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Southern Africa in the Cold War

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J.E. Spence considers the interface between ideological and geopolitical factors in the struggle for supremacy in Southern Africa.

At the end of the Second World War the southern African region, with the major exception of the Union of South Africa, was firmly under colonial rule. Britain retained responsibility for the three High Commission territories – Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland – and exercised formal control over self-governing Rhodesia’s constitutional development and external affairs. Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, too, were British colonies while Portugal ruled Angola and Mozambique. South-West Africa (the status of which was in dispute with the newly-established United Nations) was to all intents and purposes a fifth province of the Union, an outcome formally confirmed with incorporation in 1950. There were nationalist stirrings in all these territories, including South Africa, but hardly provocative enough to disturb their white rulers. Nor did the latter regard the granting of independence to India, Pakistan and Ceylon in 1947-48 as constituting a precedent for Africa, where it was assumed many years of preparation in the arts of self-government would be required. Nevertheless, the force of the Asian example was not lost on those who espoused the nationalist cause, however small and poorly organised their numbers.

South Africa dominated the region by virtue of its size, population and economic hegemony. The Union had emerged from the Second World War with its status enhanced following its contribution to the Allied war effort; its government was perceived as a respected member of international society and the Commonwealth, in particular, to the evolution of which General J.C. Smuts, the wartime prime minister had made a notable contribution. Moreover, his role in the Second World War as the confidant of Churchill, his country’s value as a source of British investment and trade, and the Western perception that the Union retained strategic significance (on the assumption that a war between the East and West would be a conventional replay of 1939-45) gave South Africa a degree of influence and prestige out of all proportion to its position as a small power at the southern tip of the African continent. To this end its government contributed to overcoming the Berlin blockade (1949) and to the Korean War (1950-53).

Throughout the 1950s, South Africa – despite the election in 1948 of an Afrikaner Nationalist government committed to apartheid – managed to maintain its favoured position in the West as a potential ally and a reliable business partner. True, the government refined its instruments of social control through a barrage of repressive legislation – including the 1950 suppression of Communism Act – which came under attack at the United Nations from the Soviet Union and a small number of newly independent states including India, Pakistan and Ghana. Western governments were reluctant, however, to join in this condemnation until the shock of the Sharpeville massacre of March 1960. During this period Soviet interest in southern Africa was peripheral; indeed, it maintained consular relations with South Africa until 1956.

1960, however, was Africa’s year: a flood of new African states joined the United Nations and the apartheid policy came under sharp and cumulative attack in the General Assembly where, for the rest of the decade, massive majorities passed resolutions condemning the Republic’s treatment of its black majority and the refusal to prepare South-West Africa/Namibia for independence. Similarly, the Wilson government in Britain came under attack for its failure to deal effectively with the Rhodesian crisis, provoked by Ian Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence in 1965. By the mid-1960s Zambia and Malawi had become independent and towards the end of the decade sporadic guerrilla war began in Namibia, Angola and Mozambique in an effort to force their rulers to withdraw.

Thus, throughout the 1960s the United Nations provided an anti-colonial Soviet Union with a platform for the assertion of solidarity with the Third World and the apartheid regime was an obvious target. Moreover, the Soviet–Third World alliance was instrumental in persuading the General Assembly to pass a series of Covenants and Declarations on human rights issues. South Africa provided a crucial benchmark in this context: the country was perceived as the last outpost of a decadent Western colonialism given the concentration of political power in the hands of the white minority and the dependence of the latter on the labour of the black majority for the production of wealth in a capitalist economy. In effect, the South African Republic, which emerged in May 1961 following a referendum among whites which favoured secession from the Commonwealth, was perceived in microcosm as a reflection of the deep divisions between rich and poor, black and white in international society as a whole.

Yet despite these efforts to cast the Republic as a pariah state, there was little the UN or, indeed, the Soviet Union could do to force change on Pretoria. The absence of economic leverage, the Soviet inability to project influence at long range and the military and economic weakness of its putative allies in the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) meant that Soviet policy towards southern Africa, while high on rhetoric, was low in terms of current achievement in the region. South Africa’s recovery from the Sharpeville crisis was swift, and the 1960s saw an astonishing economic performance with growth rates averaging some 6 per cent per annum. The government devoted considerable effort to the consolidation and extension of economic links with Western powers on the assumption that the more the Republic integrated itself into the international economy, the less prospect there was of economic sanctions against it. Western political and business leaders helped reinforce this strategy, given their conviction that violent revolution by the black majority was improbable. Economic growth, moreover, was regarded as the solvent of political ills, on the assumption that racial barriers would collapse as an expanding economy required new sources of skilled manpower and a larger consumer market.

So confident was the nationalist government of its capacity to withstand external pressure that in 1965 it launched an ‘outward’ movement in foreign policy designed to break down the ideological barriers that divided South Africa from the rest of the continent. Exploratory talks were held with a variety of states in the region and beyond, but only Malawi took the bait and established diplomatic relations with Pretoria. Nor did the government manage to win incorporation into Western alliance structures or to reverse the voluntary arms embargo imposed by the UN in 1963, although many in conservative ranks in Western Europe sympathised with both these aspirations.

Nevertheless, from 1968 onwards, the Republic was tacitly accepted by the US as a sound candidate for inclusion in the Nixon Doctrine, which assigned a security and development role to regional states which had the resources and commitment to underpin it. Thus a realpolitik analysis might suggest that South Africa’s ‘isolation’ was more apparent than real. Trade and investment flourished to produce an impressive growth rate; the black opposition was dormant; overt and covert links with significant areas of black Africa were fostered, while arms deals with maverick suppliers made good the shortfall of a growing domestic arms industry. Afro-Asian hostility expressed in cumulative resolutions at the UN was perhaps an acceptable price to pay for a foreign policy which had staved off the worst: Western intervention in deference to the claims of the Third World. On this reading, the state had been preserved by a combination of draconian security measures at home and, abroad, by the assiduous cultivation of those powers whose support mattered on the crucial issue of white self-preservation in a hostile world.

In the late 1960s the South African government tried to capitalise on its strategic position at the junction of the Indian and Atlantic Ocean, arguing that the newly established Soviet naval presence in the Indian Ocean in 1968 constituted a major threat to the security of Western shipping lanes around the Cape. This claim aroused fierce debate in Britain in particular and revived the case for resuming the sale of naval capability to the Republic. Yet ultimately, South Africa’s projected image as the ‘bastion of the free world’ failed to convince Western policy makers. Their scepticism was based on the argument that what the Soviets sought by projecting naval power in distant waters was political influence rather than the means to provoke military confrontation with the West. Hostile action against Western shipping in the South Atlantic would rapidly escalate into a major conflict with the West, it was argued. What mattered ultimately was the efficacy of nuclear deterrence which was, after all, indivisible and designed to deter threats, conventional or nuclear, wherever and whenever they occurred. Finally, Western governments recognised that in the improbable event of a shoot-out in the southern oceans, the Republic’s anti-Communist posture would leave it little choice but to place its ports, harbours and military facilities at the West’s disposal. Thus the latter had the best of both worlds: a near-certain guarantee of South Africa’s availability in a crisis without the political costs that would be incurred by closer political and military co-operation.

This failure to impress the West with its military significance led to a shift in South Africa’s position. Following the oil crisis of 1973, Pretoria argued that the country’s value as a supplier of key raw materials (platinum, manganese, chrome and vanadium) entitled it to explicit Western acknowledgement of its role in the anti-Communist struggle. Several defence White Papers in the 1970s and 1980s stressed that the Soviet Union was committed to a long term strategy of resource denial to the West. But again, this argument failed to convince; it assumed the Soviet leadership was bent on implementing a grand strategy deriving from some profound historical mission exemplified in the tenets of Marxist-Leninist ideology. A more accurate interpretation of Soviet policy during the Brezhnev years suggested that what moved Moscow was the desire to maintain and assert superpower status in competition with the United States. Certainly, during the 1970s the Soviet Union became a truly global power, but it did so by avoiding risky foreign policy moves likely to antagonise the United States.

