By Christopher J. McCoy
Contributing Writer

The apartheid system of South Africa was one designed to beget racism, allowing a minority of whites to dominate a majority-black society economically and politically. The Afrikaner National Party regime controlled its citizens through the rule of law as enforced by persistent military presence in everyday life. During the 20th century and particularly after World War II, the primarily white, male leaders who held sway over US foreign policy had little incentive to enforce racial equality abroad – such problems were still brewing at home, unsolved. The civil rights movement in the US eventually expanded into a front against racism and imperialism that inordinately impacted people of color worldwide. The question addressed in this paper is: What was the most significant US foreign policy that influenced the end of apartheid in South Africa, and what were its major costs and benefits? This paper argues that the inefficacy of Reagan’s policy of constructive engagement, combined with political rebellion and violence that penetrated international media coverage, led to the passage of economic sanctions in Congress under the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which was the most effective policy to help facilitate the end of South African apartheid.

As defined in the course, US Foreign Policy toward Africa, apartheid is “a system of governance established by the Afrikaner National Party based on racial segregation” (Dr. Demessie Class Notes, Spring 2011). The history of the relationship between the US and South Africa’s apartheid regime is a long and intimate one that involved economic and military partnerships. In 1951, the National Party in South Africa, which espoused a highly discriminatory model of social living and segregation favoring the fifteen percent of the population that was white, “achieved an absolute majority within parliament” (Schraeder 194). As early as 1952, “the US agreed to sell over $112 million in arms to the South African military” (Schraeder 195). By 1979, when South Africa “tested a nuclear bomb in the Indian Ocean,” the US had a nuclear agreement with the nation. (Mufson 27). These agreements were made by the US despite South Africa’s implementation of laws that heavily discriminated the black majority – “in a series of legislative actions, the National Party consolidated its power and carried out an electoral promise to institutionalize a political system based on apartheid” (Schraeder 193). Such laws included the Population Registration Act – classification and registration of all South Africans according to race, the Group Areas Act – racial segregation of public areas, and the Suppression of Communism Act – banning of the South African Communist Party. The US asserted “merits of anti-communism and anti-racism as the guiding themes of US-South African relations” (Schraeder 194). Yet though anti-racism may have been a stated principle underlying US foreign policy, this was hardly seen to be carried out in practice.

The institution of apartheid in a nation-state that had extensive relations with the democratic and freedom-espousing United States of America posed a compendium of ethical and political dilemmas. As one scholar comments:

Since 1948 when the Afrikaner National Party formally institutionalized a pattern of political rule known as apartheid, policymakers were confronted with the dilemma of associating with a minority white-ruled government that discriminated on the basis of race against the majority of its population, and which was increasingly isolated within the international system (Schraeder 243).

Indeed, a political system that accommodates and effectively condones apartheid is the antithesis to a healthy US democracy that bases itself on equal representation of the people, at least in principle and by law. The US certainly had it’s own a history of persecution and discrimination, as seen in the system of slavery in the 18th century, and later on with the Jim Crow laws and institutionalized segregation, only to be overcome with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Many African Americans could relate to the treatment of black South Africans by the white ruling class, and comparison to the Jim Crow era remains particularly salient:

Embracing a political system known as ‘apartheid’ in which minority white ethnic groups comprising roughly 15 percent of the population have denied political franchise to a largely black majority comprising 73 percent of the population…South Africa became the target of a growing anti-apartheid movement increasingly prone to draw parallels between the legitimacy of the struggle by South African blacks and the US civil rights movement of the 1960s (Schraeder 190).

African Americans who had made significant strides obtaining equality and justice for their communities were incensed at the US government’s complacency with a blatantly racist and oppressive white-minority ruled regime. An American scholar of South Africa affirms the comparison stating, “we had a system of apartheid in the United States called Jim Crow” (Von Blum 1).

Ultimately, a movement rose in the US to end apartheid, a movement that “culminated in congressional passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid of 1986, which mandated a variety of sanctions designed to force the dismantling of apartheid” (Schraeder 190). The important question is how was this movement able to form in the US? It is a commonly held view that “the extended violence in South Africa served as a spark for the pro-sanctions viewpoint within the policymaking establishment in which Congress increasingly would assume the initiative in altering the direction of US-South African relations” (Schraeder 218). Upon further inspection, it is clear that a cause-effect relationship existed between media coverage of the violence in South Africa and the anti-apartheid sentiment that influenced policymaking (Schraeder 218). Put simply, the American public view saw the crisis unfolding in South Africa through violence that was clearly motivated by racial tensions and political divisions. The boiling over of heightened racial tensions that incited this politically-inspired violence delivered an image of chaos and turmoil to the American public. Indeed, media exposure of the violence that erupted in South Africa opened Americans’ eyes to the seriousness and gravity of the conflict, and consequently many were quick to respond by pressuring Congress to take action:

As the violence in South Africa continued to intensify, rising popular demands for the US government to ‘do something’ to stop the unfolding tragedy in South Africa galvanized the anti-apartheid activities of African- American lobbying groups, Republican splinter groups, and grassroots anti-apartheid organizations. These groups, in turn, placed pressure on vote-conscious congresspersons that recognized the popular political backlash that would accompany defeat of some sort of sanctions package (Schraeder 232).

A demand for increased standards of living and desire for uplift from conditions of poverty fueled the homegrown anti-apartheid movement in South Africa; as Mufson writes, “a reservoir of economic grievance, deeper than any rent or bus fare dispute, fed black political rebellion” (35). In response, African Americans such as Randall Robinson, leader of TransAfrica, organized protests and demonstrations to place pressure on elected officials. TransAfrica’s first action was staging a peaceful sit-in (Schraeder 218). These tactics echoed those used by civil rights leaders, including Gandhi during his time in South Africa. Much of this dissent stemmed from discontent with the Executive Branch’s unwillingness to take decisive steps to put pressure on the apartheid state.

During this time, constructive engagement was marketed by President Reagan’s administration as the method to properly address the South African government, which was facing much international condemnation. Reagan, who served as US President from 1981 to 1989, used the phrase “constructive engagement” as a euphemism for dialogue with South Africa (CRS 18). The policy was largely seen as a method of appeasement. As a scholar with expertise on the role of black resistance movements in South Africa writes,

In the 1980s, both the Reagan Administration’s policy of ‘constructive engagement’ and the anti-apartheid movement’s advocacy of sanctions focused on white South Africans—one through friendly persuasion and the other through economic arm-twisting (Mufson 5).

This quotation articulates the widely-held perspective that Reagan’s self-coined “constructive engagement” policy was in fact merely a capitulation to the racist government, and not a challenge to its minority rule. Von Blum, an American scholar who has travelled extensively throughout South Africa and was heavily involved in the anti-apartheid movements, posits that Reagan’s policy was not a policy in actuality – “his rhetoric of constructive engagement was a cover for doing nothing, actually doing more than doing nothing, really providing American support for a retrograde regime” (1). Reagan staunchly opposed economic sanctions around 1985, while stating publicly that he condemned the inequity in South Africa, revealing “the historical US tendency to rhetorically denounce South Africa’s racial policies while simultaneously doing little to change the established status quo” (Mufson 7 and Schraeder 232).

Resistance to this ineffective policy began to build in the US, and resolve solidified for South Africans who were staunchly opposed to the persecutory and discriminatory apartheid regime. Reagan’s non-policy not only served to strengthen the boldness with which revolutionaries in South Africa acted, it created discord within US domestic politics. Interestingly, Von Blum opines Reagan was “at base a racist…in support of the racist white regime, and Congress had a very different view” (1). As the “People’s representative institution,” in which progressive African-American and civil rights organizations were beginning to hold much sway, Congress began to unify in opposition to the Executive Branch’s stance towards South Africa. Due to the undeniable ineffectiveness of the policy of constructive engagement, there were increased calls for the end to apartheid, specifically through the imposition of sanctions. Even State Department official Crocker, who originally espoused the policy of constructive engagement, admitted “economic sanctions had been successful in forcing the Afrikaner elite to consider negotiations with the black majority” (Schraeder 237).

Overriding President Reagan’s veto, Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA) of 1986 a year after Reagan had issued an executive order against the regime. The Act, which “amounted to a rejection of constructive engagement,” was the single most significant American policy to end apartheid (Makoena 52). It instituted significant economic sanctions, designed to “push the South African government more quickly toward ending the apartheid system, and thus to bring a halt to unrest in the country” (Makoena 53). Though in response, Pretoria initiated security reforms at the onset of sanctions, the anti-apartheid legislation later implemented gradually led to the breaking down of segregationist policies. What also made the sanctions effective was the international community’s resolve toward the issue – resolve displayed in the “united multinational front to ensure that a total quarantine took hold” (Makoena 53). The CAAA succeeded in prohibiting US trade with South Africa and “directed the president to persuade other industrialized democracies and South Africa’s trading partners to follow American lead” (Makoena 52). In addition, the Act required better communication and coordination with Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and other organizations active in the anti-apartheid movement, signaling a “shift in U.S. policy…to change its characterization of the ANC from a terrorist, communist-backed organization to a group with a legitimate voice in South Africa” (Makoena 52).

While not a complete and comprehensive package of sanctions, the 1986 Act marked a milestone in anti-apartheid policy-formation in the US, as it was designed to “bring about the complete dismantling of apartheid” (Schraeder 233). This piece of legislation not only enabled the US to effectively halt economic cooperation with the apartheid regime, it “represented a watershed in US-South African relations, and underscored the importance that domestic politics can play in the formulation and implementation of US Africa policies” (Schraeder 190). Additional pressure from the international community pushed the apartheid regime to its breaking point, as evident in the UN Security Council vote in February 1987 to impose international economic sanctions (Schraeder 233). Many agreed that “it was clear that the apartheid regime could not last…Congress understood that it had to be on the right side of history and not the wrong side” (Von Blum 1).

Shortly after his 1989 election, South African President Frederick W. de Klerk, national chairman of the National Party, “announced his intention to create a ‘new South Africa’ in which the white minority would share power with the black majority” (Schraeder 238). President De Klerk initiated several political reforms to appease those discontented with the status quo, starting out with the legalization of nonviolent dissent and protests against the government. The newly-elected President found that his government’s political system was no longer sustainable or acceptable in the eyes of the world community:

International isolation and growing political opposition within the country itself—all of those factors combined to finally put pressure on President Declerk and he realized that this kind of regime could not continue to survive and that’s what forced his hand and made him finally reach the decision to release Nelson Mandela, and once he did that and once he legalized the African National Congress and the Pan-African Congress, that was the end of the tunnel was clear (Von Blum 1).

It was the sanctions enacted through the CAAA that pressured South Africa to act in accordance with the US objective of ending the apartheid regime. And international condemnation had undoubtedly damaged the survival of apartheid within South Africa. Yet when did the world finally witness the true end of apartheid in South Africa? To the political science community, the results of the 1994 elections were the telltale signs of its demise:

The real end came when Mandela was freed although you still had the remnants of apartheid, but with the announcement of the first democratic elections that was the fact of the end of apartheid, and as soon as it was clear that everybody could vote, then it was also perfectly obvious that a black majority would carry the day…black South Africans could vote for the first time and the African National Congress swept to victory (Von Blum 1).

Though the effects did not fully materialize until nearly eight years later with the 1994 democratic elections, the sanctions imposed by Congress proved to be the crippling factor in the end.

In terms of its cost and benefits, the CAAA legislation was beneficial to the US government in terms of improving its standing with American voters who saw the injustice and were appalled that the US was enabling a regime that stood against American political morals. The costs may have included a minor financial risk incurred by disinvesting in South Africa’s military and businesses. Ultimately, the benefits outweighed the costs as it put US foreign policy in line with American political ideals of supporting freedom and democracy at home and abroad, to supporting a more just world order in which the majority is free from the entrenched tyranny of the minority. Additionally, the sanctions legislation included a provision demanding the release of the imprisoned Nelson Mandela and ultimately led to the freeing of the ANC leader – viewed as a key step in the dismantling of apartheid. Mandela, reported to “come out of prison after 27 years and not have bitterness,” was able to “galvanize all communities towards working to end the white regime and against a nondemocratic society” (Mandela NPR). This was indeed a benefit to the global community at large.

Other scholars argue that the US policy of constructive engagement did not lead to the 1986 CAAA legislation, and that the Act was not a crippling blow to apartheid in South Africa. They contend that the end of apartheid was caused not by US policy, but rather a gradual advance of international condemnation of the apartheid state and a worldwide divestment and pressure campaign not reliant on America’s foreign policy stance. However, South Africa expert Von Blum agrees with the belief argued here that it was in fact the two policies jointly that ended apartheid – that the inefficacy of constructive engagement fueled the push for economic sanctions, which ultimately forced the South African regime to bow under the weight of pressure coming from the US Congress and the wider international community. As Von Blum suggests, “the American President not helping them at all only fortified them and made them work even harder in their own resistance against the hated regime…When people refuse to support you, sometimes instead of making you demoralized, what it does is only strengthen you and fortify your will to resist” (1).

In conclusion, a range of directives provided by the US President and ultimately by Congress helped lead to the end of apartheid in South Africa. Grassroots American resistance to apartheid and expressed political discontent culminating in the 1986 Act was a success in triggering the dismantling of the apartheid regime. President Reagan’s constructive engagement policy amounted to US appeasement and aided resistance efforts to apartheid in US and in South Africa. The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, though not without its shortcomings, did achieve significant political objectives in pressuring the white-minority regime in South Africa to change, ultimately leading to the election of a less segregationist leader, President De Clerk, and finally to the release of ANC leader Nelson Mandela. With the democratic elections of 1994, the black majority won political power in South Africa and the world witnessed the real downfall of apartheid. In the end, the moral benefits, which translated into political advantages to many members of Congress, outweighed the minimal economic downsides in enacting an embargo on US-South Africa trade. The events reaffirmed to US policymakers the powerful potential and utility of sanctions in achieving justice abroad.

Image by Flickr user United Nation Photo, used under a Creative Commons license.

Works Cited

Demessie, Menna, PhD. Political Science: U.S. Foreign Policy toward Africa. UC Washington Center, Washington DC. April 30 2011.

Mandela, NPR. Nelson Mandela at 90, Forum at KQED, July 18, 2008.

Mokoena, Kenneth. South Africa and the United States: The Declassified History. New York: The New Press, 1993.

Mufson, Steven. Fighting Years: Black Resistance and the Struggle for a New South Africa.

Ploch, Lauren. South Africa: Current Issues and U.S. Relations. Congressional Research Service. January 4, 2011.

Schraeder, Peter J. United States Foreign Policy toward Africa: incrementalism, crisis, and change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Von Blum, Paul. Interview with Dr. Von Blum, UCLA Political Science Department. May 22, 2011 at 4pm.


  1. Well a lot of it is absolutely nonsense. As a white South African, here’s my perspective on events with facts:

    Google Nelson Mandela was arrested with 210,000 Soviet Made hand grenades, 48,000 anti-personnel mines, 1,500 time devices, 144 tons of ammonium nitrate, 21.6 tons of aluminum powder and a ton of black powder. Where did he get it? How could he afford to pay for it? The ANC only had 5,000 members in 1961… It was the USSR that had sponsored him – the ANC was deep in debt to the USSR even by 1961. The first ANC president had visited Moscow as early as 1927 and became a devout communist.

    What people saw, was a communist revolution. Not a democratic revolution. In 1973, the Rand was on par with the dollar, unemployment was 3%, the South African economy had grown at 5.9%, the second fastest economic growth rate in the world. We can look at a million facts, from 100,000 Cuban troops to 11,000 Soviet troops, to 30 million IEDs on the borders of South Africa. The Soviets spent $1bn + to destabilize South Africa every year, as the CIA reported. SA was sold down the drain to the communists, to the ANC who blew up both white and black civilians in terrorist attacks. Think about that. A democratic revolution? Or a communist inspired revolution?

  2. May Nelson Mandela rest in peace. I feel very fortunate that I had the opportunity to delve into the topic of South African apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s leadership during my final quarter in university, while taking Dr. Menna Demessie’s American Foreign Policy towards Africa class at the UC Washington Center. To honor his legacy, I am sharing my presentation video of the research paper I wrote on America’s Role in the End of South African Apartheid, which I presented at the National Conference of Black Political Scientists this past year in Chicago:

    1. Who cares
      Cuba is a communist failed state run by a dictator
      The bad guys don’t get recognition for trying to beat the other bad guys
      They were both in the wrong

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