There has been a clearing of the decks, both inside South Africa and in U.S. relations with that country, during the past year. The South African government, after almost two years of stop-and-go repression and appeasement, decided by midyear to take a much tougher line against black resistance and put its reform plans on hold. The United States surged out in front of South Africa’s other major industrial trading partners by imposing substantial sanctions against Pretoria, with Congress overriding President Reagan’s veto in the process. All this decisiveness shot a few more holes through the tattered sails of the Administration’s "constructive engagement," leaving U.S. policy adrift in a rising sea.

These events may have clarified the situation, but they have also narrowed the Administration’s policy options and diminished its leverage. The South African government is clearly no longer expecting any favors from its Western "friends" as it cracks down hard on its opponents, black and white, prepares its counter-sanctions strategy, and conditions its white population for a less opulent, but still good life in a siege state.

Further tightening of emergency regulations at the year’s end indicated that black resistance was continuing, although the effectiveness of that challenge is increasingly difficult to judge due to the South African government’s almost total censorship of the local and foreign press. What is clear, however, is that Pretoria has not yet been able to crush dissent and restore the atmosphere of relative calm that prevailed in the country before the crisis began in September 1984.

In the United States, a process of disengagement seems to be under way. The Anti-Apartheid Act, passed into law over the President’s veto last October, sent a strong signal to South Africa’s whites that their ultimate salvation does not lie with the U.S. cavalry. Using up some of the ammunition in the policymaker’s arsenal, the United States has distanced itself from the white government. Major U.S. companies are pulling out, adding a private-sector component to the policy of public ostracism decreed by Congress.

All this caps a period of great change in the United States’ relationship with South Africa. There has been a decisive shift against South Africa, as the Anti-Apartheid Act demonstrates. The domestic U.S. debate has also revealed, however, the conflicts inherent in trying to be equally tough on apartheid and communism—both broadly defined—in southern Africa.

The Administration strongly criticizes Pretoria for its internal policies, yet supplies South Africa’s closest regional ally—Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA movement in Angola—with arms. This is seen by blacks in southern Africa as a contradictory stand, because they view U.S. support for Savimbi as support for South Africa’s aggression. In their eyes Savimbi’s alliance with South Africa seriously compromises him; some even see him as South Africa’s creation. Further, the U.S. anti-apartheid stance appears ambivalent or even contradictory to many. Congressmen vote to punish Pretoria with sanctions, yet back away from the African National Congress, the opposition movement that commands the widest support among South Africa’s blacks, because of its Soviet connections. All of this has sent conflicting signals to southern Africa and muddied the policy debate.

"Constructive engagement," the elaborate and sophisticated strategy devised by Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and put into place six years ago, has reached an impasse without achieving any of its main goals. The plunge in President Reagan’s credibility over the Iran/contra arms scandal has made it highly likely that U.S. policy toward southern Africa will remain ineffective throughout the final two years of his presidency.

At the same time, however, South Africa has acquired the status of a major foreign policy issue for the United States after decades in the minor league. There will be eclipses and lulls, but South Africa is not going to go away. Policymakers and politicians alike will have to accept this ineluctable reality, even though South Africa is among the least manageable—in the sense of having levers to pull and arms to twist—of all the major foreign issues.


"I will restore order to South Africa and no one in the world will stop me," President P. W. Botha promised in August 1985. A year and a half later he still has not fulfilled his pledge. Over 2,300 people, most of them blacks, have died since the current spasm of violence broke out in September 1984. About two thirds of them were killed by the security forces. Neither the imposition of a partial state of emergency in June 1985, nor its removal in March 1986, broke the rhythm of protest or reduced its human cost.

South Africa now lives uneasily under a new and much more draconian state of emergency, declared in June 1986. Since then some twenty thousand people of all races and from across the political spectrum have been detained. Many of them are children. The media have been virtually shut out of the black townships and muzzled by sweeping restrictions on reporting, amounting to near total censorship. A new government Bureau for Information is the sole dispenser of authorized news about the unrest. South Africa has acquired many of the characteristics of a siege state.

The origins of the current crisis lie in President Botha’s attempts at reform and their rejection by blacks, setting off a wave of unrest in the fall of 1984. President Botha’s reformist intentions had become apparent shortly after he took over the leadership in 1978. Black trade unions were legalized, the permanency of blacks’ residence in urban areas was recognized, laws forbidding marriage and sexual relations across the racial divide were abolished and, in September 1984, a new constitution with a tricameral parliament that gave some measure of political power to the Coloured and Indian minorities—but excluded Africans—was introduced.

Botha’s underlying strategy has been to decentralize and liberalize social and economic apartheid while maintaining white political control, without disturbing the physical structure of "grand apartheid" that is already in place. At the heart of the Botha reforms lies the principle of group (that is, ethnic) identity, and white control. The concept of dividing responsibilities between different groups into "own" and "general" affairs was enshrined in the 1984 constitution and remains central to the government’s constitutional plans.

Affairs deemed to be the primary concern of the group (such as education and housing) are "own" and those considered of common concern (finance, defense, police, military and foreign affairs) are "general." General affairs, at all levels of government, remain under white control.

The government’s concept of "power sharing" thus begins to look more like power separation and stratification. Moreover, when Pretoria talks of "universal suffrage" it does not mean one person/one vote in a united South Africa. And government rhetoric about "an undivided South Africa" does not mean that the homeland strategy—whereby blacks are assigned to designated areas—will be abandoned. In all the government’s constitutional blueprints the four "independent" homelands and the six non-independent ones remain firm fixtures. Indeed, the government had hoped to convert KwaNdebele into a fifth "independent national state" by the end of 1986. Only massive protests within the homeland, accompanied by much violence, thwarted the move.

In general President Botha’s reforms found little support among blacks. On the contrary, they were widely viewed as cosmetic, an attempt to give apartheid a more rational and human appearance without addressing the central issue of political rights for the disenfranchised majority. Slow, piecemeal and confused implementation further reduced the reforms’ impact and undermined the government’s credibility. "Too little, too late," was a constant criticism. The total lack of black participation in the process left blacks suspicious and skeptical.

The introduction of the new constitution in 1984 brought matters to a head. The constitution was widely interpreted by blacks as a transparent attempt to co-opt Coloureds and Indians and deny the African majority any future political role in the governing of the country. It had two profound effects on South African blacks and other opponents of the government. First, it led to the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF), a multiracial opposition movement embracing some 600 community, church, civic and labor organizations, which launched a successful boycott of the elections to the Coloured and Indian chambers in the new Parliament.

Second, it triggered an outbreak of protest, boycotts, demonstrations and violence that began in the Vaal Triangle, south of Johannesburg, in September 1984 and spread rapidly throughout the country. Attacks on black town councillors and other people regarded as supporters of the government led to heavy-handed repression by the police, and the army moved into the disaffected black townships. A spiral of violence was ignited, presenting the Nationalist government with its most serious and sustained challenge since it came to power in 1948.

The turmoil in the townships seemed to baffle Botha, but until recently he resisted pressures from the right wing outside the government, as well as from the security establishment within it, to use stronger measures and to reconsider his reform strategy. He appeared persuaded that once his reformist intentions were fully revealed, men of good sense and goodwill—many of them black "moderates"—would rally to the government’s side.

In moving ahead with his reforms, Botha did pay a political price. The right wing of the ruling National Party, angered by plans to bring Coloureds and Indians into the central political system, broke away in 1982 to form the Conservative Party. This was a traumatic split for Afrikanerdom, but in a personal triumph for Botha, two-thirds of the white electorate voted for the new constitution in a referendum. He retained a comfortable majority in Parliament and strong support among the white electorate at large, and thus apparently felt, at least until mid-1986, that he could continue with his strategy of incremental change.


The year 1986 began on a note of optimism with a major speech by President Botha at the opening of Parliament on January 31. In both substance and rhetoric the speech was a considerable improvement on previous statements and held out the promise of important reforms. The president declared that South African citizenship would be restored to blacks who had lost it when four black tribal homelands were given their "independence" by the government. The pass laws, which had for decades controlled where blacks could work and live and were bitterly detested, would be abolished and all races would carry the same identity document. Certain blacks would become eligible for freehold property rights in "white" South Africa. A National Statutory Council would be set up as a vehicle for constitutional discussions between the government and black leaders.

There was some surprising language in President Botha’s speech. "We have outgrown the outdated colonial system of paternalism as well as the outdated concept of apartheid," he declared. The government accepted "an undivided South Africa where all regions and communities within its boundaries form part of the South African state, with the right to participate in institutions to be negotiated collectively." All South Africans, he said, should participate in a "democratic system of government." The speech also had an interesting twist. President Botha said that he would be prepared to release Nelson Mandela, the long imprisoned leader of the banned African National Congress, on "humanitarian grounds," striking a more conciliatory note than in the past, but linking Mandela’s release to the freeing of Sakharov and Shcharansky in the Soviet Union and a captured South African army officer in Angola.

Some of the promised reforms were carried out during the year, though they had little effect in quelling the unrest among South African blacks. One reason is that the reforms in fact produced little change in the apartheid system. For example, South African citizenship is to be restored to those blacks who lost it when four homelands became "independent," but only to blacks deemed by the government "to reside permanently in the Republic of South Africa," that is, those in urban areas. Therefore, only 1.75 million out of an estimated nine million will be eligible.

The repeal of the pass laws, promised in Botha’s January speech and put into effect later in the year, is undoubtedly a major reform. Blacks are no longer subject to arrest for not carrying an identity document. Yet all South Africans will have their race designated on new identity documents, and there are clear indications that the authorities are enforcing a measure of control over blacks’ movements in urban areas by greater use of the anti-vagrancy and anti-squatting statutes. Blacks are now allowed to buy houses but only in the segregated areas of "white South Africa" available to them, that is, the black townships. In 1986 central business districts became theoretically open to all races, but in practice only where the white-controlled municipal authorities permit it.

President Botha’s ruling National Party draws the line at any move to desegregate education and residential areas. The government has talked of a common education system, but it apparently means a coordinating body for the 19 separate education departments spawned by the new constitution. And while more public funds are being devoted to black education than ever before, the ratio of money spent on white as opposed to black children is still seven to one.

In early 1986 there were hints of a softer approach to segregated living areas. A few urban neighborhoods have become mixed or "gray," and the government appointed a committee to look into the Group Areas Act, which mandates residential segregation, to determine if modifications should be made. One suggestion—the so-called local option—was to allow municipal authorities to designate areas where all races might legally reside.

On the political front, President Botha’s government started the year with a determined effort to put a new face on its reform strategy and to encourage black leaders to take part in its constitutional structures. At the center, the government set up a National Statutory Council, headed by the president, for the purpose of establishing a dialogue with black leaders on future constitutional change. Its role is purely advisory and it has no executive powers; all members will be appointed by the president and serve at his pleasure. In the second tier of government, the old all-white elected provincial legislatures were replaced by new multiracial bodies that have executive powers but are appointed by the government. At the municipal level, Regional Service Councils were established with the intention of bringing all races together to administer common services such as water, power, roads and sewage.

During early 1986 the government also seemed to be seriously considering releasing Nelson Mandela. Mandela, however, set a number of conditions for his own release, including freeing all political prisoners, unbanning the African National Congress and other proscribed parties, and permitting normal political activity in the country. Mandela’s position implicitly envisioned the need for negotiations between the government and the ANC.

The cabinet was reported to be divided over whether to release Mandela, with President Botha eventually siding with the hard-liners. Those in favor of releasing Mandela argued that his death in jail would produce an internal explosion and be a major embarrassment abroad. The hard-liners, principally the military and police hierarchies, felt Mandela at large would be more unpredictable and dangerous for the state than Mandela in jail. In the event, the government decided that the quantifiable risks of keeping Mandela in prison outweighed the unquantifiable ones of releasing him.

Pretoria did nevertheless seem to take the negotiating efforts of the Commonwealth’s "Eminent Persons Group" (EPG) seriously. This group, which sought to launch negotiations between government and antigovernment forces in an attempt to forestall Commonwealth sanctions against South Africa, spent several months working on the problem in southern Africa in early 1986. Meeting with a wide spectrum of leaders, the group’s co-chairmen (Malcolm Fraser and Olusegun Obasanjo) also talked twice with Mandela in Pollsmoor Prison near Cape Town.


A turning point came on May 19, 1986. While the EPG was still meeting with South African government ministers, the South African army attacked ANC installations in Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. The raids turned out to be a watershed, the point at which the government apparently decided to close the door on any thought of negotiating with the ANC, crack down on internal dissent and suspend its reform program.

The military results of the crossborder raids were meager. The real point, it appeared, was to demonstrate that Pretoria had not lost its political will and to impress this fact on the ANC and the black-ruled Frontline States of the region. The South African government justified the action as "anti-terrorist," invoking as a precedent the U.S. attack on Libya a month earlier. The raids also demonstrated that the military element in the Afrikaner politico-military establishment which rules South Africa continued to exercise a decisive role in the policymaking process.

There appear to be several factors behind the decision to change course in the second half of 1986. The hard-liners in and outside the government had been arguing for some time that the threat of sanctions was worse than the reality. The sooner South Africa came to grips with the threat, they suggested, the better the economy would cope. The government was also concerned about the intimidation, killing and resignations of black municipal officials in the townships. Steps had to be taken to prevent the total annihilation of this class of moderate blacks and the erection of alternative "people’s power" structures by the UDF and other antigovernment groups. The growing popularity of the white right wing, especially the extraparliamentary groups, was also a factor, though not a new one. Last but not least was President Botha’s own state of mind. By midyear, it seems that he had reached a point of deep frustration. He told the EPG that he had made all the concessions but received no credit for his reform program at home or abroad. He seemed more than ready to give the green light to the military to attack the ANC installations.

The May raids mortally wounded the EPG’s mission—Pretoria chose to attack three of the Commonwealth countries that the EPG represented—and the final rejection of the group’s proposed negotiating terms by the South African government was not a surprise. For its part, the EPG concluded that:

while the Government claims to be ready to negotiate, it is in truth not yet prepared to negotiate fundamental change, nor to countenance the creation of genuine democratic structures, nor to face the prospect of the end of white domination and white power in the foreseeable future. Its program of reform does not end apartheid, but seeks to give it a less inhuman face. Its quest is power-sharing, but without surrendering overall white control.

The crossborder raids also heralded a tougher internal line. With the tenth anniversary of the 1976 upheaval in Soweto approaching, black protest running as strong as ever, and no sign of any friendly help coming from beyond South Africa’s shores, the government decided to take off the velvet glove.

On June 12, four days before the Soweto anniversary, a countrywide state of emergency was declared. Thousands of antigovernment activists—UDF politicians, clergy, civic and community leaders and labor union officials—were detained. School boycotts, rent strikes, demonstrations, public funerals and other methods of protest that had constituted the arsenal of black challenge over the preceding 21 months were declared subversive and banned. New restrictions on the reporting of unrest and violence were imposed.

While trying to decapitate the UDF and other opposition groups by detaining their leaders, Pretoria has given support—sometimes open, sometimes tacit—to vigilantes and other opponents of the antigovernment forces in the townships. In some cases, as in the sprawling Crossroads squatter camp outside Cape Town, this led to open warfare between progovernment forces and the radical "comrades." After days of bloody fighting, the antigovernment forces were driven out of the area and the Crossroads dwellings were bulldozed.

In other cases, pressure has been more subtle, with benefits as well as coercion playing a part in the government’s strategy. Joint Management Committees, composed of military and police representatives, businessmen and some black political leaders, have been set up. These bodies are part of an elaborate intelligence network called the National Security Management System, which is controlled by the powerful, military-dominated State Security Council of the central government. The JMCs provide a quicker, more efficient channel for intelligence and services, and effectively bypass the traditional and cumbersome apartheid structures.

The government’s aim is to replace the discredited and largely defunct black councils and to destroy the "alternative structures," run by the "comrades" and other antigovernment groups, that have arisen in many townships. It thus hopes to reestablish its authority and legitimacy. The result has been to divide blacks by playing on their existing differences, to build up local "warlords" and to create a climate of civil war in the townships. This has happened even in the most fiercely antigovernment areas, such as the Eastern Cape.

Black mistrust of the government continues to be profound. The Commonwealth mediation group remarked on this phenomenon when the pass laws were finally abolished and offenders freed. "It is illuminating to note the abolition of a document symbolic of more human misery than any other aspect of apartheid’s administration has evoked no sense of freedom among blacks," the EPG said in its report. "More than anything else, this mute black reaction demonstrated to us the current acute lack of trust. The abolition of the pass . . . has evoked at best skepticism, at worst indifference."

Hand in hand with using the tactics of kragdadigheid (Afrikaans for "forcefulness," or "overwhelming power"), the government has suspended, though not necessarily abandoned, its reform program; in practice its reformist drive has slowed. The much-publicized and rare federal congress of the ruling National Party in August produced more rhetoric than substance, leaving the impression that the age-old concerns of Afrikaner politics—ethnic unity, regional divisions, personalities and the leadership succession race—mattered far more than serious solutions to the national crisis. A sense of urgency about the current situation and a vision of the future were singularly absent from the proceedings.