However, despite the setback to South Africa’s aspiration to become a major outpost of Western defence against Soviet ambitions, there was a brief period in the mid-1970s when the Republic earned a degree of recognition as a state with a positive and dynamic regional role and when domestic policy no longer seemed to inhibit Western – and indeed African – acceptance of that role. This opportunity arose because of the need for the Republic’s co-operation in achieving a negotiated settlement of the Rhodesian issue: the resulting ‘detente’ between South Africa and the front-line states, enhanced by Henry Kissinger’s visits to Pretoria, gave South Africa the status of a major player whose views and capability could not be ignored. For once the government found itself doing business with a statesman whose conservative assumptions about international politics were perceived as helpful and sympathetic: in particular, Kissinger’s emphasis on order as the prerequisite for any sensible and rational conduct of international affairs; his hostility to moralistic foreign policy postures; his search for detente at the regional and global level between states, regardless of ideological complexion.

This reaffirmation of the traditional values of Western statecraft by the representative of the world’s most powerful country was a source of comfort to a South African government which had always attempted to make a clear distinction between foreign and domestic policy, especially in a regional context.

Kissinger’s theory and practice held out the prospect that South Africa’s reiterated plea for ‘tolerance and mutual respect, the recognition of the sovereign independence of all states, non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs’ (in the words of Dr Hilgard Muller, the Foreign Minister) might become the dominant norms governing its relations with its neighbours. And were this to be reinforced by the demonstrated effect of South Africa’s capacity to play a constructive economic role in the region as a whole, the legitimacy of the state – however peculiarly constituted – would be found easier to defend in a wider international context.

But this aspiration was short-lived and collapsed in the wake of the abortive South African military intervention in Angola in 1975. This followed Soviet-Cuban intervention in the territory, created by the Portuguese withdrawal and the outbreak of civil war between the rival liberation movements UNITA, FNLA and the MPLA. Soviet intervention at this juncture indicated a more self-conscious and substantial assertion of its capability that was made easier by America’s impotence following a decade of fruitless and costly intervention in Vietnam. Some 20,000 Cubans backing the new MPLA government in Luanda were supplied with a considerable array of weapons: aircraft, mechanised units, small arms, and a 22mm rocket launcher (worth some $225 million in all). Any prospect of US assistance to aid South Africa’s counter-intervention was extinguished following a Senate vote against further covert CIA assistance in December 1975. The United States was thus confronted with what it perceived as a major challenge at a time when it appeared least able to respond.

The consequences of the Soviet-Cuban deployment in Angola were profound. The Soviet Union established a claim to have its voice heard in an area where hitherto it had relatively little influence. Moscow’s standing with the OAU rose, while Fidel Castro justified his credentials as a defender of Third World interests against the hated apartheid regime. China’s standing in Africa was reduced after its failure to sustain initial support for the UNITA/FNLA forces in the Angolan conflict. Soviet success in Angola encouraged a similar intervention in Ethiopia to recoup the loss incurred when the Somali government expelled its Russian advisers in November 1977, and thereby helped consolidate a Marxist regime occupying an important strategic position in the Horn of Africa. The ill-fated South African attempt to counter the Cuban intervention spelled an end to its efforts to promote detente with its African neighbours. Equally, Kissinger’s grander vision of detente with the Soviet Union collapsed. Finally, regional insecurity in general increased as Pretoria perceived the Soviet-Cuban bridgehead in Angola as clear evidence of Moscow’s ‘total onslaught’ against white rule in the southern third of the continent, the objective of which (it was argued) was to gain exclusive access to South Africa’s extensive mineral resources. The liberation movements – the ANC in South Africa and SWAPO in Namibia in particular – thus acquired new and threatening significance for the Nationalist government in South Africa who saw them as tools of Moscow now rejuvenated for the task of the ‘armed struggle’ by the support of an active Soviet policy in the client states of Angola and Mozambique.

