programs, legal assistance clinics and black education.

Many Americans most sympathetic with the black opposition have opposed efforts to provide assistance to blacks inside South Africa on the ground that such aid might indirectly bolster the existing system and relieve the financial burden on the South African government, or that it could be used as a substitute for sanctions. These arguments are far off the mark. As strategists for Solidarity in Poland and other opposition organizations in Eastern Europe have long recognized, efforts to reduce dependence on the state and encourage the emergence of a self-sufficient society are an important means of diminishing the power and authority of a repressive regime. The South African government would find it quite difficult politically to block foreign support for such "nonpolitical" work.

The cornerstone of a black empowerment strategy should be the development of an ongoing dialogue with the black leadership in South Africa. Such a dialogue could provide the informed understanding of the situation on the ground and black priorities in the struggle against apartheid that a serious effort to promote black empowerment would require. Moreover, by clearly acknowledging the legitimacy and authority of those black leaders operating outside of government structures, dialogue would foster black empowerment. Such a dialogue should include representatives from the exile movements, especially the ANC.

A black empowerment strategy is not an alternative to revolution in South Africa; there are no such easy choices left. As the Rockefeller-supported Study Commission of U.S. Policy Toward Southern Africa foresaw in 1981: "The choice is not between ‘slow peaceful change’ and ‘quick violent change’ but between a slow, uneven, sporadically violent evolutionary process and a slow but much more violent descent into civil war." Support for black empowerment will ultimately increase the opposition’s ability to wage a serious revolutionary struggle in the event that white authorities continue to block all channels for peaceful change. For that reason, a serious Western commitment to support black empowerment would send the strongest possible signal to whites that continued intransigence will threaten their interests in the long run.

A policy of black empowerment would require the U.S. government to adopt a much more determined and active strategy for responding to South African efforts to block contact and communication between Americans and progressive organizations in South Africa. Sanctions, especially in the area of travel, should be specifically linked to South African policies on passports and visas. South African media restrictions should set in motion programs to use official U.S. intelligence and communication capabilities to get information in and out of South Africa. Restrictions on the flow of funds to organizations inside South Africa should be met with commitments to provide U.S. funds to exile organizations.

Emphasizing black empowerment would not mean ignoring the white factor. Obviously, white politics are important; Americans can and should try to influence white thinking and government policy in South Africa. But this should take place in the context of an overall emphasis on black empowerment. In fact, committing the United States to black empowerment and following through in a serious and sustained manner would reinforce the position of those political leaders in the National Party who are beginning to perceive the long-run futility of the government’s current policies.


Over the past eight years an important shift has occurred in the way the United States defines its objectives in southern Africa. From 1976 through 1982-83 U.S. policy focused on the achievement of a number of discrete objectives: negotiated settlements in Rhodesia and Namibia, the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola and progress toward ending apartheid in South Africa. In the Reagan Administration’s first year emphasis was placed on a Namibian settlement and Cuban troop withdrawal, and to a lesser extent, positive ties with Zimbabwe.

In 1982 this approach began to change. U.S. objectives began to be defined in broad regional rather than national/bilateral terms. In July 1983 Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Lawrence Eagleburger spelled out a U.S. vision of "a framework for regional security" in southern Africa based on respect for international boundaries, renunciation of violence and political coexistence. "A structure of regional stability," he declared, "is unlikely to take root in the absence of basic movement away from a system of legally entrenched rule by the white minority in South Africa."

This shift was dictated in large part by South Africa’s adoption of a strategy of regional destabilization designed to compel neighboring countries to accept a regional order supportive of South African interests—or, if this proved impossible, to so destabilize those countries that they could not threaten South African regional hegemony. Destabilization led to a series of cross-border raids by the South African Defense Forces (SADF) on neighboring states, especially Lesotho and Mozambique, support for antigovernment insurgents in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and restrictions on regional transport. As these actions began to engulf the entire region in a widening spiral of violence, officials in the Reagan Administration became increasingly concerned. They were forced to reexamine their initial premise that the United States and South Africa had a common set of regional interests and that the main task was to clear away the two issues—Namibia and apartheid—that made open cooperation politically impossible.

The reorientation of U.S. regional strategy had several effects, one of the most important of which was to cause the Reagan Administration to rethink its relationship with Mozambique. Disappointed with the support it was receiving from the Soviet Union, the Mozambique government first began to make overtures to Washington in 1982. Most Administration officials did not immediately perceive the importance of a rapprochement with Maputo. For example, one official commented wryly, "the problem is they haven’t got any Cubans to send home." Once the issue was conceived in broader regional terms, however, the Administration’s view of Mozambique’s importance changed; Mozambique became the centerpiece of the effort to stabilize the region and demonstrate the United States’ unique abilities to serve as a regional power broker.

Initially, U.S. officials sought to use their access to Pretoria to encourage South African policymakers to abandon destabilization in favor of a policy of regional accommodation. They played a significant role in bringing about the Nkomati accord of April 1984, wherein Mozambique and South Africa agreed to cease all support for antigovernment guerrillas. This accord—and the Lusaka accord involving South Africa and Angola—briefly renewed Washington’s belief that cooperation with Pretoria on regional issues was possible. As evidence began to mount, however, that South African support for insurgents in Mozambique was continuing, in clear violation of the Nkomati accord, and as the SADF launched new attacks on targets in the surrounding states, U.S. officials began to see the conflict between South African and Western interests and objectives in the region as fundamentally irreconcilable. By mid-1986 it was clear that the United States and other Western countries were on a collision course with South Africa.

In his July 1986 congressional testimony Secretary Shultz commented that "South African strikes against Lesotho, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, and Pretoria’s continued relationship with the Mozambican rebel movement, have shattered the emerging climate of regional moderation." After detailing the extent and gravity of regional conflict, he continued: "The fundamental cause of all this damage is the system of apartheid and the mounting and inevitable reaction to it."

In the maelstrom of controversy surrounding constructive engagement, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that considerable progress has been made in defining regional objectives that are practical and significant. The basic elements of a policy of regional restabilization are: (1) opposition to cross-border military raids and assistance to antigovernment insurgents; (2) cooperation with the United Kingdom and other Western allies to assist the members of the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC) to rebuild their economies and reopen railways and roads through Angola and Mozambique; (3) support, including military training and supplies, to enable these states to protect their legitimate security interests; (4) promotion of internal accommodation and reconciliation (such as occurred in December 1987 when the Zimbabwean government signed a unity pact with its opposition); and (5) dialogue with the Soviet Union and Cuba to minimize the risk that regional conflicts will escalate into international confrontations.

Implementing an effective restabilization strategy would require, first and foremost, that Congress and the executive branch resolve the inconsistency between general U.S. support for regional stability and its actions toward Angola and Mozambique. It would also require rethinking how sanctions and the threat of sanctions can be used most effectively. For example, the threat of sanctions to deter South African regional aggression or promote a settlement in Namibia might be more successful than sanctions to promote the end of apartheid; the same sanctions cannot be applied simultaneously to both ends.

It would be a serious mistake to adopt the position, as some have urged, that the order of political priorities in southern Africa has changed and that regional initiatives should now be given lower priority than bringing the situation in South Africa to a head. If negotiations to end apartheid are not in the offing, then it is wrong to send the message to South Africa’s neighbors that their problems must be put on the back burner until there is a breakthrough in South Africa. It makes more sense to shift away from a single-minded focus on a goal—bringing about negotiations to end apartheid—that is not likely to be achieved in the near or possibly even medium term, in order better to promote goals such as black empowerment and regional restabilization that can be realized.

A critical first step in developing a more effective policy toward southern Africa would be to resolve at long last the tangle of issues that have blocked establishment of a normal relationship between the United States and Angola. U.S. policy toward Angola is currently proceeding on two contradictory tracks. One track—the effort to achieve a diplomatic settlement leading to Namibian independence and the withdrawal of Cuban troops—is consistent with the Reagan Administration’s commitment to regional stability. The other track—aid to UNITA—is not.

The decision to provide aid to UNITA was based on ideological and domestic political considerations that had little to do with the situation in southern Africa. In fact, at the time the decision was taken, considerable progress had been made in developing a workable basis for negotiations with the Angolan government. U.S. support for UNITA temporarily disrupted the negotiation process, but over the past six months new and important ground has been broken. It is still doubtful that a settlement will be reached before the end of President Reagan’s term in office, but it is now possible to envision developments, especially in U.S. relations with Angola and Cuba, that could significantly change the nature of the problem a new president will inherit.

Despite their initial protests over the Reagan Administration’s decision to link resolution of the Namibian conflict to the withdrawal of Cuban troops in Angola, both Luanda and Havana have now accepted linkage as a reality. Recent discussions, including an early May meeting where U.S., Angolan, Cuban and South African officials sat down together for the first time, have centered around this issue. While Angola and Cuba have not yet tabled a proposal that fully satisfies U.S. officials, they are far closer to doing so than most analysts previously believed possible.

Several factors account for the willingness of the Angolans and Cubans to be forthcoming in the negotiations. Both of the MPLA’s main military supporters—Cuba and the Soviet Union—appear to have concluded that the Angolan conflict cannot be won militarily, that a continued stalemate is a costly drain on scarce resources and, most important, that a politically acceptable settlement is possible. In particular, there appears to be a growing consensus among supporters of the MPLA, including African, Cuban and Soviet officials, that a formula must be found to end the struggle between the MPLA and UNITA. Also important is the belief that officials in the Reagan Administration are acting in good faith.

Even if the Angolans and Cubans do offer a troop withdrawal timetable that satisfies U.S. expectations, however, a settlement is not probable because the South Africans are unlikely to live up to their part of the bargain—i.e., implementing U.N. Resolution 435 to bring about Namibian independence. Because of the bases and facilities the SADF has established in the territory, especially in the Caprivi strip along the Angolan border, Namibia is far more important militarily to Pretoria now than it was in 1980-81. Moreover, given the recent successes of the right-wing opposition in South Africa, National Party leaders have reason to fear the possible political repercussions of appearing to "sell out" the white cause in Namibia. Two considerations, however, might cause the Botha government to agree to a settlement: a credible threat of concerted U.S., British and West German support for sanctions if it refuses; and the possibility of significant military losses on the ground in Angola.

Twice previously, promising negotiations in southern Africa have been impeded by the U.S. electoral calendar. In 1976-77 the election of Jimmy Carter complicated efforts to bring about a settlement in Rhodesia, and in 1980-81 the election of Ronald Reagan destroyed any hope of an immediate settlement in Namibia. This scenario need not be repeated a third time.


The prospects for a resolution of the Namibian and Angolan conflicts and, just as important, the next administration’s opportunities to shape a serious strategy to restabilize southern Africa could be enhanced greatly by a determined bipartisan effort to support the initiative currently under way. What would be most helpful would be a clear signal of American resolve to push the current negotiations to their logical conclusion regardless of the results of the November elections.

Such a signal could take the form of a sense of Congress resolution, endorsed by both major presidential candidates. It should spell out steps that the United States would take if the Angolans and Cubans table proposals for a withdrawal of Cuban forces within two years of the beginning of implementation of U.N. Resolution 435, and the South Africans do not then agree to withdraw from Angola, end military assistance to UNITA and grant Namibian independence. Specific steps the United States should be prepared to take are: supporting imposition of a selective but mandatory package of sanctions by the U.N. Security Council, ceasing all contacts between the American and South African intelligence communities, ending all covert military assistance to UNITA, and undertaking not to become involved if Cuban forces were to attack South African forces in response to continued SADF incursions into southern Angola.

For such a proposal to be politically feasible there would have to be a further understanding between the United States and the Angolan government that if external assistance to UNITA were cut off and UNITA ceased offensive operations in Angola, Luanda would not attempt to defeat UNITA militarily. Such a de facto cease-fire would allow Angolans time to begin to figure out a way to resolve politically rather than militarily the tragic civil war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars over the past 13 years.

In sum, it is not too late for the Reagan Administration to achieve the major goal it set for its southern Africa policy in 1981—a Namibian settlement and progress toward the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola—nor is it too early to begin laying the groundwork for a credible and coherent regional policy by a new administration. What is required is that Administration officials, congressmen and presidential candidates recognize the critical importance of their actions and rhetoric over the next six months, and act in a way to enhance rather than diminish the chances of a breakthrough in the Namibian negotiations and expand rather than limit the options that will be open to a new president.

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  • Michael Clough is Senior Fellow for Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was Study Director of the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee on South Africa in 1986-87. This article is adapted from the author’s “Beyond Sanctions,” a paper published in the Critical Issues series of the Council on Foreign Relations.
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