In October the government committee that had been set up to study possible changes in the Group Areas Act submitted its report; it is believed to have recommended some modifications in the act, though not its abolition. The report was shelved by the government, however, and not made public. Meanwhile, forced removals of black communities, especially those in close proximity to whites, accelerated under the convenient shadow of the state of emergency.

Close to the end of the year, the Natal "indaba," a series of meetings held by whites, Indians and Zulus designed to produce a new constitutional formula for the region, disclosed its findings. The indaba’s main recommendations were the merger of white-run Natal with Chief Buthelezi’s KwaZulu homeland and the establishment of a bicameral regional parliament based on universal suffrage. The idea was flatly rejected by a cabinet minister from Natal, though not by the government itself. While it is possible that Pretoria may give the "KwaNatal" option, as it is generally known, some further thought, it is unlikely to permit its implementation since the proposal fails to mesh with the government’s own plans for constitutional development.

As the year neared its end the government tightened the tourniquet around black protest still further. On December 12 the definition of "subversion" was broadened to include virtually every group activity available to anti-apartheid activists, including a campaign by a wide range of groups called "Christmas Against the Emergency." Equally important were new restrictions on the press that were designed to make reporting any extraparliamentary opposition to the government extremely difficult, if not impossible.

The need to strengthen the government’s already formidable powers seemed to indicate that it had not yet been successful in crushing dissent and that it was worried about a new surge of protest over Christmas. At the same time, the military showed its muscle by abducting two Swiss nationals from Swaziland on the grounds that they were helping ANC guerrillas. Yet soon after, Pretoria’s diplomatic sensitivities, which had been blunted but not wholly paralyzed by its security concerns, reasserted themselves and the two Swiss were returned to Swaziland.


Where does South Africa go from here? The vision of President Botha and his government has been foreshortened by the closeness of an election—on December 31 Botha announced elections for the white chamber of Parliament, probably to be held some time around April 1987—and the need to counter international sanctions. The government is using the sanctions threat to appeal to white South Africans’ sense of patriotism to unite behind it and defy the world, a tactic that has already achieved considerable success. The right wing, inside and outside Parliament, has lost much of its newly acquired appeal since the government turned tough in midyear.

Earlier in 1986 the extraparliamentary right, in the shape of Eugene Terre’ Blanche and his Nazi-style Afrikaner Resistance Movement (the AWB, using its Afrikaans initials), had seemed to worry Botha more than the parliamentary right, which consists of the small Conservative Party and the even smaller Herstigte Nasionale Party. The AWB’s visceral appeal to Afrikaners in the police force and civil service lay behind his concern. Both sanctions and Botha’s tougher line at home may well draw more conservative votes for the National Party in the 1987 elections.

The business community, which only recently almost unanimously criticized the government for failing to address the fundamental political issues that lie beneath the crisis, is also rallying behind the call to defeat sanctions. Botha has managed to keep his party solidly behind him, and he may be able to restart his reform program after the elections. "The government has been successful in persuading the bulk of whites that change is necessary and the Nationalists are the only people that can do it," Professor Robert Schrire of Cape Town University commented. "It has also convinced whites that change will not affect their status, security or living standards."

On the left, the resignation of Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, the appealing Afrikaner leader of the Progressive Federal Party, undermined its role as the liberal alternative to the National Party, although the reason for van Zyl Slabbert’s resignation—his loss of faith in the existing parliamentary system as the agent of fundamental change in South Africa—was a psychological blow to the government.

It seems likely, therefore, that Botha will win the elections handsomely, entrenching his long-ruling National Party deeper in power. Over 70 years old, he may choose to retire or perhaps stay on for a year or two. Before he leaves, however, he appears determined to end the black revolt and, if possible, to put his reform program back on track. Whether he can do this remains questionable, but there seems little doubt that kragdadigheid has achieved some tactical successes.

All internal black organizations, with the exception of Chief Buthelezi’s predominantly Zulu Inkatha movement, have experienced the government’s coercive power. Groups like the UDF, the largest extraparliamentary opposition movement; the National Forum, its black-consciousness counterpart; and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the most powerful black union movement, are all federal organizations and therefore highly vulnerable to pressure on their national leaders, many of whom have been detained under the emergency. In such a repressive situation local issues come to the fore at the expense of national ones and preoccupy the leaders who are still at liberty. With the unions, for example, "workerist" shop-floor concerns have tended to supersede the more explicitly political goals that some of the national leaders urged earlier in 1986.

The government is also adept at exploiting existing divisions among the anti-apartheid groups. All foreign donations to the UDF were prohibited, but not those to the rival National Forum. Inkatha was allowed to hold a big rally in Soweto while all other public meetings by black groups, including funerals, were banned. The "dirty war" is intensifying between the young "comrades" in the townships, who generally support the UDF and the banned ANC but who often have their own agenda, and the government-supported vigilantes and warlords.

The internecine rivalry between Inkatha and the UDF has continued unabated with an added element of conflict resulting from the formation last May of an Inkatha-led Zulu trade union called the United Workers Union of South Africa. Buthelezi retains a strong regional, mainly rural base in KwaZulu and Natal and he is by no means a government stooge, but his bitter feud with the ANC has isolated him from the mainstream of black politics. His only lifeline back into that current appears to be a personal relationship with Nelson Mandela who, if he were free, might be able to bring about a reconciliation.

Another development in 1986 that has far-reaching implications for the future is the muzzling of the media. When television cameras were first banned from the townships in November 1985, the government took a calculated risk that has paid off. An avalanche of foreign criticism greeted the move, but in the longer term it reduced the impact of the South African crisis abroad although it did not halt the drive for sanctions in the United States. Americans and other foreigners no longer saw, as they had almost nightly, white South African policemen whipping and shooting unarmed blacks.

The foreign media based in South Africa protested loudly, but no one voluntarily packed his bags and went home. Emboldened, the government took a second bite out of press freedom with the new state of emergency. Reporters cannot now enter the townships without permission, report unauthorized information on the actions of the security forces, or publish statements deemed to be subversive or construed as endangering public safety.

The 170 foreign journalists who remain in South Africa have generally complied with the government’s restrictions, but their compliance has had no discernible effect on the level of violence. The only obvious effect is that news coverage, for both foreign and domestic consumption, was whittled down in June and again in December 1986. Thus, in addition to the natural lulls and competing foreign crises that cause public interest in any big international story to slacken, obtaining an accurate picture of what is going on inside South Africa is becoming increasingly difficult.

Yet blood continues to flow; even the circumspect government announcements on the unrest show that people die almost daily. The challenge to the government goes on at many different levels and in many different ways. And while serious divisions among blacks remain, there is a remarkable degree of agreement on objectives, if not on means—perhaps more so than among whites. These objectives include: the release of Nelson Mandela and the political prisoners, the unbanning of the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress, unfettered political activity, a dismantling of all apartheid laws and structures, negotiations for a nonracial, democratic constitution in an undivided South Africa, and a redistribution of wealth.

Black organizations are vague about the shape of the post-apartheid constitution but are firmly opposed to fragmentation of the country and to racially based federal or confederal solutions. Majoritarianism (one person/one vote) in a unitary system is their goal. But modifications such as geographic (though not racial) federalism, proportional representation and the protection of minorities are not excluded and could be the subject of negotiations. No one is spelling out the details in this non-negotiating and highly confrontational phase. The future economic shape of South Africa is a secondary issue for most blacks, although virtually all blacks expect a redistribution of wealth after the transfer of power, with or without "socialism."

Credible black leaders will not accept political or constitutional solutions prescribed by the government, nor will they take part in government-established bodies. Who speaks for whom—and when—is a highly sensitive and politicized issue, and it will not be decided until the political leaders are released, the parties unbanned and normal political activity allowed. No serious black leaders, however, think the transition to black rule is at hand. Anyone who thought so earlier in the year has probably changed his mind by now. But equally no one would settle—or could be seen to be settling—for anything less than a total dismantling of the apartheid system and its replacement by a nonracial, democratic constitution based on universal suffrage.

Inside South Africa the ANC’s stature has been enhanced by two years of protest and turbulence. And Nelson Mandela, the movement’s imprisoned leader, remains as potent as Banquo’s ghost. No national leader has emerged to usurp his place and, in the short term, no settlement of black and white differences or of intra-black rivalries is likely while he remains in prison.

But as the struggle intensifies, the ANC will have to show concrete results in terms of increased guerrilla activities, more grass-roots organization, and greater assistance to the embattled township "comrades" if it is to maintain its credibility. The trek of prominent South Africans from all walks of life to the ANC’s headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, has slowed to a trickle, and the banning of public funerals in South Africa has limited public displays of ANC oratory and support.

None of this augurs well for the coming year. The deep gulf between the government and antigovernment forces is widening. There are three important elements. First, for whites—especially the Afrikaners—it is now a question of survival. Debates about whether apartheid is alive, terminally ill or actually dead miss the point. Surviving as a distinctive group with security, culture, language and as much economic privilege as possible is the Afrikaners’ objective. Whites, in their own current estimation, cannot afford to hand over control if their survival is to be secured.

Old-fashioned apartheid, with its reassuring if warped ideology, is now widely accepted as being inadequate for achieving that goal. Yet President Botha’s schemes for sharing the trappings of power while retaining the reality of a monopoly do not appear to provide the answer either. Attempts to establish a dialogue with "moderate" blacks through devices like the National Statutory Council have so far been summarily rejected.

Second, the costs of the black challenge have not made a sufficient impression on whites to change their fundamental perceptions. The economic squeeze is hurting, encouraging some whites to emigrate and others, including some powerful businessmen, to exert pressure on the government for real change, but the bulk of the white population remains complacent and insulated from the crisis.

The white anti-draft campaign is annoying for the government but not life-threatening. Pretoria is treating the End Conscription Campaign as it does other opposition organizations, detaining its leaders and harassing its members. A small number of whites have already made the commitment to a new era and joined the struggle. Yet most conform, sharing explicitly or tacitly the apocalyptic vision of a radical black, Soviet-backed takeover depicted by their leaders and assiduously peddled by the government-controlled South African radio and television.

Finally there is the question of leadership. Neither P. W. Botha nor any of his likely successors—the race seems to be narrowing to a run-off between F. W. de Klerk, the Transvaal leader, and Chris Heunis, the party’s constitutional theorist—appears to have the will or the imagination to project the volk’s future beyond the traditional Afrikaner short-term survival scenario. Yet, at a philosophical level, many Afrikaners talk quite easily about the "inevitability of black rule."

The logical but dismal conclusion is that the confrontation between the government and its much weaker but still determined opponents will deepen, that South Africa’s decline will become more bitter, more violent, less easy to reverse. Eventually the costs of maintaining the white monopoly of power and privilege will be high enough to encourage a change of heart. The critical issue then will be the state of mind of the blacks who kept up the pressure but, inevitably, paid a heavy price in doing so. That time, however, is still a long way off.


In the southern African region, Pretoria began to flex its muscles early in the year by closing off its borders with Lesotho, a country surrounded by South Africa, thus hastening the overthrow of Chief Leabua Jonathan’s 20-year-old regime by a military coup on January 20. Jonathan, a close ally of Pretoria in his time, had recently become less friendly, taking a strong stance in favor of providing sanctuary for South African refugees with ANC affiliations or sympathies.

The threat of the ANC, relatively puny though it may be, is the basic litmus test that determines South Africa’s relations with its neighbors. There was a substantial increase in ANC activity in 1986 involving imported weapons, albeit most of it minor attacks and forays. Between January 1 and September 14, 1986, according to South African government figures, there were 170 "incidents of terrorism" attributed to the ANC, compared with 136 for the whole of 1985 and 44 in 1984.

