Relations with African States

South Africa Table of Contents

Official delegations from almost every other African state visited Pretoria in 1992 or 1993 to discuss ways to strengthen bilateral ties. South Africa's estimated 100 assistance projects in twenty-two African countries in 1991 more than doubled by 1994 and provided technical aid and training in agriculture, wildlife conservation, education, and health care. The effects of the early-1990s drought in southern Africa would have been even more devastating to the region's agriculture and wildlife if South Africa had not provided transportation and food assistance to its neighbors.

The change in South Africa's regional standing was dramatically marked by its admission to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in August 1994. The twelve-member organization (also including Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) aims to promote regional cooperation in economic development and security affairs. The SADC annual meeting of heads of state and government was held in Johannesburg on August 28, 1995. The assembled leaders agreed to create a regional common market with the elimination of all internal trade barriers by the year 2000. They also signed an agreement to share water resources among SADC member nations.

Almost all African countries had depended on South African trade even during the sanctions era, despite their strong rhetorical condemnation of the apartheid regime. In 1991 South Africa's trade with the rest of the continent was at least US$3.5 billion, and this figure increased steadily as apartheid was being dismantled.

For the five landlocked countries of southern Africa (Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia, and Malawi), South Africa's well-developed system of roads, railroads, and port facilities provides a vital trade link. The Southern African Customs Union (SACU), headquartered in South Africa, provides a common customs area, including Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Namibia (see Foreign Trade, ch. 3).


Relations with Botswana were normalized in the early 1990s, after a period of strained ties in the 1980s. The most contentious issue between the two countries had been Botswana's willingness to provide safe haven for the ANC military wing, MK, and, to a lesser extent, for other opposition groups such as the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania (BCMA--the external wing of the Black Consciousness Movement). Although Botswana officially prohibited ANC use of its territory as a base for attacks against South Africa, the ANC violated this policy during the 1980s, provoking several small-scale raids by the South African Defence Forces (SADF) against ANC bases in Botswana. At the same time, although Botswana joined in the international condemnation of apartheid, its geographic and economic vulnerability deterred it from imposing economic sanctions against South Africa, with whom it maintained extensive but unpublicized trade relations.

Relations improved in the early 1990s, as apartheid was gradually dismantled. ANC camps in Botswana were closed in 1991 and 1992, as several hundred political exiles returned to South Africa under a program administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).


Until the 1960s, several South African governments pressed for the incorporation of Lesotho, then a British protectorate, into the Union of South Africa. As a landlocked country completely surrounded by South Africa, Lesotho depended heavily on South Africa for its economic well-being. After Lesotho became independent in October 1966, South Africa played a major role in the country's internal affairs--for example, by supporting the new government led by Chief Leabua Jonathan.

Tensions between the two countries rose in the 1970s because of Lesotho's criticism of South Africa at the UN and at the OAU, its support for the ANC, its provision of safe haven to antiapartheid fighters such as MK, and its close ties to a number of socialist countries. Relations became severely strained in April 1983, when the Jonathan government announced that Lesotho was at war with South Africa, and again in 1984, when Lesotho refused to sign a nonaggression pact with South Africa. In response, South Africa impounded shipments of arms to Lesotho, threatened economic sanctions, and suspended talks concerning the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (a thirty-year cooperative engineering venture that would supply water to South Africa and provide electric power and financial compensation to Lesotho). Tensions eased in 1984, as some ANC forces withdrew from Lesotho, but in 1985 new tensions prompted Pretoria to step up security measures along the border between the two countrries.

In early 1986, South Africa backed a military coup in Maseru, bringing into power a government more sympathetic to Pretoria's security interests. Lesotho expelled several ANC members and technicians from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), whom Pretoria considered a menace, and relations between the two nations improved. Work on the Highlands Water Project resumed, and in 1987 they established a joint trade mission. Relations continued to improve after that, and the countries established full diplomatic ties in May 1992. Pretoria recognized the outcome of Lesotho's March 1993 elections, the first in twenty-two years.

In January 1994, Lesotho's democratically elected civilian government sought South African assistance in quelling an army mutiny over pay and conditions of service in the Lesotho Defence Forces. Pretoria refused to intervene directly, but threatened to seal off Lesotho's borders, which would have blocked vital commercial transportation to and from Maseru. De Klerk and Mandela, together with the presidents of Zimbabwe and Botswana, urged both sides to negotiate an end to the crisis, a move that represented the likely pattern of postapartheid diplomacy in southern Africa.


South Africa's relations with the Kingdom of Swaziland, one of Africa's smallest nations--which South Africa surrounds on the north, west, and south--were shaped by the kingdom's complete dependence on its powerful neighbor for its economic and political well-being. During the 1970s and early 1980s, although Swaziland claimed to be neutral in the East-West conflict, it was actually pro-Western and maintained strong relations with South Africa, including clandestine cooperation in economic and security matters. South Africa invested heavily in Swaziland's economy, and Swaziland joined the Pretoria-dominated SACU. During the 1980s, some South African businesses also used Swazi territory as a transshipment point in order to circumvent international sanctions on South Africa. Relying on a secret security agreement with South Africa in 1982, Swazi officials harassed ANC representatives in the capital, Mbabane, and eventually expelled them from Swaziland. South African security forces, operating undercover, also carried out operations against the ANC on Swazi territory. Throughout this time, part of the Swazi royal family quietly sought the reintegration of Swazi-occupied territory in South Africa into their kingdom.

In June 1993, South Africa and Swaziland signed a judicial agreement providing for South African judges, magistrates, and prosecutors to serve in Swaziland's courts. South Africa also agreed to provide training for Swazi court personnel. In August 1995, the two countries signed an agreement to cooperate in anti-crime and anti-smuggling efforts along their common border.


Bilateral relations between South Africa and Zimbabwe improved substantially as apartheid legally ended. In December 1993, the foreign ministers of both countries met for the first time to discuss ways to improve bilateral ties. Tensions between the two countries had been high since 1965, when South Africa demonstrated tacit support for the unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) by white-dominated Rhodesia (Southern Rhodesia), a former British colony. South Africa also had assisted the new regime led by Prime Minister Ian Smith for almost fourteen years, until it was brought down by a combination of guerrilla war and international pressure.

After Rhodesia's independence as Zimbabwe, the government in Harare supported mandatory sanctions against South Africa and provided political, diplomatic, and military support to the ANC in its armed struggle. Zimbabwe also provided military assistance, including troops, for Maputo's struggle against South African-supported insurgents in the Mozambican National Resistance (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana--MNR or RENAMO). SADF troops retaliated against Harare, with two raids on alleged ANC bases in the capital in 1986 and 1987, and bomb explosions in Harare in October 1987 and in Bulawayo in January 1988.

Relations between the two countries began to stabilize in 1990, after Mandela was released from prison and South Africa moved toward constitutional reform. Even before international sanctions against South Africa were lifted, a number of unpublicized ministerial contacts took place to discuss matters of trade and transport. President de Klerk and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe met publicly for the first time on January 27, 1994, when de Klerk, Mandela, Mugabe, and Botswana's President Quett Masire joined together in urging a peaceful resolution to a military mutiny in Lesotho.

President Mandela visited Harare in early 1995. The two countries debated trade issues throughout the year, primarily centered around efforts to dismantle apartheid-era tariffs. In November 1995, a ceremony attended by presidents Mandela and Mugabe marked the opening of a new bridge linking the two countries, across the Limpopo River.


South Africa's relations with Namibia (formerly South-West Africa) were normalized following the 1988 agreement that paved the way for the solution to the interlinked conflicts in Namibia and Angola. Prior to this agreement, Namibia had been under South Africa's control since 1919, when Pretoria received the League of Nations mandate over the territory then known as South-West Africa. In 1946 the UN refused South Africa's request to annex the territory. In 1964 South Africa introduced apartheid in South-West Africa (Pretoria had granted Europeans living there limited self-governing privileges since 1925).

The United Nations General Assembly in 1966 voted to revoke South Africa's mandate and to place the territory under direct UN administration. South Africa refused to recognize this UN resolution until 1985, when President Botha ceded administrative control to the territory's interim government. South Africa allowed a UN peacekeeping force and an administrator to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 435 (1978), establishing the United Nations Transitional Assistance Group (UNTAG) in Namibia. Finally, on December 22, 1988, South Africa signed an agreement linking its withdrawal from the disputed territory to an end to Soviet and Cuban involvement in the long civil war in neighboring Angola. Namibia's new government, led by the South-West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO), was elected in a landslide victory in November 1989.

After Namibia's independence in March 1990, South Africa and Namibia established diplomatic ties, but relations between the two countries were uneasy, in part because many of Namibia's senior government officials had been leaders in the guerrilla war to oust South Africa from their country. Namibia nonetheless joined the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) and continued to be almost totally dependent on South Africa in trade and investment. In 1992, for example, 90 percent of Namibia's imports came from South Africa, and South Africa purchased 30 percent of Namibia's exports. Relations improved as apartheid was dismantled.

The two countries established a Joint Administrative Authority to manage the port facilities at Walvis Bay, Namibia's only deep-water port, which had remained under South African control after Namibian independence. Under pressure from the ANC, South Africa then agreed to transfer control over the port enclave to Windhoek before the 1994 elections. Namibia finally assumed control over Walvis Bay on March 1, 1994.

The prospects for multiracial democracy in South Africa prompted Namibia to sign a series of bilateral agreements with Pretoria in anticipation of the close ties they hoped to maintain through the rest of the 1990s. One of these, signed in 1992, pledged cooperation in supplying water to arid regions of both countries along their common border. In December 1994, President Mandela announced his government's decision to write off Namibia's debt, an estimated US$190 million owed to South Africa. He also transferred most South African state property in Namibia to Namibian government ownership.


After Mozambique's independence from Portugal in 1975, relations between South Africa and Mozambique were shaped by the rise to power of the revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique--FRELIMO) government, and in particular, by FRELIMO's commitment to support regional liberation movements. South Africa provided covert military assistance to the anti-FRELIMO insurgency, RENAMO. In an attempt to curtail South Africa's intervention, Maputo entered into negotiations with Pretoria in late 1983, resulting in a non-aggression pact, the Nkomati Accord, in 1984. This accord committed both countries to end their assistance to each other's opposition movements, and to establish a joint security commission to monitor implementation of the pact. South Africa continued to assist RENAMO, however, and relations between the two countries worsened.

After unsubstantiated allegations of South African involvement in the death (in a plane crash) of Mozambican president Samora Machel in October 1986, demonstrators attacked the South African trade mission in Maputo. Pretoria threatened to retaliate by banning Mozambican migrant laborers from South Africa's mines, but this plan was not implemented. Even after South African security forces raided ANC bases around Maputo in 1987, presidents Botha and Joaquim Chissano met to try to revive the Nkomati Accord. They agreed to establish a joint commission on cooperation and development, whereby South Africa would protect Mozambique's Cahora Bassa power lines, which had been targets of RENAMO sabotage, and would assist in improving Maputo's harbor as well as road and rail links with South Africa.

Relations continued to improve in 1989 following a South African initiative to help resolve Mozambique's civil war. Although both Chissano and RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama rejected Pretoria's proposal of United States mediation in Mozambique, Pretoria nonetheless played an important role in persuading the two men to pursue a negotiated peace. South African president de Klerk, Zimbabwe's president Mugabe, and other regional leaders urged Mozambique's warring parties to sign a peace agreement and, after they did so in October 1992, to prepare for democratic elections. In December 1992, the UN began deploying 7,500 troops for the UN Operation in Mozambique (UNOMOZ), and the date for Mozambique's first multiparty elections was finally set for October 1994.

In 1993 South Africa and Mozambique agreed to formalize their trade missions in each other's capitals and to upgrade diplomatic ties. Late that year, the two countries agreed to cooperate in repatriating more than 350,000 Mozambicans who had sought refuge in South Africa--some of the more than 800,000 Mozambican refugees scattered throughout the region. The UNHCR reported that refugees continued returning to Mozambique throughout 1994 as the elections approached.

After South Africa's April 1994 elections, Deputy President Mbeki opened communication channels with RENAMO leaders, including Dhlakama, in an effort to help preserve the fragile peace in Mozambique. President Mandela made his first official state visit to the country on July 20, 1994, and he emphasized the challenges both countries faced in strengthening democratic institutions. The two governments signed agreements establishing a joint cooperation commission to pursue shared development goals in agriculture, security, transportation, and medicine.

In 1996 the two countries began to implement a South African proposal for a small group of South African farmers to settle and farm land in Mozambique. The proposal had originated in the desire of a few Afrikaner farmers to leave South Africa, and both governments viewed it as a possible means of improving the agricultural infrastructure in Mozambique and of providing jobs for farm laborers there. For Pretoria, the proposal held some promise of reducing the influx of farm workers into South Africa.


South African-Zambian relations until 1990 were shaped by Zambia's support for antiapartheid movements inside South Africa, by its agreement to allow anti-South African SWAPO guerrillas to operate from Zambia's territory, and by its anti-RENAMO assistance to government forces in Mozambique. As one of the leaders of the frontline states against South Africa, Zambia provided safe haven for the ANC, which had its headquarters in Lusaka, prompting military reprisals by South Africa in the late 1980s. Relations between the two countries improved as apartheid was being dismantled in the early 1990s, leading to several visits by the two countries' leaders. Then-president Kaunda visited South Africa for the first time in February 1992, and the two countries established diplomatic ties and began to normalize trade relations later that year. (Zambia was already South Africa's second largest African trading partner.) President de Klerk visited Lusaka in mid-1993, the first visit by a South African head of state. In 1994 South Africa continued to be the most important source of Zambian imports--mostly machinery and manufactured goods--and the two countries were exploring new avenues for trade during the rest of the 1990s.


South Africa has long-standing geographic, commercial, and political ties with Angola, which became independent from Portugal in November 1975. Until the early 1990s, relations between the two countries were strained, however, owing primarily to South Africa's extensive military support for the insurgent movement in Angola. The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola--UNITA), led by Jonas Savimbi, had waged a sixteen-year war against the Marxist-led government in Luanda. Pretoria became Savimbi's patron principally because it feared the threat of Soviet and Cuban expansionism, but by the late 1980s, a new geostrategic environment was emerging in the region. The Cold War ended, accompanied by the collapse of Angola's superpower patron, the former Soviet Union; Cuban forces withdrew from Angola as part of the 1988 Angola-Namibia Accord, and the Angolan civil war ended tentatively, with a peace agreement in May 1991.

Angola's first democratic elections in September 1992 failed, after Savimbi refused to accept his electoral defeat and the war resumed. Pretoria then supported a negotiated outcome to the festering civil war, although a few South Africans (said to be operating outside Pretoria's control) continued their support to Savimbi.

Relations between South Africa and Angola deteriorated after Pretoria withdrew its diplomatic representation from Luanda in late 1992. Early in 1993, however, both governments again began working to normalize diplomatic ties, and Pretoria promised to crack down on private channels of assistance from South Africa to Savimbi. Although de Klerk announced that South Africa would grant recognition only after a fully representative government had been installed in Luanda, Pretoria reopened its offices in Luanda and upgraded diplomatic ties in mid-1993. The two countries established full diplomatic relations on May 27, 1994, and Luanda appointed an ambassador to South Africa later that year.

In June 1994, President Mandela agreed to requests by UN Special Envoy to Angola, Alioune Blondin Beye, to attend talks with Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos and Savimbi in an effort to end the fighting in Angola. Pretoria initially provided the venue for talks between dos Santos and President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, as dos Santos sought an end to Zairian assistance to UNITA. Finally, in November 1994, Mandela witnessed an agreement between dos Santos and Savimbi to end the fighting in Angola and to begin rebuilding the country, and the slow process of disarming rebel fighters began in 1995.


South Africa had long maintained relatively cordial relations with Kenya, one of Africa's leading pro-Western governments, although until 1990 these ties were mostly unpublicized and centered around trade. The nature of their relations changed in November 1990 when South Africa's minister of foreign affairs, Pik Botha, visited Kenya in the first publicized ministerial-level contact between the two countries since 1960. Relations were further consolidated when President de Klerk visited Kenya in June 1991, and Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi visited Cape Town in June 1992--the first visit to South Africa by an African head of state.

In addition to strong trade ties in the mid-1990s, South Africa and Kenya share the desire to promote cooperation among countries of the Indian Ocean Rim (IOR). In March 1995, delegations from both countries, along with representatives of Australia, India, Oman, and Singapore, met in Mauritius to discuss ways to strengthen trade, investment, and economic cooperation among IOR member states.


Nigeria maintained a hostile attitude toward South Africa for more than thirty years until the early 1990s. Then the new political environment led to President de Klerk's visit to Nigeria in April 1992 to discuss bilateral issues, primarily trade. South Africa and Nigeria established diplomatic relations in mid-1994.

President Mandela was among the small number of world leaders who in late 1995 appealed to Nigeria's military head of state, General Sani Abacha, to spare the lives of the writer and environmental activist Ken Sarowiwa and eight others convicted of inciting violence that resulted in several deaths in Nigeria. After Sarowiwa and the others were executed on November 10, 1995, Mandela called for international sanctions against the Abacha government. South African officials later dropped this demand, deferring to the OAU, which was reluctant to impose sanctions against a member state.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress