In the winter of 1980-81 I analyzed the question of American involvement in southern Africa in the pages of this journal.1 I discussed a set of concepts-"constructive engagement in the region as a whole"-as a possible basis for pursuing American interests in southern Africa. It seemed to me at the time that this phrase was self-evidently consistent with mainstream U.S. internationalism and essential to the very meaning of activist diplomacy.

I recognized that there was a major risk in suggesting that the United States was prepared to deal seriously and substantively with a distant foreign policy minefield with which Americans were overwhelmingly unfamiliar. The risk, in other words, seemed to lie in its very ambition, its commitment to a realistic and sustained pursuit of U.S. goals in the region as a whole (the concept was not proposed as the basis of policy toward South Africa alone).

If we were to undertake such a commitment, I argued, we would need to base our actions on a solid grasp of the region's dynamics and to have the ability to interpret its actors and their motives. We would require an adequate internal consensus to prevent Americans and South Africans from exploiting each other's internal debates and conflicts. Finally, we would need to recognize the sharp limits on U.S. influence and to focus carefully on the likely consequences of possible U.S. actions.

In describing the possibilities for constructive Western statesmanship, the 1980 article painted a sober picture of a deeply troubled region. Regarding South Africa, it underscored the ambiguity of political trends within Afrikanerdom. It was far from certain what the newly emerged coalition of "modernizers" and "reformers" assembled by then Prime Minister P. W. Botha would attempt to do with its more streamlined and centralized decision-making apparatus. The article foresaw both "autocratic political change" imposed from above and "continued and even gradually increasing political conflict and violence."

Beyond South Africa itself, the 1980 article foresaw an aggressive external posture by the South African Defense Forces. But it also concluded that there was an opportunity to help shape a regional climate conducive to political accommodation in both southern and South Africa if Western governments were prepared to engage in "a sustained and nimble diplomacy" involving leadership in regional problem-solving. Southern Africa, as I saw it, was entering a "fragile transition phase, and it may prove to be easier to destroy and destabilize its potential than to build on it."

This was hardly a forecast of smooth sailing. Why should the United States bother? I believed then, as I do now, that the case for mounting an activist strategy of regional engagement rested less on the prospects for success than on the evident costs of not trying at all.

The United States has an inherent and proper interest in purposeful change in South Africa toward a nonracial system; the possible failure of such change is a threat to our own values and interests. The question of how change occurs and who participates in shaping it will determine the prospects for the democratic values and free market institutions we cherish. That kind of evolution is most unlikely to occur all by itself. Moreover, the region's close ties to the Western economic system and the modern Western experience mean that our values and diplomacy are on trial there. The United States should be prepared "to compete with our global adversary in the politics of a changing region whose future depends on those who participate in shaping it." The focus of decisions and diplomatic action would be regional, but our choice of whether to compete or not-when the Soviets and Cubans were busily exploiting and militarizing regional conflicts-would have global implications.

No previous administration had taken on such a sweepingly ambitious brief; arguably, none had even attempted to become so centrally involved in the region's dynamics. What made this vision particularly bold was the uncertain domestic base for it here in this country, the absence of a "centrist consensus" to underpin our policy. History, geography and competing global priorities dealt us a rather thin deck of cards for devising any policy toward southern Africa.

Our European allies have far deeper ties of history and economic interest in the area than we do, and over the decades have provided four times as much economic assistance to the region. The United States has no troops, bases or alliances there, and no coercive influence over any party in the region. By way of contrast, Soviet arms deliveries to Angola alone averaged $1 billion annually for much of the 1980s-ten times the level of U.S. military assistance to all 46 nations of sub-Saharan Africa in the first year of the Reagan Administration and 40 times the U.S. level by 1988. Consequently, we would have to rely principally on our wits, our unique relevance and our special diplomatic possibilities rather than on our wallets and our muscle. Since sound diplomacy can only be based on the realities of history and power, we would have to turn these realities in our direction, play upon the region's own dynamics, and link our vision to the self-interest of other parties.

Thus, it was evident in 1980 that success would be difficult and would require a solid grasp of how the region operates and how it relates to the external world. Given the ambition of the strategic concept, my article concluded with an appeal that we should "underpromise and overdeliver." The Reagan Administration did exactly that in southern Africa.


Public servants in foreign policy institutions rarely have the opportunity to spell out, extensively and publicly, their vision of a prospective assignment before assuming it. I was given an opportunity to put my ideas into practice, when President Reagan appointed me assistant secretary of state for African affairs in 1981.

Over the ensuing years, our diplomacy tried to avoid the sort of flashy unilateralism that might scare away allied or African partners as well as U.S. constituencies. We tried to operate quietly when that was possible. In keeping with this low profile, initiatives were typically launched at the sub-cabinet level after approval by the president.

Sticking to the substantive merits of the issues did, indeed, involve political risks: risks of having our "objectivity" misinterpreted as naïveté or even tacit collusion-with South Africa, according to some critics, with Cuba, the U.S.S.R. and the African Marxist states, according to others; risks of allied disunity and U.S. isolation when our initiatives were temporarily stalled; and, of course, risks of losing domestic support and facing congressional and media opposition.

The last of these risks was not a serious problem during the first Reagan term. In those years the main reactions we encountered at home were polite skepticism and incredulity. But by the end of 1986 we sorely missed that ephemeral "centrist consensus" and had lost the chance to rebuild it.

In the course of the Reagan Administration's final 30 months, rival sectors of congressional opinion had moved to impose economic sanctions of one form or another against not only South Africa but virtually every state in the region-including those with whom delicate negotiations were in progress-plus colonial Namibia and the Namibian guerrilla group SWAPO (South-West African People's Organization).

Nevertheless, as a result of our efforts, a new regional order is emerging in southern Africa. Africa's last colony, Namibia, is gaining independence; Cuban and South African soldiers are going home; a start has been made in ending the wrenching civil conflict in Angola. A younger generation of Afrikaner nationalists is assuming power in South Africa, and there is growing talk on all sides of a new era of negotiations. Cuban President Fidel Castro has embraced an American-designed peace plan as the means of honorable exit from Angola. In the name of "new thinking," the Soviet leadership has adopted the functional equivalent of Western policy toward this most troubled and perplexing region. It is an ideal moment to revisit the question of U.S. involvement in the affairs of southern Africa.


Southern Africa is a beautiful region, magnificently endowed with human and natural resources, the potential economic engine of a continent, and a place whose web of racial and civil conflict tears at our hearts, urging us to engage ourselves. But at another level, southern Africa can become, as former Ambassador to Pretoria Ed Perkins put it, a sort of "political vending machine" into which we insert our coins to receive moral hygiene or instant ideological gratification. Featuring almost every form of odious human behavior-racism, brutal oppression, Marxism, authoritarianism, terrorist violence, organized butchery of unarmed villagers and gross official corruption-the region became a moralist's theme park.

Significant numbers of Americans reacted viscerally against U.S. diplomacy as its purposes became hopelessly distorted in debate, and many abandoned the political center. When Congress overrode President Reagan's veto of the anti-South Africa sanctions legislation in 1986, the administration paid the price of its ambition.

Nevertheless, I believe that we did what we set out to do. The strategy of engagement in southern Africa problem-solving-with all its risks-worked better than I had imagined it could.

The region's strategic map has been decisively reshaped for the better by the treaties signed last December by Angola, Cuba and South Africa. The U.S.-mediated regional settlement, reached after years of negotiation, will bring Namibia to independence under U.N. auspices. This entails the end of apartheid in Namibia and South African military withdrawal from both Angola and Namibia. In side arrangements worked out between Angola and South Africa, the latter promised to end its military support of UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), while the former agreed to require the withdrawal of thousands of African National Congress (ANC) military cadres from Angolan territory. Finally, some 50,000 Cuban troops are being withdrawn from Angola as part of the settlement, thus bringing to a close the most striking chapter in the history of Cuban external adventurism and pointing the way to the definitive end of Cuba's military role elsewhere in Africa.

An African-led and U.S.-supported reconciliation process to end the civil war that has plagued Angola since its independence in 1975 is under way. The dynamic move toward peace between the Soviet-backed government of the MPLA (Popular Liberation Movement of Angola) and its opponent, UNITA, is the logical and inexorable fruit of the December 1988 regional settlement in southwestern Africa.

To oversee the implementation of the sweeping series of reciprocal commitments in the December accords, the signatories have established an innovative Joint Commission with the United States and Soviet Union as observers. The Joint Commission reflects another new regional reality: the Soviets have abandoned their previous course of obstructing Western initiatives and exploiting conflicts in the region. In the process they have adopted major tenets of U.S. policy and explicitly endorsed a regional settlement designed in Washington over eight years ago. With our full support, they have instituted their own form of diplomatic engagement in southern Africa. Moscow and Havana have joined the United States, Britain and other Western allies in shaping a new climate more conducive to negotiated solutions.

It has long been obvious to observers well acquainted with power realities in the region that South Africa would not become free through revolutionary violence and actions aimed at physically destroying its economy and infrastructure. Black bargaining leverage would develop principally through nonmilitary means and be projected from black organizations created and based inside the country. But black and white minds in South Africa have been transfixed for decades by doctrines and strategies of violence-the government's "total strategy" and recurrent "destabilization" campaigns in the neighboring Frontline States aimed at countering the sputtering "armed struggle" waged by the ANC and, more broadly, at warding off the perceived "total Marxist onslaught" against the state.

To deal with this mindset, we did our best to foster a new logic that obliged all parties in the region to recognize that cross-border violence and armed confrontation are a two-way street leading nowhere. By offering diplomatic engagement with those governments prepared to pursue negotiated solutions, we sought to strengthen the chances for political solutions and to undercut efforts by either Moscow or Pretoria to exploit conflicts or settle them militarily.

U.S. diplomacy offered an alternative road. We hoped southern Africa could move beyond the military test of wills inevitably set in motion by the Portuguese revolution and the basic strategic changes that ensued in the years 1974-80 during which Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe became independent. Our alternative road was anti-Soviet in the sense that, at the time, a heavily militarized diplomacy was Moscow's only card and apparently its preferred course. The nonmilitary road was also, from the outset, a direct challenge to those elements in the South African government who sought a free hand to use its military preponderance in support of national goals, as well as to those elements who confused raw power with its successful application. Finally, our diplomacy was a direct challenge to those leaders in Frontline governments and the ANC, who acted on the belief that the justice of the cause-battling apartheid-would somehow render them immune from South Africa's reaction to mounting guerrilla violence and terrorism.

We could not, of course, compel any of the parties to adopt our alternative path-whether in the Namibia-Angola settlement talks or in the troubled bilateral relationships of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana with South Africa. The cycle of regional violence set in motion in the 1970s planted deep roots in the assumptions of decision-makers. Only time could teach the limits and costs of violence, no matter who promoted it for what purpose.

It did take time. During the height of internal unrest and violent repression in South Africa in 1985-87, a parallel form of regional madness also flourished. A number of Frontline State governments joined the shrill chorus of demands for the isolation and ostracism of Pretoria. Confusing world politics with a nationalist protest rally, they wrongly imagined that Western disgust with apartheid's brutalities would translate into protection from the effects of South Africa's turmoil. The Angolan government mounted a series of doomed, dry-season offensives in a search for military victory over UNITA. The Soviets poured billions of dollars of modern hardware and thousands of advisers into the effort. When these actions prompted an American response in the form of direct aid to UNITA, Angolan leaders inflicted yet another wound on themselves by temporarily obstructing their only escape route from the quagmire-the U.S. mediation effort on Namibia-Angola. In a Botha-like burst of hubris, President Castro of Cuba went so far as to proclaim in 1986 that his forces would remain in the region until the end of apartheid, an announcement almost calculated to delight Pretoria's hardliners and to anger their Angolan hosts, who had made contrary commitments.

The Botha government itself fueled much of this irrationality through its own regional actions. The leash was taken off the ever-imaginative planners in the South African Defense Forces. Nonaggression accords painstakingly negotiated with neighboring Angola and Mozambique in 1984 were deliberately violated in succeeding years. Overt and clandestine commando strikes were mounted into seven neighboring countries, aimed at presumed ANC targets. Taking a page from Angola's diplomatic book, Pretoria seemed for a time determined to scuttle the embryonic regional framework that offered its only real prospect of obtaining an end to Soviet-Cuban military presence and cross-border guerrilla violence.

The Soviets and Cubans eventually recognized that you get what you pay for when seeking to project military power far from home: their Angolan stronghold, acquired on the cheap 14 years ago, ultimately proved to be a political and strategic quagmire, costing more to maintain than to acquire. The Frontline States learned that, however vulnerable and isolated South Africa may be, their own vulnerabilities practically rule out a physical test of wills. There are better ways to engage a dominant neighbor. Black opposition leaders in South Africa learned again the futility of confronting Pretoria by force, where the latter is strongest. For its part, the Botha government learned that each time it crushes them physically, black nationalist organizations emerge stronger from the ordeal. It also learned the hard way that its obvious capability to take military actions with impunity in the region does not by itself translate into a successful strategy; when misused, this tool only increases South African exposure and risk.


The Namibia-Angola settlement of 1988 ended one historical phase and opened the door to the best opportunity that regional leaders have ever had to build a constructive future. It is important to understand why this watershed is so important and why it could pave the way for further successes, including in South Africa itself. The Namibia-Angola settlement has given fresh impetus to the search for peace elsewhere in the region, with political logic now prevailing over reflexive military action.

A year ago, President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Congo assured us that, if we were successful in first resolving the external issues related to Namibia and Cuban troop withdrawal, African leaders would step forward and bring their influence to bear for talks on Angolan internal reconciliation. Some of us were skeptical about this sequence of events, but the Congolese leader was correct.2 The initiative of President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaïre in orchestrating the June 1989 Angolan reconciliation talks-supported by a virtually unanimous African consensus-offered dramatic evidence of African statesmanship and the potential for African solutions.

Across the continent in Mozambique, President Joaquim Chissano is moving to stop the war in his own country, revising elements of his political program and openly seeking the help of Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States in defining steps toward a ceasefire with RENAMO (Mozambique National Resistance). Long the most ardent advocate of political dialogue in southern Africa, Mozambique may now reap major benefits from its investments in common sense.

When Mozambique's imaginative leadership cast confrontation aside in 1983-84 to conclude its nonaggression pact with South Africa, it demonstrated the "power of the weak," reaching out to play a constructive regionwide role and seeking to engage Pretoria in a reciprocal framework of economic, security and political links. Ironically, South Africa's failure to respect fully its own obligations under the Nkomati Accords only added to Maputo's leverage, credibility and external backing. This, in the end, is why South Africa now seeks to make the relationship work as originally envisaged and to disassociate itself from RENAMO, the low-tech killing machine it supported in the ill-governed Mozambican countryside. For their part, Mozambique's leaders have discovered that even with virtually all of Africa and the international community united in a phalanx of opposition to RENAMO and its depredations, a political solution to the crisis of rural Mozambique will be necessary in order to reintegrate all those caught up in the mayhem.

Highly dependent upon South Africa for most essentials, landlocked Botswana bargained and maneuvered it into a genuine compromise on bilateral security issues. Pretoria's heavy-handed bullying only brought it increasing criticism while burnishing Botswana's repute for having the most decent political order and most productive economic policies within thousands of miles. As a result of diplomacy, the ANC is now tightly controlled and Botswana's principles are intact.

Zimbabwe, the strongest of the Frontline States, developed other ways to parry direct and indirect pressures from South Africa concerning the ANC and other political issues. Harare's military intervention in Mozambique on the side of the government kept that country from falling to pieces and reduced Zimbabwean dependence on South African trade routes. But this approach only stabilized a too costly status quo: ultimately, Zimbabwe's best guarantee of internal security was to get its own house in order, which it did by means of a merger pact in late 1987 between the governing ZANU party and its ZAPU rivals. Zimbabwe's transport links can best be secured if Mozambique follows suit in developing a concrete scenario for ending its horrendous civil strife, a process now at long last under way.


The Namibia-Angola settlement could also have profound effects on both the South African government and its opponents. Both Pretoria and the ANC are facing a geographic shift in their power alignment: South African forces redeploy back home as Namibia achieves independence and the ANC loses its principal locus of bases and training camps in Angola. Thus, there will no longer be ANC bases within reach of South Africa's borders. Though a trickle of guerrilla infiltration may continue, all of South Africa's proximate neighbors are now committed to prevent the launching of guerrilla action from their territories. If the new regional dynamic takes hold, the "armed struggle"-like Pretoria's "total strategy"-could become a vestigial remnant of an earlier phase of regional history.

By 1987 southern Africa had accumulated much experience with the failure of military solutions, and its leaders were sobering up. But in order to lay aside their assorted doctrines of violence, they needed an example of a successful political process that produced visible results. The Namibia-Angola agreements, inherently important in their own right, have provided the example; they could also provide a tangible basis for hope in what white South African opposition leader Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert has called "the politics of negotiation."

The Soviet Union and Cuba have given Pretoria a stake in regional peace-making by their decision to join with South Africa in the work of the Namibia-Angola Joint Commission, whose first challenge-getting SWAPO back under control after its April incursions into northern Namibia, in violation of the accords-was met. Senior Soviet spokesmen refer to the ANC's armed struggle as if it were a relic of a bygone era, and they openly describe Soviet-ANC relations as favoring a "more realistic approach" toward a "political solution." The ANC hears the same message from Western governments, as well as in African capitals where its guerrilla operations have been curtailed. On the other side, Pretoria is visibly engaged with African leaders across the continent and is hearing a new policy line from Moscow; this makes it difficult for them to use these countries' positions, once its best excuses, for avoiding dialogue with mainstream black opposition leaders.

The South African decision to choose the route of diplomacy on Namibia-Angola has paid important dividends. After the multiple fiascos of the mid-1980s, its civilian and military leaders correctly perceived the choice emerging before them, and persuaded Botha to test the diplomatic track. Their decisions since then have been a case study in the successful translation of physical power into political achievements. In tandem with their negotiating partners from Cuba and Angola, they bargained hard and made tough decisions when it mattered. The states of southern Africa would do well to remember the ingredients of their success: have a realistic agenda, be prepared to give in order to get, and act on the principle of "peace without losers" that made the December 1988 settlement possible.

South Africa's leaders have a stake in the regional dynamic they helped to shape. If they want to maintain their engagement with Moscow, Washington and London, to capitalize on the chance to build linkages and make peace with neighbors, and to translate their current internal and external position into a durable future for all South Africans, they will need to protect and nurture that stake. It will not work if Pretoria exploits the current regional environment in an attempt to avoid the imperative of ending apartheid and building a new system at home. The new dynamic cannot be confined north of the Limpopo. When the time comes for serious discussion with black opposition leaders, the government will need the creative involvement of Frontline State leaders as well. By the same token, these leaders need carefully to consider their own contribution through pressures on and inducements to the South African parties to make that time come closer.

This does not mean that a South African "solution" is around the corner. The respective "sides" needed for serious negotiation are not yet clearly defined; the arguments over preconditions and an agenda still have some distance to go. We are, at best, at the pre-negotiation stage. It can also be argued that the parties to the conflict over South Africa have barely begun to hurt each other; the level of pain being inflicted is not sufficient to force a negotiated settlement.

But, drawing upon the lesson of the Namibia-Angola process, the decisive ingredient there was not the level of pain; the parties decided to preempt the pain. The key factors were the existence of a realistic framework of negotiation, the availability of a suitable forum, and a basic equilibrium of power that made it possible for every party to gain. In this regard, it is worth noting that never in South Africa's history has the domestic stalemate been clearer. The white-led system can maintain order, but blacks can effectively veto any unilateral white plan for a changed system and can deny the current one its internal and external legitimacy. By the same token, blacks can achieve nothing by themselves; they will have to negotiate with those who are in power, to give in order to get. Before we write off Alan Paton's beloved country, it may be useful to rise above South Africa's myriad imponderables just to get a glimpse of that bigger picture.

With both East and West now calling for negotiation, and African leaders starting to exploit the openings for diplomacy, a ripple effect of pressures to redefine positions is being felt across the South African political spectrum. This explains the current scramble for position as the government, the ANC, the United Democratic Front, black trade unions and the Zulu-based Inkatha movement all take initiatives to demonstrate their interest in breaking the logjam. While much of the fluidity so evident in the region today may be tactical in motive, we should remember that a series of tactical gambits-by the parties and by the United States-kicked off the final phase of the Namibia-Angola process in late 1987. What outsiders do, or choose not to do, can make a difference, too.


To understand the full implications of this newly emerging regional climate, we need to know what happened inside South Africa, and in U.S.-South African relations, during the 1980s. Having served as a catalyst for regional peace, should the United States continue to grapple with regional problems, or should we conclude that we have done what we can and lower our sights and our exposure?

A leading white editor in Johannesburg recently expressed the fear that F. W. de Klerk, the new National Party (NP) leader, was destined to repeat the pattern set by P. W. Botha: to spend the first half of his term of office in "bungled, uncertain and inconclusive reform" and the second half coping with its "disastrous consequences." The NP, he continued, has one last chance to lead the country out of the nightmare it created, but it is "so thoroughly rotten" in moral, organizational and political terms that this chance will probably be squandered.3 Whatever one thinks of these comments and forecasts, they reflect a mounting white disenchantment with the NP and they suggest that P. W. Botha has left a frightful legacy for his successors. It is worth recalling for a moment what went wrong.

The basic answer is that Botha and his closest allies badly misjudged what would be required to lead their country out of the political wilderness in the 1980s. This profoundly parochial man wasted much of his unprecedented opportunity for leadership. Having built up an extraordinary power base in 1980, Botha went on to create an imperial presidency-the ideal machinery for purposeful, autocratic political reform. A courageous man committed to a vague reformist platform, he split his own party in 1982-83 over a new tricameral constitution, giving the vote to Coloureds and Asians to select their own houses of parliament. This action literally transformed the NP overnight into a potentially moderate white party and fostered the emergence on the right of the new Conservative Party.

But when it came time to exploit his new power base and define the direction and purposes of his centrist "adapt or die" message, Botha fell short. As I had warned in 1980, he used the new machinery as an "awesome instrument of control" and personal domination of the system. But he did not, as I had hoped, link his structural power base to a reform strategy inspired by the modernist Afrikaner political visions described in the 1980 article. Botha's vision and sense of urgency did not take him to the point of seeking to engage blacks in a process leading to power sharing-until events got beyond him in 1984-85. By then trial balloons aimed at favored groups in the black community-e.g., black participation in an advisory national statutory council-only served to discredit those groups and legitimize the creation of "alternative structures."

Authoritarian and acutely sensitive to criticism, Botha proved to be a poor judge of character, gradually permitting himself to be surrounded by loyalists and opportunists who used their positions to indulge his wishful thinking and blatantly to distort the flow of information he received. In retrospect, Botha may have simply discounted the black organizational potential to establish a credible national protest movement. Or he may have believed that Afrikaner interests were best served by isolating and excluding black activists and creating a durable majority from the country's moderates of all races. The effort failed because Botha's changes created a vacuum and a rallying point for black urban leadership.

The results of all this were sadly ironic. The government which restored at least limited political rights to four million Coloureds and Asians-reversing an NP injustice of 30 years earlier-has gone down in history as the government that delivered the ultimate insult to the black majority, the catalyzing rebuff to its nationalist aspirations. Pretoria triggered a wave of black anger that led not only to three years of urban unrest in which thousands died, but also to the creation of the most effective grass-roots organizational drives in South African history. The United Democratic Front (UDF), a protest and resistance movement loosely aligned with the ANC, placed the Botha government on the strategic defensive, rekindled the Western anti-apartheid movement and successfully redefined South Africa as the world's premier polecat.

The South African government most committed to reform of any since World War II presided over a significant range of piecemeal changes improving the lives of blacks in many fields, removing some onerous apartheid practices and modifying others. Yet this is the government that will be credited more often with a draconian state of emergency in which perhaps 30,000 were detained, black groups put out of action, and the press severely muzzled. By his repressive actions during the height of the crisis in the mid-1980s, Botha drove away foreign investors and bankers, swept away the substantial gains he had made in regional diplomacy in 1984, and undercut those Western governments most important to him. Stirred to "do something" by the imagery of events in South Africa, those governments in turn imposed a range of punishments on him, his country and its economy.

By 1987 Pretoria had physically broken the back of the black resistance movement. In theory, this could have been a moment of fresh opportunity for the government to take the political initiative and shape a basis for further reform and negotiation. But, as Bishop Desmond Tutu once remarked, P. W. Botha lacked the "convictions of his courage." Lacking good ideas and unwilling to use those credible negotiators available to start a serious dialogue with black leaders, the Botha government found itself strangely adrift, like a sailboat on a becalmed sea: there was no momentum, no wind, no charts or compass.

Pretoria clearly recognized that major political change beyond that currently on offer would be required. But how to proceed in a context where an increasingly evident "black veto" could quickly discredit even major unilateral moves by government? Authoritarian reform now seemed less attractive to leaders whose top priority was to reassert control and who now faced a changed political landscape. The West, it was argued in Pretoria, suddenly seemed to have lost its own bearings and to be demanding nothing less than capitulation to maximal black demands. If unilateral moves would gain nothing, it was equally difficult to envisage a credible scenario for starting negotiations that would not alarm an increasingly anxious electorate.

Accordingly, the Botha government joined the ANC and UDF in the superficial exercise of pronouncing "preconditions" for negotiations-a clear confirmation that the time was not ripe. By 1988 a political stalemate had emerged. Growing numbers of South Africans of all races recognized that an ominous economic decline lay down the road. The long brewing loss of confidence by market forces-locally and externally-was followed by politically motivated Western sanctions.

South Africa, once the obvious centerpiece of hopes for broader regional development, now featured a collapsed currency, sustained capital export and private capital flight, no fresh money from abroad, reduced access to imported technology, growing black unemployment, higher inflation and interest rates, and declining white living standards. In a crowning irony, a government long accused of seeking only to perpetuate white domination was now increasingly charged by those to its right with compromising this principle and worse, with jeopardizing white economic interests. There could be no more stunning example of the perversity of economic sanctions. Small wonder that by the end of Botha's term, the NP found itself facing its first serious electoral challenge in decades.


Botha's attitude toward the U.S.-South African relationship was but a microcosm of his broader approach. By listening too often to the wrong voices, he misread his margin of maneuver. Starting in 1981, he persuaded himself that he knew better than his best diplomats how to read Washington and get the answers he wanted.

Regarding South Africa, constructive engagement was by definition a conditional concept: in exchange for Pretoria's cooperation on achieving Namibia's independence, we would work to restructure the independence settlement to address our shared interest in reversing the Soviet-Cuban adventure in Angola; in exchange for reduced rhetorical flagellation and minor adjustments in certain bilateral fields (e.g., civilian export controls), we would hold Pretoria to its self-proclaimed commitment to domestic reform. There would be a change of tone toward reciprocity and even-handedness. But there would be no change in basic policy parameters on such matters as the U.S. opposition to South African apartheid laws and institutions or bilateral security ties-no "rewriting of the past 20 years of U.S. diplomacy," as the 1980 article put it-in the absence of fundamental internal change.

Botha and his colleagues preferred to view Ronald Reagan's 1980 electoral victory as the beginning of an embrace. Dissatisfied with the line coming from official Washington, Botha dispatched senior military emissaries to go around the diplomatic channel and obtain another definition of U.S. policy. When that failed, the new U.S. policy team was subjected to multiple efforts to divide it and then to obtain a tacit trade-off between regional cooperation and the downplaying of internal change. South African official media insisted on portraying the U.S. relationship in these terms despite the facts. Within months of reaching an agreement in principle on a shared approach to Namibia-Angola in 1981, we began to pick up signals of Pretoria's desire to discuss a very different relationship: what specific kinds of reform did we care most about and what sort of bilateral security cooperation were we prepared to consider to get it?

This sort of thinking, of course, ignored the fact that Botha needed first and foremost to consider South African rather than American opinion in deciding the course of domestic reform. It also ignored American political reality. We had no intention of putting aside the words I wrote in 1980:

Clearly, the fundamental goal is the emergence in South Africa of a society with which the United States can pursue its varied interests in a full and friendly relationship, without constraint, embarrassment or political damage. The nature of the South African political system prevents us from having such a relationship now. That goal will remain elusive in the absence of purposeful, evolutionary change toward a nonracial system.

But Botha was not convinced, and by 1983 his representatives spoke to us of their mounting concerns about a conservative backlash; further reform would be difficult in the absence of major American quid pro quos. Our message echoed what we had said from the outset: it was in the government's own interest, and in the interest of a continued constructive relationship, to proceed with scrapping apartheid practices such as detention and bannings, forced removals and the pass laws; to extend citizenship rights to blacks throughout the country, to adopt a bill of rights and to further deracialize the economy.

When the turmoil erupted and Botha responded by falling into, instead of crossing, the Rubicon in 1985, Washington imposed selective and symbolic sanctions. We operated, in other words, on the realistic premise stated in my 1980 article: "events in South Africa will determine the basic parameters of American policy." Our purpose in 1985 was to underscore our message and buy time for a return to sanity in Pretoria before broad-scale, punitive economic measures were adopted in Congress. But a few months later Botha told me that "sanctions are your problem" and described our policies as "worse than Carter's." It was soon clear that the administration was losing control of the domestic debate on sanctions, months before Congress overrode Reagan's veto in the fall of 1986. Admittedly, a self-destructive battle within the administration over how to handle the congressional politics of the issue contributed to this result by assuring substantial Republican defections. But, by their regional and internal actions, Botha and his ever smaller circle of advisers virtually guaranteed this result. They may even have welcomed sanctions as an ironically liberating action that would break bilateral tensions and free Pretoria to go it alone.

As American firms departed in droves and trade links declined, the bilateral relationship became severely strained and direct influence plummeted. The U.S. administration was asked whether it would now forget about southern Africa. If not, what would we do now that sanctions had "replaced" constructive engagement? The question typified the adolescent quality of discussion on the issues: it implied that sanctions are themselves a policy rather than an instrument of policy, and it presumed that our policy was opposed to applying pressure on Pretoria. Botha knew better. Unlike the U.S. official who recently told The New York Times that constructive engagement under Reagan meant "not saying anything the South African government didn't like," Botha was keenly aware that we had been doing and saying things he did not like since 1981.

To their lasting credit, President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz decided that we would not be deflected from our view of how best to bring the region to its senses and resume the progress made in the early 1980s. We would continue, in close association with key allies, the effort to sustain our engagement in fostering regional negotiations while working to expand regional economic assistance. In Mozambique we would continue on the path of decency and self-interest, working closely with its government, feeding its traumatized people and carefully distinguishing its externally guided rebellion from the genuine civil war in Angola. In South Africa we would aggressively expand our diplomacy with black organizations while maintaining effective channels of communication with Pretoria. In this way we hoped to lay the basis for the day when southern Africa's leaders would come to their senses-set aside guerrilla violence, commando raids, sanctions campaigns and repression-and focus on the real issue: negotiated solutions.

In actions unprecedented by any major Western leader, Shultz held a meeting to discuss this agenda with ANC leader Oliver Tambo, the most dramatic of many examples Washington would set in the hope that Pretoria might one day follow. A few months later, in September 1987, he delivered an address asserting America's vision of a post-apartheid, democratic South Africa.4 This was a forceful and direct contribution to the pre-negotiation process that has since begun, the first among several definitions that have emerged subsequently of the terms of reference for genuine dialogue.


One could argue that the Bush Administration should hold southern Africa at arm's length. The previous administration did not have an easy time, so why not focus on other priorities and let others worry about southern Africa? It is possible to treat this troublesome arena as an essentially domestic problem, one to be contained politically with symbolism and rhetoric. After all, the argument goes, the British are exercising strong policy leadership, and the Soviets are winding down their military role.

But the answer is that we, too, have a stake in one of the most successful U.S. diplomatic initiatives of recent years. There is a solid legacy to build on and an important role to play. No other major country has our blend of expertise, problem-solving skill, political credibility and domestic motivation to carry through the diplomacy of southern Africa's next phase. Last year we elected as president a man who knows Africa, its leaders and its problems better than any in our history. By following through on the legacy of the 1980s, he has a chance for leadership in pursuit of goals shared by all Americans, goals properly identified with the party of Abraham Lincoln. It is worth the effort to remain engaged.

The next phase of U.S. involvement will be constructive if it is based on the recognition of certain basic realities. First, we are dealing with a new and highly fluid regional environment. Wars are ending, positions are in flux, and leaders are torn between their tactical political instincts and their larger strategic opportunities.

The United States can be effective only if it maintains the capacity to grasp and act upon these fast-moving events and to communicate credibly and in confidence with all the key players. The executive branch requires flexibility to do these things. This is not the time to negotiate with the Congress on the 1986 sanctions legislation; no purpose would be served by exchanging one set of static legislative prescriptions for another. Moreover, tangible U.S. carrots and sticks are becoming less relevant: ANC leader Nelson Mandela is unlikely to be released from prison sooner because we decide to modify our policy on imports of lobster tails or specialty steel products.

To obtain sufficient running room to conduct its policy, the administration needs to walk the very fine line between defining its own political imagery on the South African issue and the imperative of sustaining credibility in Pretoria. The first, defining its political imagery, is already in process, and is necessary if the administration is to move beyond the poisonous debates of the mid-1980s and the former president's sadly inadequate effort to convey his sensitivity to the outrage of apartheid. At the same time, failure to establish a basis of mutual comprehension and predictability between Washington and Pretoria will spell the end of U.S. effectiveness in southern Africa.

The Bush Administration has inherited a strong legacy in southern Africa. No purpose can be served by questioning that judgment except to confuse our allies, the Soviets and our African partners who consider our stock to be at all-time highs. But that legacy is like a set of algebraic equations with many unknowns. Can the contending political forces in Namibia find a modus vivendi so that both the U.N. transition group and the South Africans can extricate themselves smoothly, leaving behind a more or less viable nation? Will Pretoria and the Frontline States find a common language on regional security issues that now appear closer to some resolution? Will the newly emergent Soviet-South African flirtation, a direct result of the Namibia-Angola peace process, mature into an abiding feature of the new regional system?

The meeting between Botha and Mandela in July was significant as a symbolic portrait of a prisoner and a president who may have recognized, in that moment, that they need each other. Now a younger man, far more worldly than his predecessor, will replace Botha. F. W. de Klerk has raised certain expectations and said many different things to the various audiences he faces within and beyond his fragmented polity. He has told his party that it faces a "great moment of truth," but the odds are high that he has no master plan for dealing with it. Known as a man of pragmatic toughness, he may listen-at least intially-to a wider range of voices than Botha did.

One of the voices that he and others in the region should hear is ours. The message must be categorical on issues of racism, freedom, economic liberty and negotiated solutions. We should continue to define constructive agendas that can induce leaders to explore fresh options. But that is not enough. Ours must be a voice in support of bridging gaps and removing obstacles, not one that ratifies them or erects new preconditions.

The United States should reject at every turn the notion that South Africa is an American problem-it is not. And it will not be "solved" in a bilateral negotiation with its government: after nearly 80 years as an independent state, it is time that South Africa behaved like one and that South Africans bargain with each other. By the same token the conflict in South Africa will not be "solved" by crude American efforts to manipulate the distant and slippery levers of the South African power balance. An economically weaker South Africa will be a country with more suffering, anger and fear-not more statesmanship and vision. Negotiation and political solutions are possible at any point of relative equilibrium. They need not wait for some imaginary future stalemate, far bloodier than the present one.

Finally, the next phase of U.S. involvement can be constructive if we bear in mind that we are dealing with a region, not a set of isolated problems. It has never made sense to conjure up one policy toward South Africa and another toward one or more of its neighbors. This is a regional system that entered today's more promising phase when all parties concerned recognized that reality.

1 "South Africa: Strategy for Change," Foreign Affairs, Winter 1980/81. Fuller discussion of the regional approach proposed for southern Africa can be found in the author's "Southern Africa: A U.S. Policy for the 80's," with Mario Greszes and Robert Henderson in Freedom at Issue, November-December 1980 (also appeared in Africa Report, January-February 1981) and "African Policy in the 1980s," Washington Quarterly, Summer 1980.

2 The parties held six rounds of negotiation in Brazzaville, the Congolese capital, leading to the Brazzaville Protocol of December 1988, which immediately preceded the New York agreements on Namibia-Angola.

3 Ken Owen, Business Day, June 26, 1989.

4 George P. Shultz, "The Democratic Future of South Africa," an address before the Business Council for International Understanding, New York, Sept. 29, 1987.

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  • Chester A. Crocker was Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the Department of State, 1981-89; he is currently Distinguished Fellow, United States Institute of Peace, and Research Associate at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University.
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