South Africa, Relations with

views updated


SOUTH AFRICA, RELATIONS WITH. In 1652 the Dutch East India Company established the first European settlement in South Africa. By the early 1700s they had crushed the indigenous Khoikhoi and usurped their land. The population of Dutch settlers, known as Afrikaners, gradually increased. In the 1790s traders and whalers from New England visited South Africa regularly and trade increased in the mid-1800s. Ships sailed from Boston with barrel staves for the vineyards on South Africa's Western Cape and returned to New England loaded with cowhides for the shoe industry. International interest in South Africa exploded in the late nineteenth century with the discovery of abundant diamonds and gold in the area known as the Transvaal. The most important Americans in this development were mining engineers such as Gardner Williams, who eventually headed the De Beers diamond mines, and John Hays Hammond, who convinced the legendary capitalist Cecil Rhodes that the real wealth was in underground gold mining.

American contributions to the South African economy in the 1800s mainly benefited the white minority. American cultural contributions helped some blacks, particularly through education. John Dube, son of a Zulu leader, studied as a youth at an American missionary school in Natal. In 1889 he entered Oberlin College in Ohio and, after receiving his bachelor's degree, taught in Natal for a few years. In 1901 he opened a vocational school in Natal, based on Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute. In 1912 he was named the first president of the South African Native National Congress, which later became the African National Congress.

Dube's activism was a response to the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910, which featured a constitution that denied virtually all political rights to black South Africans. The racist constitution did not deter American officials from carrying on positive, if somewhat limited, relations with the South African government for approximately the next forty years. South Africa fought with the Allies in both world wars and, under the leadership of Jan Smuts, participated in the peace negotiations at Versailles in 1919 and the planning sessions for the United Nations in 1945.

Apartheid and the Cold War

Two developments complicated American relations with South Africa in the years after World War II: the onset of the Cold War and the establishment of apartheid. In 1948 in Pretoria, the Nationalist Party gained control of Parliament. Led by extremist Afrikaners, the Nationalists constructed their system of institutionalized racism known as apartheid. They passed the legal foundations of apartheid in 1950: the Population Registration Act, the Group Areas Act, and the Suppression of Communism Act. These allowed the government to classify all South Africans by race, segregate them in residential areas, and crush any criticism of governmental policies. The emergence of apartheid presented the U.S. government with a dilemma. Maintaining friendly relations with South Africa would open the United States to criticism from black Africans, especially at the United Nations. On the other hand, the international anticommunism of the Pretoria regime was helpful during crises such as the Korean War.

Despite reservations about associating with a racist state, the Truman administration fostered closer ties with Pretoria. The State Department upgraded its presence in South Africa to an embassy, and abstained on antiapartheid measures at the United Nations. The Pentagon negotiated a Mutual Defense Assistance Pact and in 1952 agreed to sell more than $100 million in weapons to South Africa. Following an agreement in 1950, in exchange for scientific, technical, and financial support to South Africa, the United States received a supply of uranium. Over the next fifteen years South Africa shipped more than $1 billion worth of uranium to the U.S. nuclear industry.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, public condemnation of apartheid gradually increased in the United States. The American government occasionally registered protests against Pretoria's excesses; for example, after a 1960 massacre of sixty-nine demonstrators at Sharpeville, the United States recalled its ambassador and supported a U.N. resolution deploring the incident. Nonetheless, Cold War concerns precluded any ruptures in official relations through the mid-1970s.

The situation changed somewhat in 1976, with the election of Jimmy Carter as U.S. president. Carter pledged to break away from traditional Cold War patterns in foreign policy. The central figure in his relations with Africa was Andrew Young, an African American minister and former civil rights activist whom Carter appointed as U.N. ambassador. After police in South Africa murdered Stephen Biko, the extremely dynamic and popular anti-apartheid activist, in September 1977, Young called for broad sanctions against Pretoria. Carter was not prepared to go that far, but he did support an arms embargo imposed by the United Nations. Young stated in no uncertain terms that the situation in South Africa needed to change, and official relations were chilly through the end of Carter's term.

Relations warmed up once again after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan. The Reagan administration staunchly opposed sanctions and implemented a policy known as constructive engagement. Engineered by Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker, constructive engagement attempted to encourage reform by working with the South African white leadership. Randall Robinson, head of the African American lobby group Trans Africa, emerged as Crocker's leading critic. Robinson and his followers transformed the debate over South Africa into a question of civil rights. Like the American civil rights struggle of the 1960s, the push for sanctions in the mid-1980s became a national grassroots movement. At the same time, Representative Ronald Dellums (D-CA) led a push in Congress for sanctions.

In September 1986, U.S. legislators passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA). Reagan vetoed the bill, but Congress promptly overrode him. The CAAA banned private loans, new investments, and computer sales by Americans in South Africa. It blocked imports of South African steel, uranium, and agricultural products into the United States and withdrew landing rights for South African airlines. Henceforth the Pretoria regime would pay a concrete price for maintaining apartheid.

Postapartheid Relations

The U.S. sanctions definitely took a toll and were a factor in the decision to end apartheid. More importantly,

protests within South Africa continued. President F. W. De Klerk began the process of dismantling apartheid in February 1990, when he released Nelson Mandela from jail. Mandela, the African National Congress (ANC) leader who had been sentenced to life in prison in the early 1960s, had spent more than thirty years in jail. During the next few years De Klerk repealed the major legal foundations of apartheid, and he and Mandela reached a final agreement for a new political system in 1993. In April 1994 in the first true national elections in South African history, the ANC won in a landslide and Mandela became the first leader of postapartheid South Africa.

President Bill Clinton announced a three-year $600 million package of aid, trade, and investment for South Africa, which meant that it would receive more U.S. assistance than the rest of Africa combined. In late March 1998, Clinton spent three days visiting South Africa. Mandela and Clinton's tour of Robben Island, where Mandela had been imprisoned, provided the most dramatic footage of Clinton's two weeks in Africa. He emphasized the fact that South Africa was a multiracial democracy like the United States. Mandela responded by praising Clinton for bringing positive attention to Africa. Mandela served a five-year term as president and was succeeded in 1999 by Thabo Mbeki.

Relations with the United States remained strong at the dawn of the new millennium. In May 2000 Mbeki visited the United States. He met with Clinton in Washington and also stopped in Atlanta, where he was hosted by Andrew Young. In 2000, America exported more than $3 billion worth of goods to South Africa—more than half the total U.S. exports to the continent. The United States imported more than $4 billion from South Africa, which ranked second only to Nigeria among African nations. Bilateral relations were more extensive and more positive than ever before, and South Africa had become America's number one ally in Africa.


Borstelmann, Thomas. The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.

DeRoche, Andrew. Black, White and Chrome: The United States and Zimbabwe, 1953–1998. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2001.

Lauren, Paul Gordon. Power and Prejudice: The Politics and Diplomacy of Racial Discrimination. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996.

Massie, Robert. Loosing the Bonds: The United States and South Africa in the Apartheid Years. New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1997.

Noer, Thomas J. Cold War and Black Liberation: The United States and White Rule in Africa, 1948–1968. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1985.


About this article

South Africa, Relations with

Updated About content Print Article


South Africa, Relations with