Although South Africa’s May raids on the ANC in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia constituted more a warning than a serious military operation, Pretoria seemed concerned about new ANC infiltration from Mozambique. Throughout the year the South African army continued to supply arms and equipment to the antigovernment Mozambique National Resistance (MNR) forces. It now seems clear that both sides are breaking the Nkomati Accord (in which both governments agreed not to allow each other’s enemies to operate in their territories), although neither is ready to abrogate it publicly.

In October, Pretoria announced that the contracts of some 60,000 Mozambican miners working in South Africa’s coal and gold mines would not be renewed when they expired, following land-mine attacks in South Africa, close to the Mozambique and Swaziland borders, that were presumed to have been carried out by the ANC. Roughly one third of Mozambique’s annual foreign exchange earnings come from these workers’ remittances and from South African dues for the use of Maputo port.

The death of President Samora Machel of Mozambique in the same month injected a new element of instability into the region. Charges that the South Africans caused Machel’s plane to crash have not been proven, but the investigation is continuing. In any case, the death of the man who signed the Nkomati Accord further weakened a relationship that was already under strain.

Mozambique, with its new and untried leader, Joaquím Chissano, ended the year virtually under siege. A new surge in MNR pressure, serious structural failures in its internal economy and, more recently, South Africa’s threat to repatriate its miners have all contributed to the country’s desperate plight. Chissano, however, who was formerly the foreign affairs minister, is a pragmatist who can be expected to try to maintain a working relationship with South Africa while seeking ways of strengthening his hold over Mozambique through foreign military and economic assistance.

The situation in the rest of the region was equally gloomy. In Angola the war between the Cuban-backed government forces and the South African- and U.S.-supported UNITA movement continued throughout the year, with neither side gaining a clear advantage. However, UNITA, probably with Zaïre’s assistance, did make inroads in the north of the country and threatened the rich, oil-producing enclave of Cabinda.

International diplomacy designed to remove the Cubans from Angola and the South Africans from Namibia remained stalled. In Namibia itself, the Multi-Party Conference, a loose and fractious multiracial group of parties and individuals backed by Pretoria, became more entrenched as the de facto government of the vast but thinly populated territory. But its chances of defeating SWAPO, the Namibian nationalist movement fighting the South Africans on the Angolan-Namibian border, in a free election seemed to have been only marginally enhanced.

International pressures in the form of mild sanctions imposed by the European Economic Community in September and more punitive ones imposed by the U.S. Congress a month later, with strong rhetorical support from the black Frontline States, have not yet had much of a physical impact on the region. Nevertheless, a "sanctions war" between South Africa and its neighbors is closer to reality than before. It seems unlikely that Pretoria will use all its formidable power to destroy the economies of its neighbors, because it maintains a highly favorable balance of trade with most of them and has a vested interest in continuing to draw upon a large reservoir of skilled workers, particularly miners. But the South African government can—and probably will—exert pressure on its neighbors when it feels it needs to by squeezing key export routes and denying vital imports. Meanwhile the public and private sectors in the Republic are planning "sanctions-busting" operations on a large scale.


The drama of the crisis in South Africa has been matched, in a quieter but no less significant way, by a rise of interest and activism in the United States. Africa has traditionally been of secondary importance in U.S. foreign policy, perennially at the bottom of the global agenda. South Africa, though linked by history, strategy, trade and sentiment with the West, shared the same low rating as the rest of the continent. This has changed, primarily as a result of the sustained crisis in South Africa. It is the synergy between events there and a new mood in the United States that has been critical. By late 1984, only a few months after the wave of black protest began in South Africa, anti-apartheid sentiment in the United States began to grow dramatically and cross previously impenetrable political lines.

There were several reasons for this. Television brought the black challenge and accompanying violence into millions of American homes for the first time. But media exposure was by no means the only explanation. It is significant that a similar television barrage of daily South African turmoil and police brutality failed to produce a corresponding political impact in Britain, West Germany and France, Pretoria’s other major Western trading partners.

The U.S. domestic political climate was receptive. The reelection of President Reagan in November 1984 had left the Democrats in disarray and ready to unite around an issue as clear-cut as apartheid. So when Randall Robinson, the director of TransAfrica, the black foreign policy lobby group in Washington, launched the Free South Africa Movement with demonstrations and "sit-ins" at South African diplomatic missions around the country, there was no shortage of high-level Democratic support.

But there was significant movement on the Republican side too. The increasing mobilization of American blacks around the South African issue began to worry Republican officeholders at the city, state and federal levels. Younger Republicans in particular felt sensitive to charges of siding with South Africa by not being more forthright in opposing apartheid, and many made the point that conservatism—a legitimate creed—did not imply racism, a wholly discredited ideology.

In December 1984, 35 conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives delivered a letter to the South African ambassador in Washington saying that they would be compelled to support sanctions against Pretoria unless there was an early end to apartheid. "The reality of apartheid," they wrote, "and the violence used to keep it in place make it likely that our relations will deteriorate."

In the following year Richard Lugar, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Nancy Kassebaum, the Republican chairman of the Senate’s Sub-Committee on Africa, spoke out against Pretoria and the Administration’s constructive engagement policy. Meanwhile the divestment campaign and campus protests took on new life across the country and sanctions bills began to take shape in Congress. The stark reality for most politicians was that there was no political mileage to be gained by supporting apartheid, whereas there was in condemning Pretoria. Another problem, especially acute for Republicans who had identified themselves closely with the Administration’s policy, was the stigma of failure that was increasingly attached, rightly or wrongly, to constructive engagement.

Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker, the policy’s architect and practitioner, had promised results, namely stability and a greater role for American diplomacy in southern Africa, the independence of Namibia, the withdrawal of the Cuban forces from Angola, and movement toward fundamental reform and the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. After four years in office, Crocker could point to some progress in the southern African region with the conclusion of the Nkomati Accord. But there was no progress on Namibian independence or removal of the Cuban troops from Angola, and little that he could claim to have achieved in South Africa where the government had devised a new constitution that specifically excluded the African majority from political participation in the central government. Moreover, the policy was widely perceived at home and abroad as moving Washington closer to Pretoria and giving the impression that the United States was unconcerned about the fate of the oppressed black majority.

Throughout 1985 the crisis continued in South Africa and domestic pressure mounted against the U.S. Administration. A concerted effort by Congress to legislate sanctions against Pretoria was preempted when President Reagan issued an executive order imposing a milder set of measures. It was significant, however, that the Republican-dominated Senate played a moderating but still forceful role in the congressional drive against South Africa.

In 1986, with South Africa in even greater turmoil, the Congress followed its contradictory impulses, attacking communism and punishing apartheid. In March Congress approved the Administration’s request for up to $15 million in military aid for Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA movement in Angola. (The Clark Amendment, prohibiting such assistance, had been repealed by Congress at the Administration’s urging in 1985.) For many black states in southern Africa and blacks inside South Africa, this move provided concrete evidence of what they had suspected for a long time: that the United States was on Pretoria’s side, and against them, since South Africa is UNITA’s principal military backer. Yet this point seemed to be lost on many congressmen who went on to support punitive sanctions against Pretoria later in the year, unaware of or unconcerned about the perceived contradiction in their position.

In the summer of 1986 both houses of Congress introduced new sanctions bills and finally agreed on a package that went much further than any similar punitive measures in the past. President Reagan vetoed the bill, but in the fall both houses overrode his veto by substantial majorities. It was the worst defeat for the Administration’s southern Africa policy yet, and particularly bitter for the President because it was inflicted by a pre-election Congress in which the Republicans still controlled the Senate.

The act banned the importation of South African coal, uranium, iron and steel, agricultural produce, textiles and krugerrands; it prohibited new U.S. loans, investments, credits and the sale of computer technology to the South African government and its agencies. Landing rights for South African Airways were terminated. The measure, however, also reflected Congress’s skittishness about communist influence in southern Africa. While urging closer U.S. official contacts with the ANC and antigovernment political groups, the act ordered a study of the South African Communist Party and "the extent to which Communists have infiltrated the many black and non-white South African organizations engaged in the fight against the apartheid system."

Why did the Administration suffer such a defeat and find itself so out of tune with congressional and public opinion? There is a popular perception that, like the Vietnam War, the government’s defeat stemmed from a sapping, indeed subversive role played by the media. The facts do not support such a thesis. While it is true that television reporting from South Africa initially sensitized the American public to the crisis, Pretoria banned the cameras from the townships a year before the Anti-Apartheid Act became law. The print media continued to report the unrest, but newspapers have nowhere the same impact as television.

It was the intransigence of the South African government, which it demonstrated by attacking its neighbors, rejecting the EPG’s mediation formula, refusing to release Mandela, declaring a new state of emergency and so on, that convinced many congressmen. They felt that the United States had to make a firm stand on principle and that punitive sanctions, though an imperfect foreign policy instrument, were the only way to express the United States’ moral outrage.

Many Republicans looked to the Administration for leadership, hoping that the United States would change its policy and address the domestic pressures more effectively. On both counts the congressmen were disappointed. Indeed, it seems clear that President Reagan personally, as well as his advisers, handled their Republican allies in Congress badly. Seeking a compromise to avoid the presidential veto, Senator Lugar reported that he had received nothing of substance from a visit to the White House.

The Administration was not helped by an extraordinarily clumsy attempt by Roelof F. Botha, South Africa’s foreign minister, to lobby several farm state senators just before the override vote took place. Put up to it by Senator Jesse Helms, the conservative Republican from North Carolina, Botha pointed out that South Africa might be compelled to stop buying U.S. agricultural produce if sanctions were imposed. One senator described the tactic as a "cheap trick," and another, who was going to support the President’s veto, changed his mind and voted to override it.

The Administration’s reaction to growing public and congressional opposition to its policy was to fight a rearguard action. Policy "reviews" were announced and conducted; official anti-apartheid rhetoric increased; the U.S. ambassador was recalled, sent back and eventually replaced; a somewhat unseemly public search was launched for a black ambassador to replace the incumbent, and two candidates fell by the wayside before Edward Perkins, a career foreign service officer, agreed to take on the unenviable job of selling a failed policy; an interagency working group was set up in the State Department to do the same job on the home front; and a special advisory committee of 12 prominent Americans was charged to advise the secretary of state what policy would be "most likely to bring about the peaceful elimination of apartheid and create a political system not based exclusively on race."

In legislating sanctions against South Africa the United States did not act alone. During 1986, the Commonwealth, the European Economic Community and the Frontline States all took punitive measures of varying severity against South Africa. And toward the end of the year some major foreign corporations (Exxon, General Motors, IBM, Coca-Cola, and Britain’s Barclays, among others) announced that they were pulling out of the Republic, citing poor economic performances, the failure of the government to address the fundamental issue of political change, and pressure from their domestic constituencies.


After six years, it is not hard to see why constructive engagement failed. The Reagan Administration entered office with a larger than usual dose of the Washington overconfidence and underestimated the Afrikaners’ hard-headed pursuit of their own interests. During President Reagan’s first term, the Administration’s ideological obsessions and bureaucratic divisions over southern Africa were not as large as they were in other areas of foreign policy. But they grew in his second term and blurred the Administration’s policy objectives. Then events in southern Africa and at home overwhelmed the State Department’s self-absorbed game plan. The decision by the Botha government to reject negotiations and take a hard line last May, and the Anti-Apartheid Act in October making punitive sanctions an integral part of U.S. policy, effectively killed constructive engagement. Botha’s decision, it is important to note, was taken well before international sanctions became a reality; sanctions did not drive the Afrikaners into the laager—they were already there.

In the end constructive engagement seemed to have alienated practically everyone: black South Africans, white South Africans, the Frontline States, most Americans and even loyal allies like the British and the West Germans, who were piqued at being cut out of the Namibian independence negotiations and opposed to linking that diplomatic effort with the issue of Cuban withdrawal from Angola.

The Administration now has to devise ways of accommodating the blunt instrument of sanctions with its original non-punitive strategy of "quiet diplomacy." This is trying to square a circle, and there is a sense that the White House still has not come to terms with the provisions of the Anti-Apartheid Act which it so strenuously opposed. The results so far have not been encouraging. The phrase "constructive engagement" was dropped from official statements in mid-1986, and State Department officials were privately calling it the policy that dare not speak its name. Others were saying that there is no policy. Recent policy statements reveal the lack of new thinking in government circles. The only positive steps taken have been promises of more aid to the Frontline States in 1987 and expanding contacts with South Africa’s various black leaders, including the African National Congress. Secretary of State George Shultz is due to have his first meeting with the ANC leader, Oliver Tambo, in January 1987. U.S. policymakers seem to have lost their sense of direction. Crocker once criticized the Carter Administration’s southern Africa policy as "a state of mind" rather than an active strategy; it is not unfair at this point to call his own policy a state of hope.

Criticizing constructive engagement is one thing; producing an effective alternative is another. Looking ahead, there are several underlying realities that must be taken into account. First, notwithstanding the clampdown on news from South Africa and Washington’s absorption with the Iran/contra arms affair, South Africa is now a foreign policy issue, with a powerful domestic resonance, that cannot be ignored. Robert Dole, the Republican leader of the Senate, observed that South Africa had become a domestic civil rights issue. "It will be on Congress’s agenda every year for the next decade," he said.

The second reality is the severely restricted nature of U.S. power in southern Africa. As Helen Kitchen and Michael Clough have written:

The United States has only a limited ability to influence developments in South Africa. . . . Particularly in the short run, we do not possess any levers that can be used to force the white ruling group to move faster or further than its own assessment of risks and gains dictates or to leverage blacks to adjust their priorities and tactics to our perception of reality. We can educate, prod, cajole, encourage, bolster; we cannot coerce, compel, or force changes in what drives the components of this most complex society to their uncertain destiny.

The third reality is the nature of presidential leadership during the next two years. President Reagan and his White House staff were never interested in southern Africa and are likely to be too preoccupied with the Iran arms affair and other issues to give it their attention. The congressional override on sanctions strengthened the White House’s conviction that South Africa is a no-win issue. The presidency, moreover, has an image problem. There is a broad perception in the United States and southern Africa that, no matter how strongly and how often President Reagan condemns apartheid, his true sympathies lie with South Africa’s whites.

Given the rigidities of the situation in South Africa and the damaged foreign policy apparatus in Washington, there is not a lot that can be done in the near future. It is always difficult for policymakers, eager for the quick solution, to pause in their endeavors and wait for more propitious times. But this is one of those moments.

This is not to say that the United States can—or should—do nothing at all. It is vitally important for Washington to reposition itself more centrally, more neutrally, so that it can at a later stage offer its services as a credible mediator when the opposing sides in South Africa are ready to settle their differences through negotiations.

In essence, this means an end to what is widely regarded as Washington’s close relationship with Pretoria—a characterization that produces hollow laughs in the two capitals where officials on both sides often consider relations to be less than friendly—and movement toward better relationships with black South Africans who are struggling for the freedom that the United States says they should have, and with the Frontline States in the region which will be bearing the brunt of the expanding sanctions and counter-sanctions war.

Repositioning the United States would also mean ending U.S. aid to UNITA and greatly increasing bilateral and multilateral aid to the Frontline States and SADCC (the Southern African Development Coordination Conference), with the aim of lessening the black states’ economic dependence on South Africa. Finally, if Pretoria’s military pressure on these states increases, the United States should consider supplying them with defensive arms and supporting the deployment of an international security force in the region. Maintaining contact with South Africans of all races and political persuasions, and strengthening black South Africans’ bargaining power through public and private sector funding and technical assistance, are also important strands of policy which have the advantage of already enjoying strong bipartisan support.

In short, the United States should assume the high moral ground—not because it makes people feel good but because it makes political sense. However, Washington should also accept the reality of sanctions and try to make them more effective by encouraging its Western allies and Japan to adopt the same measures. This will not bring the South African government to its knees, but it will raise the cost of maintaining apartheid and help remove the notion, widely held among South Africa’s white population, that the West is not really serious about fundamental change in South Africa.

Admittedly, there is a conceptual contradiction between strengthening contacts with South Africans and the strategy of sanctions, which seeks to isolate South Africa. But it is a contradiction that can be lived with while sanctions remain selective and while the lines of communication between the West and South Africa remain open. There may come a time, however, when a deteriorating situation in South Africa will call for greater condemnation, and therefore tougher sanctions, by the United States and its allies. In such a scenario the lines of contact and remaining ties may be severed, resolving the contradiction though not the problem.

International mediation may one day be important in South Africa, as it eventually was in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, when the opposing forces are more evenly balanced, when fatigue has turned men’s minds away from the battlefield toward the negotiating table, and when the costs of maintaining the status quo become unbearable for those who currently hold power. Then the United States, if it has positioned itself correctly, will undoubtedly have a significant role to play.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • John de St. Jorre, author of South Africa: A House Divided, is currently editing a series of monographs updating the Thomas Commission report, South Africa: Time Running Out, of which he was a senior writer. He spent two months in southern Africa in early 1986.
  • More By John de St. Jorre