South Africa: Why Constructive Engagement Failed

Courtesy Reuters

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

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