The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
54. Apartheid

Copyright 2001     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
South Africa and surrounding area

Long before it became official government policy in 1948, apartheid -- a word meaning "separateness" in the Afrikaans language -- was a way of life in South Africa. Ever since the creation of an independent South Africa, achieved by the Act of Union passed by the British parliament in 1910, discrimination and segregation were weapons used by the ruling white minority to keep the black majority subjugated. The pursuit of this policy was due to several factors. There was a fear among whites, best summed up in the concept of swart gevar ("black peril"), that if the blacks took power they would seek vengeance for past oppression. According to one activist of the African National Congress (ANC), apartheid was also a system that provided "cheap labour enforced by laws . . . and industrial practices." And, of course, many whites believed nonwhites were inferior beings, unfit for the responsibilities democracy confers upon citizens.
After Dr. D.F. Malan's Nationalist Party took power in 1948, the government passed a series of laws designed to cement white control over nonwhites. Sexual relations between races were banned, as were mixed marriages. Africans were required to carry a passbook, which gave their racial designation, their place of dwelling, the identity of their employer, and whether they were permitted to be in a white area. Black students were relegated to a bare-bones education that only provided them with basic skills deemed necessary for menial labor. And 1954's Resettlement of Natives Act permitted the government  to move entire African communities onto ethnic "homelands" or Bantustans. These lands were usually of little or no agricultural value, with the result that starvation and epidemics were common. Non-whites could not participate in government, were excluded from places of culture of entertainment, could not freely leave the country or travel within it, and did not have the right to form associations or assemble. In 1968, ANC  President Oliver Tambo summarized the effects of apartheid: "During the last two decades human values in our country sank to primitive levels as elementary human rights were trampled underfoot on a scale unparalleled in recent history."
Founded in 1912, the ANC was dedicated at first to pacifist resistance to the exclusion of nonwhites from political power. But in 1944 the Youth League, formed by Tambo, Nelson Mandela and others, began to take more aggressive action, creating a Programme of Resistance that called for strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience. The 1955 Freedom Charter declared that South Africa belonged to both whites and nonwhites, and no government could legitimately exercise authority unless it was based on the will of all the people. In the 1960s, protests broke out. In March 1960, 5,000 blacks demonstrated against the passbook law; police opened fire on the protestors and killed 69 in what came to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre. All black political organizations, including the ANC, were banned, and Nelson Mandela was arrested for leaving the country illegally and inciting a strike. In 1964 Mandela was sentenced to five years in prison; while serving that sentence he was charged with sabotage and condemned to life imprisonment on Robben Island. (He would spend a total of 27 years in prison.) In June 1976, 15,000 black students in Soweto Township protested the compulsory learning of Afrikaans. When troops killed two of the students, riots broke out in townships across the land. They lasted twelve months and claimed 575 lives. In 1977, Steven Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness movement, was arrested, tortured and murdered by South African police.
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration adopted a cautious approach to the South African quagmire -- an approach many deemed too conciliatory toward the ruling white minority. The administration was deeply concerned about the spread of Communism in the tumultuous southern half of the African continent. In Angola, a Marxist government was being sustained by Soviet aid and crack Cuban troops -- and resisted by UNITA, whose leader was the charismatic Dr. Jonas Savimbi. Though the U.S. was prohibited by the 1976 Clark Amendment from providing aid to Savimbi, the Reagan White House appreciated -- and approved of -- South Africa's support of UNITA. Soviet-backed SWAPO guerrillas, operating out of Angola, were attempting to wrest the colony of Namibia from South African control and establish an independent (Marxist) nation. According to the Reagan State Department, the ANC was strongly influenced by Communist ideology as well -- indeed, said the Reaganites, having been driven underground in the Sixties, the ANC was a political ally of Moscow and often engaged in terrorist activity. Meanwhile, the South African Defense Force was engaged in guerrilla activity of its own, inflaming its neighbors with regular raids into Mozambique, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. The White House feared that if the U.S. turned its back on South Africa the whole region might fall under Communist control. The administration tried to balance this geopolitical concern with its opposition to apartheid, a policy that cut against the grain of everything America stood for. It found this tightwire act a difficult one to maintain.
After South Africa launched a series of military assaults on Angola in 1983, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 546 (6 January 1984) calling for all member states to render aid to Angola. The U.S. abstained from voting on the resolution, but did broker an agreement hinging on the withdrawal of all foreign troops -- both South African and Cuban -- from Angolan soil. In 1984 the South African government instituted modest reforms; though "Coloreds" and "Indians" were given a voice in government, blacks (75% of the population) remained excluded. Nonwhite leaders strongly opposed what they viewed as merely a symbolic gesture. A wave of political violence erupted and a state of emergency was declared. Pressure mounted within the U.S. for the Reagan administration to slap South Africa with economic sanctions, and for American corporations to cease doing business there -- steps which, it was hoped, would place sufficient economic pressure on the South African government to abandon its apartheid policy. A number of firms did, in fact, wthdraw from South Africa. The administration, however, dragged its feet where sanctions were concerned.
In December 1984, South Africa's Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, a leading opponent of apartheid, called the Reagan policy of "constructive engagement" with South Africa "immoral, evil and totally un-Christian" -- not to mention ineffective -- during an appearance before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee. "You are either on the side of the oppressed or the side of the oppressor," said Bishop Tutu. "You can't be neutral." He received a standing ovation from the subcommittee -- and then traveled to Oslo, Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker defended the administration's low-key diplomatic approach. "I would say the description of our policy as ineffective is rubbish," he said. Two months later, installed as the first black Anglican bishop of Johannesburg, Tutu had to get special permission to enter the white-only area where the ceremony took place.
When South African troops raided deep into Angola and struck American-owned oil installations, President Reagan signed an executive order imposing limited sanctions in order to forestall stiffer sanctions leveled by a Congress eager to demonstrate its anti-apartheid sentiment. Meanwhile, Secretary of State George P. Shultz urged reconciliation in Angola and spoke out for Namibian independence, even though he caught a lot of flak from conservatives because of these positions. In early 1986 the administration was informed that South African President P.W. Botha was ready to begin dismantling apartheid, but sought an official invitation to the White House first. Shultz opposed inviting Botha to Washington, fearing it would "grant the South Africans legitimacy at the worst possible moment." Reagan agreed, insisting that the South Africans had to make real progress toward ending apartheid before he would issue the invitation. Instead of making progress, South Africa attacked ANC camps in Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. The U.S. condemned the attacks and expelled the military attache from the South African embassy in Washington.
On 22 July 1986, Reagan delivered a major speech on South Africa. He expressed concern over the security of white South Africans, and urged Congress to refrain from punitive sanctions. The address was a great disappointment to all those opposed to apartheid. Congress responded with legislation calling for stiff economic sanctions. The measure passed the Senate by an 84-14 margin. Reagan vetoed the bill, but on 2 October 1986 the veto was overridden by a 78-21 vote -- one of the worst foreign policy setbacks suffered by the president. A few weeks later, General Motors, IBM and other U.S. companies announced they were pulling out of South Africa. (It should be noted that a Harris poll taken at this time revealed that by a 60-30% margin the American people opposed sanctions that would force American companies out of South Africa.) The Reagan administration did recover, somewhat, with a diplomatic coup; as violence in Angola escalated in 1987, a delegation headed by Chester Crocker mediated a treaty between South Africa, Cuba and Angola that ended the violence there and paved the way for an independent Namibia. On 22 December 1988, Secretary Shultz represented the U.S. at the UN signing ceremony of the Angola-Namibia Accords.
In late 1989 Botha resigned as president of South Africa, to be replaced by F.W. de Klerk. A few months later, de Klerk removed the ban on the ANC and other black political organizations. He pushed a set of initiatives that resulted in South Africa's first universal-franchise election a few years later. And he ordered Nelson Mandela released from prison. In May 1994, Mandela became president. His inauguration marked the end of apartheid. Mandela and de Klerk were named co-recipients of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in bringing about the democratization of  South Africa.

