Relations with Other Countries

South Africa Table of Contents

European Union

The twelve-member European Union (EU) was South Africa's leading trading partner in the early 1990s, purchasing almost 40 percent of its exports in most years. European (including British) direct investment in South Africa had reached US$17 billion, or 52 percent of all foreign investment in South Africa, by 1992. By the mid-1990s, the EU could promise South Africa one of the world's largest markets for South African exports. The EU also proposed a variety of loans and grants on preferential terms for South Africa in the 1990s, as well as a US$122 million aid program for priority needs such as education, health, job creation, and human rights.

South Africa's closest European ties have been with Britain, particularly with its Conservative Party-led governments. More than 800,000 white South Africans retained the right to live in Britain, although official ties weakened after South Africa left the British Commonwealth in 1961 (see Apartheid, 1948-76, ch. 1). Britain supported the 1977 Commonwealth decision to discourage sporting links with South Africa to register international disapproval of apartheid, but Britain's refusal to impose broader sanctions came under attack at subsequent Commonwealth heads of government meetings, especially in 1985, 1987, and 1989. In September 1994, British Prime Minister John Major, on a visit to Pretoria, promised a new investment protection treaty that would further strengthen commercial ties.

France played little role in South Africa before the 1990s. Trade between the two countries was increasing during the decade, however. South Africa imports roughly US$1 billion in French products a year, and at least 125 French companies operate in South Africa. French president François Mitterrand paid his first visit to South Africa on July 5, 1994, when the two nations signed an agreement aimed at strengthening commercial ties through long-term loans, subsidies, and technical assistance programs. Sectoral goals for these programs include strengthening cooperation between the private and public sectors, urban and rural development, financial reconstruction, and environmental protection.

Russian Federation

Pretoria severed diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union in 1956, largely because of Moscow's support for the SACP. In 1964 the Soviet Union began to deliver arms to ANC military training camps in Tanzania, and this support continued through the early 1980s. Then in 1986, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev denounced the idea of a revolutionary takeover in South Africa and advocated a negotiated settlement between Pretoria and its opponents. Officials from the two countries then sought improved commercial and diplomatic relations.

In July 1990, the South African mining conglomerate, De Beers Consolidated Mines, advanced a US$1-billion loan to the Soviet Union as part of an agreement for that company to serve as the exclusive exporter of Soviet rough diamonds. In August of that year, South Africa's minister of trade and industry, Kent Durr, visited Moscow to discuss possible South African assistance in the cleanup of the former Soviet nuclear site at Chernobyl. In early 1991, the two countries agreed to open interest sections in the Austrian embassies in each other's capitals, and Pretoria appointed its first trade representative to Russia a year later. Diplomatic ties were established in February 1992, and the first ambassador to South Africa of the new Russian Federation arrived in Pretoria in December 1992. At the time, the two countries hoped to develop trade ties, especially in military hardware, although they were competitors in some areas of international arms trade.


In early 1994, after a fifteen-year break, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs began preparing to reestablish formal ties by ending the oil embargo against South Africa. Iran had been South Africa's primary oil supplier until the fall of the shah in 1979, when open economic and political ties were suspended. Limited economic relations continued between the two countries, although at a discreet level. For example, the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) continued to maintain its 17.5 percent share in the Sasolburg refinery of the National Petroleum Refiners of South Africa, even after other ties between the two countries were suspended. In 1995 and 1996, South Africa pressed for closer ties to Iran, both to acquire oil imports on favorable terms and to demonstrate Pretoria's willingness and ability to defy United States pressures to shun Iran.


One of the most hidden but critical of South Africa's strategic relationships during the apartheid era was that with Israel, including both the Labor and the Likud governments. Israel officially opposed the apartheid system, but it also opposed broad international sanctions against Pretoria. For strategic reasons, much of the debate in Israeli government circles stressed coordinating ties to Pretoria within the framework of the tripartite relationship among Jerusalem, the United States (Israel's primary benefactor), and South Africa. Israel was also opposed to international embargoes in general, largely as a consequence of its own vulnerability to UN and other international sanctions.

South Africa and Israel had collaborated on military training, weapons development, and weapons production for years before broad sanctions were imposed in the late 1980s. Military cooperation continued despite the arms embargo and other trade restrictions imposed by the United States and much of Western Europe. Israel and several other countries discreetly traded with, and purchased enriched uranium from, South Africa throughout the 1980s. Romania's former president Nicolae Ceausescu, for example, used Israel as the "middleman" for exports to South Africa. In a few cases, joint ventures between Israel and South Africa helped to reduce the impact of sanctions on South African businesses.

The Israeli interest in South Africa sprang in part from the presence in South Africa of about 110,000 Jews, including at least 15,000 Israeli citizens. Israeli leaders sometimes justified trade with South Africa as support for the South African Jewish community, and South Africa provided a market for some of Israel's military exports. Israel's arms trade with South Africa was estimated at between US$400 million and US$800 million annually (see Arms Trade and the Defense Industry, ch. 5). In 1986 Israel also imported approximately US$181 million in goods, mainly coal, from South Africa, and exported to South Africa nonmilitary products worth about US$58.8 million.

In 1987 Israel took steps to reduce its military ties to South Africa to bring its policies in line with those of the United States and Western Europe. Then Minister of Foreign Affairs Shimon Peres announced the Israeli plan to ban new military sales contracts with South Africa, to reduce cultural and tourism ties, to appoint a committee to study sanctions proposals, and to condemn apartheid--which Peres characterized as "a policy totally rejected by all human beings." Israel also established educational programs in Israel for black South Africans. Nevertheless, through the early 1990s, several secret treaties remained in force, continuing the military relationship between the two countries and their joint research in missile development and nuclear technology.

Relations with Other Countries

In the early 1990s, South Africa began establishing or reestablishing ties with many other countries. Algeria, Bulgaria, Italy, Libya, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden, Thailand, and Tunisia announced the end of trade sanctions against South Africa in 1991 and 1992, paving the way for full diplomatic relations. Representatives of 169 countries attended President Mandela's inauguration in May 1994; by 1995 South Africa had ties to at least 147 countries.

Among the many countries that were eager for closer ties to South Africa in the mid-1990s were the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan and the People's Republic of China (PRC). South Africa and the ROC had maintained ties during the apartheid era, partly because both were virtual outcasts from the international community. The PRC had been strongly critical of apartheid but had been cool toward the ANC (generally supporting the PAC). In the 1990s, President Mandela expressed South Africa's desire to maintain longstanding ties to the ROC and to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC. In response to PRC objections to proposals of dual recognition, Mandela suggested that the question of sovereignty should be decided between Taipei and Beijing, rather than being left to other countries to choose between them.

With one of the strongest economies in the world, the ROC has been an important source of investment, trade, and tourism for South Africa. Taiwanese investments in South Africa, for example, exceeded R1.4 billion in 1994, according to South African reports, and the ROC was then one of South Africa's six largest trading partners. In addition, Taipei made significant contributions to South Africa's Reconstruction and Development Programme and to other areas of development.

The PRC--with lower levels of investment, trade, and development assistance to South Africa--nonetheless represents a population of more than 1.2 billion people in the 1990s. In addition, Beijing holds a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and is recognized by most other countries as the legitimate representative of the Chinese people. With the expected transfer of control over Hong Kong to Beijing in 1997, some South African officials argued forcefully for strengthening ties between South Africa and the PRC, even at the expense of ties to the ROC. Opponents argued, in response, that Taiwan's record of commitment to South Africa and Beijing's record of disregard for international norms concerning human rights favored recognition of the ROC over the PRC, at least in the mid-1990s.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress