Relations with the United States

South Africa Table of Contents

Although the United States joined the international community in 1986 in imposing economic sanctions against South Africa, earlier United States interests had been driven largely by the aim of reducing Soviet influence in southern Africa. United States officials had viewed South Africa as an important Western geostrategic bulwark in an unstable region. All United States administrations during the 1970s and the 1980s condemned apartheid, but they were generally opposed to broad economic sanctions, often arguing that the most severe impacts of such sanctions would be felt by the same segment of the population that was most disadvantaged by apartheid. The Carter administration (1977-81), however, adopted a tougher line toward Pretoria, viewing African nationalism as a driving force in the region that was compatible with United States interests.

The United States had imposed an arms embargo on Pretoria in 1964 and had joined the international consensus in refusing to recognize the "independence" of four of South Africa's black homelands between 1976 and 1984. The 1983 Gramm Amendment opposed the extension of International Monetary Fund (IMF--see Glossary) credits to "any country practicing apartheid." The 1985 Export Administration Amendment Act barred United States exports to South Africa's military and police, except for humanitarian supplies and medical equipment.

The United States maintained formal diplomatic relations with Pretoria throughout the apartheid era. The United States was still South Africa's second largest trading partner, with exports and imports valued at more than US$1.6 billion per year, during most of the sanctions years.

United States administrations tried to influence South African governments by working with them discreetly in a strategy called "constructive engagement" during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Guided primarily by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker, the United States emphasized its common strategic interests with South Africa and insisted on unilateral rather than multilateral negotiations over South Africa's future (i.e., negotiations between the government and its opposition, as opposed to negotiations participated in by outside interests). One of the arguments against sweeping sanctions at the time was that United States officials hoped to maintain the small degree of influence they may have had in pressing for political reforms.

The United States also sought to bring about regional change through peaceful and democratic means and vigorously supported the negotiations for Namibian independence from South Africa. This policy approach ultimately paved the way for the 1988 agreement that linked the withdrawal of South African troops from Namibia with the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, in a process that culminated in Namibia's first democratic elections in 1989 and independence in March 1990.

With the passage of the United States Comprehensive Antiapartheid Act (CAAA) over a presidential veto in 1986, the United States Congress established an elaborate sanctions structure prohibiting future investments, bank loans, and some forms of trade with South Africa. More than 200 of the 280 United States companies in South Africa sold all, or part of, their operations there, and many of those remaining adhered to business principles intended to ameliorate the effects of apartheid. The CAAA called on the United States president to report to Congress each year on the state of apartheid in South Africa, in order to assess the need for further legislation. In 1987 the Intelligence Authorization Act prohibited intelligence sharing between the two countries. By 1990, twenty-seven state governments, ninety cities, and twenty-four counties had also imposed sanctions against South Africa or divestment measures on their own citizens' South African holdings.

In July 1991, United States President George Bush declared South Africa's progress toward democracy "irreversible," and the United States began to lift sanctions imposed under the 1986 CAAA. Most IMF and military-related bans remained in force until after the 1994 elections. A few city and county-level restrictions on dealings with South Africa remained on the books even after 1994.

In early 1994, Washington contributed US$10 million to assist the electoral process in South Africa, including election observers and technical assistance to parties participating in the elections. After the elections, the administration of President William J. Clinton announced a US$600 million, three-year aid, trade, and investment package for South Africa. The United States also promised to support the participation of international lending institutions, such as the IMF, in reconstructing the South African economy.

Minor strains emerged in South Africa's relations with the United States after the elections, however. President Mandela was critical of the United States on several fronts, including the level of economic assistance offered to help recover from apartheid. Another source of tension arose out of a 1991 indictment by a United States court against South Africa's state-owned Armscor (Armaments Corporation of South Africa). The case concerned apparent violations of United States arms export controls during the 1980s. South African officials in 1994 requested that the indictment be dropped, noting that the target of sanctions--the apartheid regime--had been removed from power. United States officials refused to intervene in the judicial process, however, and the case was finally settled without public clamor in 1996.

Washington placed South Africa on a "trade watch" list in 1996, referring to apparent trademark violations that were being adjudicated in South African courts. These and other relatively minor disagreements might have been resolved fairly amicably, had they not taken place against the backdrop of anti-American rhetoric by South African officials on several occasions. For example, in his determination to maintain his government's sovereignty and freedom from outside interference, President Mandela repeatedly emphasized his loyalty and gratitude to countries that had staunchly opposed apartheid during the 1970s and 1980s. Among these countries were Cuba, Libya, and Iran, which the United States considered international outcasts or state sponsors of terrorism.

Pretoria has championed the cause of ending the thirty-year-old trade embargo against Cuba, in defiance of the United States, and South Africa hosted a conference to promote African-Cuban solidarity in October 1995. Pretoria also forged several new cooperation agreements with Iran in 1995 and 1996, and increased its oil purchases from Iran, over United States objections. President Mandela proclaimed South Africa's solidarity with Libya and welcomed that country's leader on a visit to South Africa in late 1995.

Despite these strains, South Africa and the United States are pursuing closer ties in many areas. More than 500 United States companies have more than US$5 billion in direct investments in South Africa in the mid-1990s, and trade between the two countries is increasing steadily. In March 1995, Washington and Pretoria established a United States-South Africa Binational Commission to improve communication and cooperation. (The United States has similar commissions with Egypt, Russia, and Mexico.) The commission is co-chaired by United States vice president Albert Gore and South African deputy president Thabo Mbeki. It has six committees to investigate avenues for cooperation in agriculture, business, environment and water resources, human resources and education, science and technology, and sustainable energy resources.

More about the Government of South Africa.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress