Ronald Reagan’s imposition of limited economic sanctions against the South African regime in September was a tacit admission that his policy of "constructive engagement"—encouraging change in the apartheid system through a quiet dialogue with that country’s white minority leaders—had failed. Having been offered many carrots by the United States over a period of four-and-a-half years as incentives to institute meaningful reforms, the South African authorities had simply made a carrot stew and eaten it. Under the combined pressures of the seemingly cataclysmic events in South Africa since September 1984 and the dramatic surge of anti-apartheid protest and political activism in the United States, the Reagan Administration was finally embarrassed into brandishing some small sticks as an element of American policy.

The Reagan sanctions, however limited, are an important symbol: a demonstration to the ruling white South African nationalists that even an American president whom they had come to regard as their virtual savior could turn against them. Only a few weeks after inexplicably hailing South Africa for an American-style solution to racial segregation, Mr. Reagan, beating Congress to the punch, signed an executive order banning the export of computers to all official South African agencies that enforce apartheid; prohibiting most transfers of nuclear technology; preventing loans to the South African government unless they would improve social conditions for all races; ending the importation of South African Krugerrand gold coins into the United States; and limiting export assistance to American companies operating in South Africa that do not adhere to fair employment guidelines. By any measure, this was a significant development, and Pretoria’s reaction of shock, anger and defiance underlined its impact.

But the sanctions, applied at once with fanfare and apologies, do not represent a fundamental change in American policy toward South Africa. Nor do they portend or promote a meaningful evolution in the South African political and social system. On the contrary, they continue the recent American practice of attempting to reform the South African system by working entirely within it and honoring its rules. "Active constructive engagement" (the new, impromptu name the President seems to have given his policy during a press conference) is still a policy that engages the attention and the interests of only a small, privileged stratum of South Africans. It relies almost entirely on white-led change, as designed and defined by a regime that is becoming more embattled by the day. And it ignores the needs, the politics and the passions of the black majority in South Africa. The policy will continue to fail.


Constructive engagement has not merely caused the United States to lose five valuable years when it might have influenced South Africa to begin negotiating a settlement of its unique and extraordinary racial problems. Many would argue that constructive engagement was a necessary step in the evolution of American attitudes toward South Africa, but the cost has been great. American policy has actually exacerbated the situation inside South Africa by encouraging and indulging the white regime’s divide-and-rule tactics—leading that regime, its internal and external victims and much of the international community to believe that, whatever the rhetoric emanating from Washington, American prestige is on the side of the Pretoria government.

Indeed, from the time constructive engagement took effect, American trade with and investment in South Africa increased, and the Reagan Administration expanded the scope of U.S. cooperation with the South African government. It lifted previous restrictions on the export of military equipment and equipment with potential military uses; permitted (until President Reagan’s recent change of heart) the sale of American computers to the police, military and other agencies of the South African government that administer apartheid; and approved the sale of shock batons to the police. The Administration also allowed the return of South African military attachés to the United States and otherwise expanded diplomatic, military and intelligence relationships between the two countries—including the establishment of several new South African honorary consulates around the United States, the provision of American training for the South African coast guard, and the resumption of official nuclear advisory contacts.

In addition, the Reagan Administration frequently stood alone on South Africa’s side in the U.N. Security Council—vetoing resolutions critical of South Africa on occasions when Britain and France abstained, and, in some cases, registering the only abstention when Western allies voted to condemn South African actions.

No specific conditions were imposed on South Africa in exchange for these American favors. On the contrary, they were granted at a time when many of the restrictions on black South Africans were being tightened and tensions inside South Africa were growing. One important consequence was that, while America’s official gaze was averted, a whole stratum of black South African leaders who had appeared willing to negotiate over the country’s future seem to have been pushed aside by groups that advocate violent solutions. The arguments in favor of American-style, if not American-sponsored, conciliation and negotiation in South Africa may now have lost their force, as the South African drama has taken new and significant turns toward a tragic resolution.

Viewed in the context of the events of the past 15 months, South Africa’s problem today is a manifestly new one. Unless steps are taken to prevent further deterioration, that country is liable to drift into uncontrollable violence fueled from the extreme right and extreme left. What is needed from the United States is not a withering debate over disinvestment or a domestic public relations campaign on behalf of constructive engagement, but an entirely new and more imaginative approach to South Africa. A policy must be crafted that not only recognizes and works with the current grim realities there, but also tries to ease the transition to an altogether different, albeit unknown, future in which blacks will take part in the government of their country. There is no longer any question that this change will occur in South Africa; the question is how, according to whose timetable and with what sort of outside involvement.

Only by establishing much more direct communication with the South African majority and by granting it far greater and more practical assistance can the United States hope to influence the course of events there. In effect, a new, parallel set of diplomatic relationships is necessary. And only by taking further steps that risk hurting the pride of South Africa’s current rulers can American leaders hope to win enough credibility among South African blacks to be listened to in the debate over the country’s future—a debate that will have profound consequences in all of Africa, the United States and much of the rest of the world.


From the start, constructive engagement meant quite different things to the four constituencies that would be most affected by it: the Reagan Administration itself, and by extension the American public; the South African government and the white population it represents; the South African black majority; and other countries in southern Africa.

The policy of constructive engagement was spelled out in 1980 by Chester A. Crocker, shortly before he became assistant secretary of state for African affairs. One of its first principles was that the previous U.S. policy of putting overt, public pressure for change on the South African regime had seemed to promise much more to black South Africans than it could deliver. "Americans need to do their homework," wrote Mr. Crocker in a landmark article:

A tone of empathy is required not only for the suffering and injustice caused to blacks in a racist system, but also for the awesome political dilemma in which Afrikaners and other whites find themselves. . . . American powder should be kept dry for genuine opportunities to exert influence. As in other foreign policy agendas for the 1980s, the motto should be: underpromise and overdeliver—for a change.

Ironically, the Crocker approach made its own very ambitious promises, this time to the American public and the international community. Among other things, it offered the prospect of increased American prestige in southern Africa (with the implication that Soviet influence there would correspondingly be neutralized); a solution to the diplomatic and military conflict over Namibia (or South-West Africa), the former German colony that South Africa has continued to rule in defiance of the United Nations; and a withdrawal of Cuban troops and advisers from Angola. The latter—the prospect of an apparent setback for the Cubans—carried particular domestic political appeal in the United States, and it alone seemed to justify the sudden focus of high-level attention on Africa.

Finally, and most fundamentally, constructive engagement promised that if the United States could, as Crocker put it, "steer between the twin dangers of abetting violence in the Republic and aligning ourselves with the cause of white rule," then it could contribute to the achievement of change in South Africa. The Reagan Administration seemed to believe that P. W. Botha, who had become prime minister in 1978 and elevated himself to state president in 1984 under a new constitutional scheme, was significantly different from other, more orthodox postwar South African leaders. Botha’s program of limited reforms, Crocker felt, should be encouraged and applauded by the United States, if only to safeguard American interests in South Africa and the region.

In the early days of constructive engagement, Botha appeared to be impervious to, or at least capable of outsmarting, the increasingly assertive South African right wing, composed mostly of disaffected members of the ruling National Party. What is more, the domestic situation in South Africa seemed to be secure. The nationwide upheavals associated with the Soweto riots of 1976 had subsided. Despite localized incidents of black unrest and sporadic attacks inside the country by members of the exiled African National Congress, there was no obvious political force that might be able to dislodge, or even unnerve, the Botha government. When ANC attacks got out of hand, the South African government seemed capable of neutralizing the organization with commando raids into neighboring black-ruled countries.

Reinforcing all this was the widespread impression that the South African business community—led primarily by relatively liberal English-speaking men with extensive ties to the outside world—was not only poised to play a more active role in setting the pace of reform and determining the country’s future, but was also being encouraged to do so by the Afrikaner-dominated political establishment. After the uprisings of 1976, business leaders had established new foundations that would attempt to improve the lives of black people in ways that the government itself was not yet prepared to attempt. At a widely publicized meeting in Johannesburg in 1979, Botha had explicitly asked the captains of South African business and industry to help him lead the country along a new political path, and they had, for the most part, responded enthusiastically.

The Reagan Administration seemed to believe that with its domestic situation under control and improving all the time, South Africa, with American backing, could also play the role of a regional power promoting peace. Once Namibia had achieved independence under U.N. supervision (in direct exchange for the withdrawal of the Cubans from Angola, a linkage that Washington introduced into the negotiations), other regional tensions would be reduced and, the State Department hoped, recalcitrant South African whites would see the advantages of peaceful coexistence with neighboring black-ruled states.


The Botha government had different expectations of constructive engagement. Indeed, for Pretoria, Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 stirred ambitious hopes. It seemed to signal a return to the days when the South African white regime could get away with portraying itself as a protector of the Western way of life, a bastion of freedom, decency and economic development at the tip of a continent afflicted by tyranny, chaos and abject poverty—above all, a bulwark against communism.

For the four previous years, that pose had been weakened, if not entirely rejected, by Washington. Jimmy Carter, with his emphasis on human rights and his public criticisms of apartheid (made, for example, during a visit to Nigeria) had come to be regarded as public enemy number one by many South African whites, who believed that he was trying to humiliate, or perhaps even destroy them. During a press conference at the end of a dramatic confrontation with then Prime Minister John Vorster in Vienna in 1977, Vice President Walter Mondale had appeared to advocate a one-man/one-vote system for South Africa. Two of Carter’s other lieutenants who applied pressure on the country, U.N. Ambassadors Andrew Young and Donald McHenry, were black. Some white South Africans held Young and McHenry personally responsible for forcing a supposedly unwitting and, at the time, somewhat disorganized National Party government into a fateful concession—an agreement that Namibia should move toward independence under the terms of U.N. Security Council Resolution 435.

Anti-Americanism became a powerful force in South African white politics during the Carter Administration. In an election held some months after his showdown with Mondale, Vorster was able to add 15 seats to his majority in the white parliament simply by focusing the electorate’s attention on alleged U.S. meddling in the country’s affairs. Indeed, Carter’s promotion of a climate of distrust between Washington and Pretoria, his refusal to acknowledge and endorse South Africa’s dominant role in the region, may have contributed to the growing determination of the South African military to demonstrate the country’s hegemony by destabilizing the governments and economies of neighboring states.

For the National Party government, Reagan’s election raised hopes for more than just a return to a "normal" relationship between the United States and South Africa. There was the prospect of a valuable endorsement of the legitimacy of the white regime and the promotion of South African leadership in the region, perhaps through the "constellation of states" concept that Vorster had introduced and Botha had promoted. When President Reagan himself, in a television interview early in his term, extolled South Africa as "a country that has stood beside us in every war we’ve ever fought, a country that strategically is essential to the free world in its production of minerals," some South African politicians began to fantasize that their wildest dreams might come true.

Pretoria was encouraged that the Reagan Administration viewed the problems of southern Africa in the context of East-West relations, a perspective that South Africa felt had been naïvely missing from Carter’s policy. South Africa’s suspicion of the Soviet Union bordered on paranoia, and the new American government’s tough line toward Moscow was greeted in South Africa as "political realism." Indeed, white South Africans hoped they would finally be regarded as an integral part of Western defense requirements.

In a "scope paper" to brief then Secretary of State Alexander Haig for a meeting with South African Foreign Minister Roelof F. "Pik" Botha in 1981 (and later made public by TransAfrica, the black American foreign policy lobbying organization), Crocker gave every indication that the Reagan Administration might be prepared to trust South Africa with just such responsibilities. He wrote:

The political relationship between the United States and South Africa has now arrived at a crossroads of perhaps historic significance; the possibility may exist for a more positive and reciprocal relationship between the two countries based upon shared strategic concerns in southern Africa, our recognition that the government of P. W. Botha represents a unique opportunity for domestic change, and willingness of the Reagan administration to deal realistically with South Africa.

If the South Africans cooperated on the Namibian issue, the Crocker memo went on to argue, the United States could "work to end South Africa’s polecat status in the world and seek to restore its place as a legitimate and important regional actor with whom we can cooperate pragmatically." The United States was prepared to begin this process of new, "realistic" dealings with South Africa by taking "concrete steps such as the normalization of our military attaché relationship." In other words, the State Department leadership was so enthusiastic and hopeful about this course that it was willing to make symbolic gestures to Pretoria without any advance indication that reciprocal measures would be forthcoming.

Aware of this attitude, the Botha government expected still more concessions out of constructive engagement—perhaps even some form of American recognition of the South African-designed "independent homelands" of Transkei, Bophutha-tswana, Venda and Ciskei, which had been scorned and shunned by the international community but remained an important part of the grand fabric of apartheid. At one meeting with Crocker in Pretoria, Foreign Minister Pik Botha attempted to promote direct communication between the United States and the homelands by passing along messages from the leaders of two of these pseudostates. The thought was that if America conferred some legitimacy on the homelands, then other Western nations might follow suit and, before long, the established, genuinely independent states of the region, such as Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, would be forced out of weakness to deal with the homelands directly and perhaps even to join them in Botha’s "constellation."

As far as Namibia was concerned, given the rich enticements that were being offered, South Africa seemed willing to play along with Crocker’s patient, if overly optimistic, efforts to secure a settlement. Pretoria was, of course, deeply suspicious of the United Nations and skeptical of any transition to independence in Namibia that would operate in favor of the South-West Africa People’s Organization, which had been designated by the United Nations as the sole legitimate representative of the territory’s inhabitants. SWAPO, although it included among its membership many old-line nationalists whose views were consistent with those of European social democrats, had long been aided by the Soviet Union and other communist countries and, as an organization, officially followed a Marxist political line. Once the connection of a Namibian settlement with the departure of the Cubans from Angola had been introduced by Washington, however, it was much easier for South Africa to cooperate—or at least to give the impression of cooperating—with the Reagan Administration’s efforts, which most South African political analysts thought were doomed to fail anyway.

Whether the Botha government ever could have delivered on a Namibia deal without provoking a severe crisis in the ranks of white South Africans is another question; the South African Defense Force, whose influence over the country’s regional policies is profound, was, and apparently remains, hostile to any negotiations to "give away" the territory.

When it came to the issue of internal reform, P. W. Botha found it relatively easy to satisfy the Reagan Administration with his own limited agenda. Botha, as a lifelong party organizer and long-standing member of the white parliament from southern Cape province, where the population is evenly divided between whites and so-called Coloureds, had very little direct experience with other blacks. Thus, when he promoted a new constitutional scheme in 1983 establishing separate chambers of parliament for the so-called Coloureds and Asians, he was still groping to construct an alliance of minority groups that would exclude, and defend itself against, the black South African majority. When the United States appeared willing to accept the new constitution as a step in the right direction, Botha and his reformist allies were encouraged to think that they had American support on this important front. It was the impression that the United States was identifying itself with the South African government’s latest scheme for preserving and prolonging apartheid that was critical to the view of constructive engagement held by most black South Africans.


A major complicating factor for any outsiders who attempt to deal with the South African issue is that black South Africans have a view of the world quite different from their white countrymen. But they have no formal diplomatic representation—the few overseas offices of the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) have no meaningful status, except at the United Nations—and not even any reliable informal ways of making their views known to the international community. They are as disenfranchised in the outside world as they are at home.

For years, contacts between Americans and black South Africans had grown stronger, in part through greater journalistic attention to South Africa in the United States, and in part through the growing inclination of American civil-rights and other organizations to become concerned about the South African problem. An assumption gained currency in South Africa during the presidency of John F. Kennedy that the United States sympathized with the plight of black South Africans and tended to take their side during incidents of repression and violence. Among other gestures, Kennedy’s State Department for the first time required the American embassy in South Africa to invite blacks to official functions; the President’s brother, Robert, was particularly involved with South Africa, and his visit there in 1964 is still remembered as an important gesture of solidarity with those who were fighting apartheid.

The Carter Administration sought to rekindle this spirit in American relations with South Africa, especially during its first two years in office. After the death of "Black Consciousness" leader Steve Biko at the hands of the South African police in 1977, the Carter Administration led the international chorus of outrage, and for a time it seemed as if American protests had helped to end deaths in detention in South Africa. Although Carter’s rhetoric on the South African issue subsided as the practitioners of realpolitik gained the upper hand in his Administration, and although he repeatedly disappointed those who were waiting for the United States to vote in the United Nations for international economic sanctions against South Africa, the Carter years are nonetheless regarded by some South African blacks as a time when America was ready to help.

In the heady early days of constructive engagement, however, the Reagan Administration seemed obsessed with a need to demonstrate classic American qualities of evenhandedness. In one speech in August 1981 to the annual convention of the American Legion in Honolulu, Mr. Crocker stressed that "it is not our task to choose between black and white" in South Africa, where the United States sought "to build a more constructive relationship . . . based on shared interests, persuasion, and improved communication." While reiterating that the Reagan Administration disapproved of "apartheid policies that are abhorrent to our own multiracial democracy," Crocker said that "we must avoid action that aggravates the awesome challenges facing South Africans of all races. The Reagan Administration has no intention of destabilizing South Africa in order to curry favor elsewhere."

To some black South African leaders, not to choose sides between the oppressors and the oppressed was tantamount to buttressing the oppressors. Already, in March 1981, Bishop Desmond Tutu, then secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches, had warned that "a United States decision to align itself with the South African government would be an unmitigated disaster for both South Africa and the United States." Tutu cautioned that the appearance of a reconciliation between Pretoria and the most influential government in the West would negate years of attempts by black South Africans to achieve a peaceful realization of their political ambitions.

Four months later, a well-known black South African academic, N. Chabani Manganyi of the University of the Witwatersrand, told a Johannesburg conference that "blacks, both in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa, interpreted the policy of constructive engagement as an act of choice—or moral choice. They see the choice as a very simple matter in that it is a choice between South Africa and its domestic policies and the rest of the world." Manganyi called upon the Reagan Administration to fulfill its moral obligation to the people of South Africa and the international community by applying pressure for change; he said that whereas the Carter Administration had given blacks hope, "it could well be that President Reagan is preparing us for despair."

So preoccupied was the Reagan Administration with sending signals to South Africa’s white minority, however, that it is not clear its representatives paid heed to such warnings. Crocker exacerbated the situation by failing to include formal, public meetings with black South Africans on the itineraries of his many trips to South Africa, which received prominent coverage in the South African press. One black South African newspaper claimed that between January 1982 and December 1984, Crocker had met formally with only 15 South African blacks, and that all of those meetings took place in the United States. As a result, it became all the more difficult for him and other representatives of the American government to encounter blacks and solicit their views informally; increasing numbers of them (and even of white liberals) refused to attend functions given by U.S. diplomats in South Africa.

Especially offensive to some black South Africans was the fact that the United States expressed no opposition to the Pretoria government’s latest divide-and-rule tactic, the new constitution creating separate chambers of parliament for so-called Coloureds and Asians—nor to the conduct of a whites-only referendum in November 1983 for approval of the constitution. In a speech to the National Conference of Editorial Writers in San Francisco in June 1983, U.S. Under Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger stated:

I do not see it as our business to enter into this debate or to endorse the constitutional proposals now under consideration. Nor do we offer tactical advice to any of the interested parties. Yet the indisputable fact which we must recognize is that the South African government has taken the first step toward extending political rights beyond the white minority.

In the view of black South Africans, who were almost universally opposed to the new constitution (even the leaders of six of the homelands urged a negative vote in the referendum), the United States could hardly have devised a clearer endorsement of the proposals.

In August 1983 more than 570 organizations, with members from all races, joined in a movement that pledged to work actively against the new constitution. The result was the United Democratic Front (UDF), which eventually orchestrated a massive boycott of the September 1984 elections for "Coloured" and Indian members of parliament. Only 30.9 percent of "Coloureds" and 20.3 percent of Indians who had taken the step of registering actually cast their votes; some of South Africa’s new nonwhite parliamentarians went to Cape Town on the basis of the votes of only a few hundred people. Most blacks saw the new institutions as a farce.

The identification of Washington with some of the most detested devices of the white regime may have helped to discredit black South African leaders who were not entirely ill-disposed to the United States, as well as American liberal politicians who were willing to support only moderate tactics in the struggle against apartheid. Thus, the radical Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO), a "Black Consciousness" group, demonstrated against Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and succeeded in ruining his visit to South Africa early in 1985. Meanwhile, black spokesmen such as Dr. Nthatho Motlana, who had been an early activist in the ANC and, as chairman of the "Committee of Ten," had the support of his community in confronting the authorities during the Soweto riots of 1976, now appeared increasingly irrelevant to the more militant youths in the townships who called each other "comrade."

So far had things moved by the time P. W. Botha declared a state of emergency in certain parts of the country in July 1985 that it was not clear that the country-wide violence could be halted even if the ANC were brought into the dialogue. It seemed obvious that the ANC leaders sitting in other African capitals were as surprised as anyone else by the turn of events inside South Africa, and perhaps equally unable to control what happened. Whereas the ANC banner had often been displayed at political funerals over the years, on at least one occasion, in Cradock, eastern Cape province, it was now accompanied by the Soviet flag.


American officials who spoke on behalf of constructive engagement liked to stress as often as possible that it was intended not merely as a policy toward South Africa, but as an effort to deal with the entire southern African region and its problems—thus Washington’s promotion of direct talks between South Africa and Angola and its pleasure over the signing of the Nkomati accord between South Africa and Mozambique.

Most governments in the region, however, saw few benefits from constructive engagement. On the contrary, they saw evidence of a dangerous new South African military ascendancy, as the South African Defense Force seemed newly emboldened to strike across frontiers—into Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana and, above all, Angola—in pursuit of ANC or SWAPO guerrillas and activists. The South Africans certainly supplied and trained the Mozambique National Resistance (MNR or Renamo), whose destructive war against the hard-pressed government of Samora Machel drove him to sign the Nkomati accord. (The accord called for Mozambique to expel ANC guerrillas in exchange for a suspension of South African aid to the MNR; documents recently discovered in Pretoria revealed that while Mozambique kept its part of the bargain, South Africa did not.) South Africa also kept up the pressure on the Marxist government in Angola by continuing to supply the rebel forces of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) led by Jonas Savimbi. What is more, there have been few moments during the past ten years when there were not substantial numbers of South African troops inside Angola itself; last spring, South African commandos were captured in the Cabinda enclave (a part of Angola that is separated from the rest by a thin piece of Zaïre) as they were preparing to sabotage an American-owned oil-drilling installation.

At the same time, South Africa also found economic means of destabilizing its neighbors and demonstrating its political hegemony over weaker states. The United States tried to put distance between itself and the South Africans on the issue of destabilization, frequently condemning its cross-border incursions and finally, after the raids in Cabinda and Botswana, withdrawing the American ambassador to Pretoria, Herman Nickel, for several months. Yet it seems clear that South Africa felt comfortable taking these steps against its neighbors without fear of serious recriminations from Washington.

Indeed, the U.S. Congress has been pushing the Administration to resume American aid to UNITA; while intended as a means of demonstrating toughness toward Cuba and the Soviet Union, this action would have the primary effect of advancing South Africa’s interests in the region. Savimbi is clearly Pretoria’s client, and is regarded as such throughout Africa; in fact, there is no way to aid him without going through South Africa.

For a time it appeared that the Reagan Administration would be willing to complement its new closeness with Pretoria with substantial aid programs for nearby black-ruled states. But those programs rarely materialized, and when they did, as in the case of Mozambique, opposition from conservatives on Capitol Hill made them almost impossible to carry out. In the case of Zimbabwe, where the United States had made an international commitment of aid at the time of independence in 1980, the Reagan Administration decided to punish Prime Minister Robert Mugabe for his foreign policy positions—including his sponsorship of a U.N. resolution condemning the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983—by cutting back substantially.


After nearly five years, then, constructive engagement has failed on every front and with all of its constituencies.

The American public has seen little to indicate new U.S. diplomatic or strategic strength in southern Africa; on the contrary, the region is in as much turmoil as ever, and the Soviets have suffered few notable setbacks. The Cubans are still in Angola, and Namibia is no closer to independence; indeed, the South Africans recently instituted a new internal regime there, in direct defiance of American wishes.

Within South Africa itself, the United States has given a great deal and seen little progress as a result. The only concrete achievements of constructive engagement, apart from the shattered Angolan-South African truce and the now-discredited Nkomati accord, were a brief period of leniency by the Pretoria government toward black trade unions and the granting of passports to black spokesmen invited to the United States, such as Tutu and Motlana.

But the Reagan Administration can hardly claim that constructive engagement has brought about genuine improvements in the lives of South Africans. On the contrary, the piecemeal reforms that have been enacted in the past five years have been the object of resentment. The introduction of the new tricameral parliamentary system has coincided with the most devastating internal violence the country has experienced since the formation of the unified South African state in 1910. Unrest has flared during the past year in every part of the country, and the imposition of the state of emergency has done little to quell it. In addition to the hundreds of known deaths and thousands of detentions that have occurred in recent months, more than one hundred South Africans have mysteriously vanished, many of them suspected victims of clandestine elements within the state security apparatus. The South African economy is in a shambles, and the country has been forced to postpone payment of many of its international debts. In some rural areas, such as the strife-torn eastern Cape, black unemployment is estimated to be as high as 60 percent.

The South African government, having expected so much, is itself disappointed with constructive engagement. It has reverted to old-style denunciations of American pressure as counterproductive, and it is furious over even the limited sanctions—worried that other nations may do the same or more and weaken the South African economy further. Far from strengthening its network of homelands, South Africa now finds itself having to think about dismantling them altogether or using them to create a new "federation." Its economic and military dominance of southern Africa is apparently intact, but it is not clear how long that will last if domestic turmoil continues. South Africa’s formidable military machine is now required almost full time to help suppress internal unrest, despite a recently announced increase of 25 percent in recruitments into the police force.

Black South Africans are, if anything, becoming more disillusioned with the United States. Their impression is that although some sanctions have been instituted by executive order and American officials continue to condemn apartheid and demand further reforms, Washington is still collaborating substantially with the apartheid system rather than calculating further measures against the white government. It was particularly telling that when a clinic run by Winnie Mandela, wife of Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned leader of the ANC, was firebombed during the recent violence, she refused an offer of official American assistance to rebuild it.

According to the limited opinion polls that are available, Nelson Mandela remains the most popular black leader in South Africa; having been ignored by the United States all these years, it is difficult to imagine that he would be sympathetic to American concerns in South Africa’s crisis. Some analysts believe that Mandela himself may soon be overtaken by the quickening pace of radicalization in South Africa; it may be that those who inherit his mantle will be overtly hostile to the United States. With President Reagan appearing at times to justify the excesses committed by the South African government under the terms of the state of emergency and at other times seeming to exaggerate the degree of reform that has already taken place, the United States is viewed increasingly by black South Africans as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Similarly, other southern African states are blaming constructive engagement for much of their own distress. In some cases, overestimating the degree of actual American influence on the South African government, they have developed unrealistic expectations of what the United States can do to improve their situations, and they are bound to be disappointed.


It is time for a new American policy toward South Africa that will help restore the reputation of the United States as a defender of human rights and racial justice in that country and will serve the broader interests of all South Africans and Americans.

There are, of course, important limitations on the American ability to affect the situation in South Africa. The U.S. military is not about to intervene on any side in any current or future crisis; it is foolish for whites or blacks in South Africa to believe otherwise (as some of them do). Nor can American leaders wave political or economic wands that will transform South Africa overnight. Indeed, American sanctions or moves toward disinvestment from the South African economy are sometimes more important on both sides as symbols than as practical measures; when sanctions are invoked, they should be carefully calibrated and thoughtfully applied. Given the level of suffering that already exists in the country, it is in no one’s interest to destroy the South African economy or to induce further chaos in the country. And despite the frequent declarations from many quarters about the willingness of black South Africans to endure sacrifices in exchange for eventual freedom, it is not for the United States to condemn them to more abject poverty and deprivation. Disinvestment efforts within the United States should be directed only against particular firms that are known to have conducted themselves in an antisocial, regressive manner within South Africa. As for the continued presence of American business in South Africa, individual companies, evaluating their risks on the basis of hard-nosed, pragmatic criteria, are making their own rational decisions on whether to stay or not.

But there are some official steps that the United States can take in an effort to move South Africa toward meaningful change and full participation by all of its people in the affairs of the country. If Americans still want to try to assure that the South African transition occurs relatively peacefully and with a minimum of vindictiveness on the part of blacks, then there is little time left to act.

The first step, uncomfortable as it may seem to many Americans, is to restore a forthright atmosphere of public and private confrontation to relations between Washington and Pretoria—precisely the sort of independent attitude that Mr. Crocker has eschewed. Internal and external pressure is the only thing that has ever produced meaningful change in South Africa. American officials need to become far more direct and persistent in their condemnations of apartheid. Speeches at the National Press Club in Washington alone cannot do the job. U.S. representatives in South Africa must be willing to denounce and even defy the system whenever possible, making clear their official and personal support for organizations like the UDF and Black Sash, the women’s group that represents the victims of arbitrary "pass arrests" and other government actions. Some things may have to be said or done many times before they are believed or credited by disillusioned blacks.

All of this would have the immediate effect of helping develop a healthier, more vigorous multiracial opposition within South Africa, which would be far more difficult for the regime to crush if it clearly enjoyed outside support. If an American decision to confront apartheid more boldly also stiffened the resolve of other Western nations and ultimately led to a growing international vote of no-confidence in the leadership of P. W. Botha, that too would be a desirable turn of events. It is now obvious that as long as he remains in power, the National Party will not be able to form or endorse the alliances with other political factions that are necessary to head off full-scale civil war.

The current South African government, under the shortsighted impression that it has profited from a five-year interlude of conciliation with the United States, would be bitterly resentful of such a reversion to prior strategy by Washington. It would undoubtedly attempt once again to profit politically from American hostility and would proclaim, as it must, that this is the surest way for the United States to lose, rather than gain, influence in South Africa. But the truth is that South Africa has few other places to turn. It is dependent on the United States, in spirit as well as in fact; fellow "pariah states", such as Israel and Taiwan—its other current friends—simply cannot do for South Africa what America can do. And if constructive confrontation hastened the start of negotiations over real power in South Africa, which constructive engagement has failed to do, that would be a step forward.


Once having restored a proper sense of balance and confrontation to U.S.-South African relations, it would be important for the American government and private business interests to devise additional measures that might hurt the pride and prestige of the white South African government without inflicting undue economic damage on black South Africans. Some of the measures should be selectively instituted for predetermined periods, in response to particular events in South Africa, with the American government making it clear that they may be lifted if circumstances improve. Alternatively, if the situation continues to deteriorate, the pressures could be intensified.

The landing rights enjoyed by the state-owned South African Airways in the United States can be reduced or terminated. The availability of almost daily direct service between Johannesburg and New York, with only a stop in the Cape Verde Islands, is a great advantage to South African businessmen and officials, and since Pan American abandoned its service for economic reasons earlier this year, the South African state airline has a monopoly on the route’s substantial profits. Far from considering this step, which has frequently been proposed in the past, the Reagan Administration actually expanded South African Airways’ landing rights in the United States in 1982, permitting direct service between Johannesburg and Houston (later suspended). The cancellation of direct air service is a sanction the United States has frequently taken to demonstrate disapproval of actions by other governments—including the Soviet Union, Cuba, Poland and Nicaragua. Because of the importance to South Africans of their links to the outside world, this would probably be more likely to have an effect in South Africa than it did in those other countries.

The United States can take steps to reduce South Africa’s privileged diplomatic status here. South African military attaches can be expelled, for example, especially in the wake of external raids and other objectionable actions by the South African Defense Force. The visa-application process for South Africans who wish to travel to the United States can be made as complicated and cumbersome as it is already for Americans who seek to visit South Africa. And if Pretoria proceeds with its policy of making it more difficult for American journalists to travel to South Africa, and to have the necessary access when they do get there, then the number of official South African information officers permitted in the United States can be reduced.

The United States has recently sought South African permission to open a new consulate in Port Elizabeth to establish an official American presence in the troubled eastern Cape. The Reagan Administration must take care not to grant unnecessary concessions in exchange; South Africa already has four full-fledged and four honorary consulates in the United States.

The flow of new American technology to South Africa can be further restricted, especially as it relates to the repressive domestic tactics of the South African government and its raids against neighboring countries. President Reagan’s restriction on the shipment of computers to South Africa had little immediate effect because most of the material to which it applied was already in South African hands or could easily be obtained from other countries. Rigorous steps can be taken, however, including the use of U.S. Customs Service agents and other law enforcement personnel, to be sure that other American technological advances do not reach the South African police or military, directly or through third countries. It would also be possible to improve American compliance with the international arms embargo against South Africa and to take further steps to prevent nuclear material from reaching the country. It is widely known that some American companies operating in South Africa are involved in strategic industries, and therefore in the regime’s domestic and international war effort; this could be prevented with new federal rules governing American corporate behavior in South Africa.

The U.S. government can severely restrict, or even suspend entirely, its intelligence cooperation with the South African government. There is reason to believe that these ties have helped the South Africans far more than the United States, and they carry the implication that the United States is complicit in some of the worst abuses committed by South Africa against neighboring countries. One of the most troubling aspects of this problem is that some operatives of U.S. intelligence agencies and some State Department employees who have served in South Africa are outspokenly sympathetic to the apartheid policies of the white regime and have occasionally used their positions to thwart official American actions and directives.

The United States can seek to internationalize discussion of the South African issue by putting it on the agenda of the annual Western economic summits. This would be a way of coordinating economic pressures on South Africa, and also of trying to persuade recalcitrant nations, such as Japan, which has richly profited from its pragmatic relationship with South Africa (the Japanese have status as "honorary whites"), to go along with the measures.


Even more important, perhaps, are positive, lasting steps that the United States can take to demonstrate its sympathy for the black majority in South Africa and to show that it does not believe all change there must be white-led.

The United States must open a dialogue with the African National Congress and other black organizations that have widespread support among black South Africans, just as Secretary of State George Shultz has suggested the white South Africans themselves should do. Not to know what the ANC, the oldest black nationalist organization in South Africa, is thinking and doing is not only bad diplomacy but also foolish politics. If South African businessmen and white opposition politicians have recently held such discussions, certainly American officials will be taking no great risk by doing so. As it is, there is a feeling among some black South Africans that the attitude of the ANC may now be too moderate, in view of the pace of events within South Africa, and thus the United States may have to open relations with much more radical organizations. This contact with black South African leaders should take place at the ambassadorial level, both inside and outside South Africa, as a means of stressing the American rejection of the notion that the white government is the only meaningful political institution in the country.

The United States should send a black ambassador—a man or woman of international stature—to South Africa as soon as possible, to demonstrate important points of principle to South Africans of all racial groups. Above all, this would be an opportunity to emphasize the valuable role that black people play in a multiracial society and a system which South Africans often compare to their own. Some might complain that such an appointment smacks of tokenism, but if the ambassador behaved in an appropriate manner, his presence would be of more than symbolic value. For example, this new ambassador should attend the funerals of blacks killed by the police, political trials, and church services in black communities, as American diplomats in South Africa used to do. He should provide facilities for the meetings of groups that are trying to organize peaceful protests against the apartheid system and, in other respects, make it clear that he is the ambassador of all Americans to all South Africans, not just of white America to white South Africa. He should not take it upon himself to play American politics in South Africa—as the current U.S. ambassador did when he denounced Senator Kennedy while introducing him at a meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce of Johannesburg—but rather should take it as one of his jobs to convey to South Africans the depth of American feeling against apartheid and the so far inadequate steps to dismantle it.

Massive aid programs, funded by the American government, foundations and business, should be instituted to help black South Africans attain better educations in a broad range of fields, from engineering to international relations. The money for such programs should be distributed to all South African educational institutions, regardless of their nature, but special attention should be paid to encouraging the further integration of the mostly white elite universities. The committees that decide how this money is to be spent should have a majority of black South Africans. American-sponsored educational programs already available have barely scratched the surface; what is needed now is an effort to help black South Africans learn how to help run their country, an eventuality that seems not to have occurred to the ruling whites.

The United States should offer publicly to send forensic pathologists and other experts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation into South Africa to help find South Africans who have mysteriously disappeared and to help determine the cause of death of those who have been found. This has proved to be an effective technique in Central American countries such as El Salvador, where the police do not always care to solve crimes. The South African police are accused of acting to frustrate, rather than advance, the solution of some crimes against black people, and such outside help might well be appropriate. If the South Africans at first refuse such aid, the United States should offer it again and again, until its refusal becomes an embarrassment and a liability to the white government.

The United States government, in conjunction with professional groups such as the American Bar Association, should also send legal aid to black South Africans. Although the legal systems differ in certain important respects, the American experience with public defenders and government-funded legal services is an excellent example for the South Africans. American law schools and private foundations, for example, could help train black South Africans as paralegal workers, who in turn could establish elementary legal clinics in remote areas of the country, where the civil and human rights of blacks are the most egregiously and routinely violated; these paralegal workers could in turn report to lawyers, who make sure that the abuses are brought to the attention of the courts and the press. The American legal community could also assist the South Africans in the creation of a lawyers’ organization in which blacks play a prominent role. (Such an association of doctors and dentists was recently established in South Africa, but unfortunately it is still not officially recognized by the American Medical Association.)

The United States should not only support the efforts of the black-led labor unions in South Africa, but where possible, should also send expert American union organizers to help them strengthen their institutions. Until and unless other structures are established, South Africa’s black unions represent one of the few ways that the disenfranchised majority can become involved in political action, and American labor organizations have relevant experience to offer in this domain.

The American government should carefully monitor the performance of U.S. companies operating in South Africa, with a view toward creating and publicizing a list of those who treat their black workers badly. Indeed, American companies should be pressed by their government into playing a far more progressive role in South Africa—for example, by ignoring the Group Areas Act and establishing mixed housing areas where black and white South Africans can create de facto integrated neighborhoods. U.S. businesses operating in South Africa should also make every effort to visit any of their employees who are detained on political grounds and should establish a fund to be used for their legal defense.

The United States should help black South Africans increase and improve their means of communication with each other and the rest of the South African people. The exchange of South African and American journalists should be promoted, along with technical assistance in establishing black publications at the grass roots and black-oriented radio stations. Americans can help South Africans understand that a free press can often be one of the most important safety valves available to a society where there is political discontent. Severe consequences should be invoked, such as restrictions on South African diplomatic personnel in the United States, if black publications are closed and banned in South Africa, as they often have been in the past.


In sum, courageous efforts must be made to convince black South Africans that Americans identify with their plight and are willing to help. There have been times in U.S.-South African relations—before constructive engagement—when officials from the American embassy were the first to be called by black activists in moments of crisis, and there were even U.S. officials in South Africa who occasionally sheltered political fugitives or helped them escape from the country. This was a role more consistent with American principles than the current one of keeping a distance from anyone charged by the government.

Recent developments indicate that P. W. Botha, far from responding creatively to the American confidence in him, is resorting once again to repression rather than reform. Concerned about minor electoral losses on the right, he is ignoring the rumbling volcano of discontent on the other side, from blacks and whites alike. His recent curbs on domestic and foreign press coverage of unrest in South Africa are a sign that the last vestiges of decency—South Africa’s last claims to be part of the Western democratic tradition—may soon be destroyed in the defense of apartheid.

The United States must clearly and unequivocally disassociate itself from such measures. And it must resist the ever-present temptation to use southern Africa as a place to score points in the East-West struggle. Only after America rediscovers its voice—and its principles—in South Africa can it hope to play a truly constructive role in the region once again.

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  • Sanford J. Ungar, former Managing Editor of Foreign Policy, was until recently a Senior Associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of Africa: The People and Politics of an Emerging Continent. Peter Vale is Research Professor and Director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Copyright © 1985 by Sanford J. Ungar and Peter Vale.
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