Ronald Reagan and South Africa

by petertspangler

Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States in 1980, when the apartheid in South Africa was still in effect. When Reagan took office in January of 1981, attention was paid to the hostages in Iran being let go, yet little was given to Reagan’s plan for dealing with the Apartheid government in South Africa. After the Carter administration, which had openly denounced the minority government that enforced Apartheid and informed them there would be no assistance if revolt/revolution/conflict arose from the Apartheid policy, the Reagan administration was a welcome change for pro-Apartheid South Africans. In the first interview after the election, Reagan made clear that his administration would not take any action against South Africa because of Apartheid policies. Despite how immoral and awful these Apartheid policies were and how atrocious blacks were treated by the minority white government, the United States would not intervene, no matter how repugnant the South African government acted. The pro-Apartheid faction of South Africa was jubilant, no more interference or worry about the loss of United States support as long as Reagan was in office so they acted more openly in striking down opposition internally and externally. Instead of taking the lead or following the growing movement to isolate the South African government (which had gained momentum with the suspicious death of anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko while he was in custody), Reagan’s plan of ‘constructive engagement’ breathed life into a government on its proverbial deathbed.
Constructive engagement was a foreign policy directive that allowed for continued relations with the morally corrupt government of South Africa, continued trade and foreign investment but with the goal of slowly bringing about change. Reagan feared abrupt change, believing that the spectre of Communism was ready to fill the power vacuum that would occur if South Africa’s minority government was allowed to fail. The reason why ‘constructive engagement’ failed was because there was no punishment for the crimes South Africa inflicted upon its black population. It was a closed door policy, meaning there was no public denouncement or international pressure, it was all mostly in secret. South Africa could ‘negotiate’ with Reagan’s administration in perpetuity because there would be no retribution, no suspension of military or economic aid; Reagan was too worried that if the minority South African government fell or was overthrown that a communist government would soon follow.
Imagine today, a government treating a portion of its population how the South Africans treated the blacks in their country. There would be international outrage and attempts to curtail such activity. The United States, which under recent administrations, has reshaped itself into the moral arbiter of the world taking military, political or economic action in areas of the world where they see injustice. Allowing the South Africans to continue their brutal system of Apartheid for any amount of time would be seen as an abject failure. The United States has intervened in some international incidents where the intention was to protect a group of people from genocide or warfare. Sending troops or other forms of assistance to Bosnia, Grenada, Panama, Philippines, Iraq, Kuwait, Somalia, Haiti and Afghanistan are some that come to mind. Why would the Reagan administration, which did not shy away from military action and set in motion an enormous increase in defense and military spending, not come to the aid of the blacks suffering in South Africa?
According to Vincent Khapoya, it was a combination of five points. First, South Africa contained valuable and strategic minerals vital to United States business. Second, South Africa was staunchly anti-communist and Reagan was terrifically worried if the minority pro-apartheid government was overthrown it would be replaced by a communist one supported by the Soviets. Third, America’s past is riddled with its own racial problems, why demand another country to denounce their racial policy? It could be seen as hypocritical. Fourth, economic disengagement would hurt more than it would help. A growing economy would improve conditions for all, increasing the need for blacks to be allowed into areas of the workforce they were previously prevented from entering and gradually erasing racial barriers. Pulling the economic rug would instead enforce status quo, shrinking the workforce and forcing out blacks and empowering whites. Fifth, if the United States abandoned its South African business interests, another country would move in and profit from the valuable minerals and other resources South Africa has to offer.
While those are mostly strong points, there is one counterpoint that can not be dismissed. Apartheid was wrong. It was morally, truly wrong. The subjugation of an entire race of people because of the color of their skin is wrong. Reagan should have done more, should have done something to bring about change. Congress tried to do more, with its passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986 which was promptly vetoed by Reagan. Congress then overrode Reagan’s veto and enforced the act, which placed strong sanctions upon the minority South African government. There were tenets of the legislation that allowed for easing and eventual dismissal of the sanctions if South Africa itself eased and eventually eliminated Apartheid, yet Reagan still disagreed. While the economic ramifications of these sanctions as it pertains to the dismantling of Apartheid policy is still debated, the message such legislation’s passage sent to the world was that South Africa could no longer depend on the United States complicit allowance of Apartheid. Before when Reagan claimed he would not interfere in South Africa’s domestic policy because they were a good and dependable ally in containing communism, white pro-apartheid South Africans were put at ease. Now, they had to worry.
Reagan’s successor George H. W. Bush pledged to fully enforce the sanctions imposed by the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, because it had come to light that Reagan’s administration lightly enforced those sanctions required by the legislation. The Apartheid government weakened and eventually fell by 1994. I believe it would have fallen sooner if Reagan took a stronger stance on ending Apartheid. It is quite clear that Reagan considered South Africa and its oppressive government to be a necessary evil in combating the worldwide spread of communism, otherwise there would have been stronger action taken. If Reagan had viewed the Soviet Union as the ‘Evil Empire’, it is surprising that he did not view South Africa the same.

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