Excerpt from Bishop Desmond Tutu's Speech Before
the United Nations Security Council, 1984
"I speak out of a full heart, for I am about to speak about a land that I love deeply and passionately; a beautiful land of rolling hills and gurgling streams, of clear starlit skies, of singing birds, and gamboling lambs; a land God has richly endowed with the good  things of the earth; a land of vast open spaces, enough to accommodate all its inhabitants comfortably; a land capable of feeding itself and other lands on the beleaguered continent of Africa, a veritable breadbasket; a land that could contribute wonderfully to the material and spiritual development and prosperity of all  Africa and indeed of the whole world. It is endowed with enough to satisfy the material and spiritual needs of all its people.
"And so we would expect that such a land, veritably flowing with milk and honey, should be a land where peace and harmony and contentment reign supreme. Alas, the opposite is the case. For my beloved country is wracked by division, by alienation, by animosity, by separation, by injustice, by avoidable pain and suffering. It is a deeply fragmented society, ridden by fear and anxiety, covered by a pall of despondency and a sense of desperation, split up into hostile, warring factions.
"It is a highly volatile land, and its inhabitants sit on a powderkeg with a very short fuse indeed, ready to blow us all into kingdom come."


The Economist: 11 July 1981, 26 September 1981, 11 June 1983, 3 March 1984, 16 March 1985, 6 July 1985, 14 September 1985, 12 April 1986, 2  August 1986, 20 September 1986, 4 October 1986, 25 October 1986

Newsweek: 29 April 1985, 29 July 1985, 19 August 1985, 11 November 1985, 11 May 1987 7 March 1988, 28 November 1988

Time: 26 April 1982, 6 September 1982, 6 June 1983, 4 Juily 1983, 14 November 1983, 24 September 1984, 17 December 1984, 25 February 1985, 1 April 1985, 17 June 1985, 22 July 1985, 26 August 1985, 9 September 1985, 16 September 1985, 23 September 1985, 14 October 1985, 25 November 1985, 13 January 1986, 3 February 1986, 5 May 1986, 23 June 1986, 6 July 1986, 28 July 1986, 15 September 1986, 3 November 1986, 15 December 1986, 19 Janaury 1987, 4 May 1987, 29 June 1987, 24 August 1987, 5 October 1987, 15 February 1988, 13 June 1988, 29 August 1988

The South African Quagmire
S. Prakash Sethi, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger Publishing Co., 1987)

Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State
George P. Shultz (New York:Charles Scribner's Sons, 1993)