The achievement of Soviet/Cuban gains in southern Africa coinciding with widespread black unrest reinforced the nationalist government’s perception that Moscow was engaged in a ‘total onslaught’ against the Republic. This generated a response – ‘total strategy’ – which, in effect, gave the military increasing influence on decision-making via the mechanism of a State Security Council which subjected virtually every facet of government policy to scrutiny in terms of its implications for security and the country’s political stability. To this end, an elaborate National Security Management System was devised based on a technocratic faith in a capacity to manipulate both reform and repression in the expectation that once order was restored and economic grievance redressed, suitable black candidates for negotiation over the country’s political future would appear. Yet what was missing from this attempt at counter-insurgency theory and practice was an alternative vision of society, an essential requirement for any government trying to compete for popular support against its opponents. Short-term military tactics became long-term strategy, and the prospect of a political solution receded still further. This, then, was the consequence of defining security needs in the context of a ‘total onslaught’ where opponents were wittingly or unwittingly perceived as the dupes of a malevolent conspiracy centred on Moscow.

The threat represented by the ANC and SWAPO in the early 1980s appeared to give ample scope to the implementation of a ‘total strategy’ in a regional context. Hence the pattern of military intervention in this period in support of proxies such as the Mozambique National Resistance Movement (MNR), UNITA in Angola and the Lesotho Liberation Army: all ostensibly designed to counter the ‘armed propaganda’ of the ANC operating from bases beyond South Africa’s borders. But the strategy of ‘destabilisation’ also had the wider objective to ‘actively...turn back the tide of foreign (or Marxist) influence’ seen to be penetrating the region, and as the 1984 defence White Paper emphasised, to allow

black African states to experience the dangers of Russian involvement in their countries, as well as the suffering and retrogression that follows upon the revolutionary formula.

The regional setback represented by South Africa’s forced withdrawal from Angola had its domestic counterpart in the Soweto disturbances of June 1976: the willingness of the new generation of militant young blacks to challenge the state’s authority led to a shift in Western perceptions of South Africa’s long-term capacity to survive. Few disputed the government’s commitment to use the considerable resources at its command in defence of law and order; however, what was abundantly clear after sixteen years of relative domestic calm was the erosion of the state’s deterrence capability, its failure to prevent violence.

Thus for many, both inside and outside South Africa, Soweto represented a fundamental break with the past. Internally this provoked a debate on the utility of reform; externally Western policy-makers were forced to recognise that it was not enough to place one’s faith in the long-term ameliorative impact of economic growth on the structure of apartheid. Instead, a more positive, self-conscious involvement was required on the assumption that recurrent violence would probably be the pattern of the future, with all that implied in terms of increasing pressure for drastic action against the Republic from anti-apartheid lobbies. In the past, Western governments had been able to live with an ostensibly stable and economically productive South Africa. Once that image of stability was threatened by internal violent dissent foreign ministers were forced into the realm of public debate and it became increasingly difficult to justify inaction. There was tacit acknowledgement that sooner or later a major sustained confrontation would probably occur, and one which would not easily, if at all, be amenable to crisis management from the outside. Western economic interests would be put at risk and – in the event of severe unrest – be damaged beyond hope of short-term recovery.

The Soviet role in the region had also to be considered: would the threat of conflict escalation with the West over the Republic’s future act as a constraint, or serve as a ‘window of opportunity’? That no convincing, clear answers could be given reinforced the Western imperative to move the Republic along the road to reform before the worst happened and options were foreclosed.

In the mid-1980s events reached a climax with the outbreak of disturbances in the Vaal Triangle – the major industrial conurbation of South Africa. This development followed a six-year period of piecemeal reform initiated by prime minister P.W. Botha and designed to ameliorate the plight of the black majority. Changes in the status of black trade unions, the erosion of the colour bar in employment culminated in the establishment of a tri-cameral parliament representing the interests of white, Indian and coloured voters but making no provision for their black counterparts. By 1985, black opposition had been resuscitated in the form of the United Democratic Front, a loose umbrella organisation of groups allied to the exiled ANC.

The government responded by declaring two states of emergency in July 1985 and March 1986 and external pressure – in part generated by media coverage of the security forces in action in black townships – mounted swiftly. Overseas banks, led by Chase Manhattan in New York, refused to roll over South Africa’s external debts; the US Congress, the Commonwealth and the European Community passed a variety of sanctions packages, in effect weakening the Western commitment and characteristic of Western policy during the early 1980s. This was the brainchild of Chester Crocker, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

It was as if God had taken a hand – a new turn in world history. The risk that the ANC was being used as a Trojan Horse by a superpower had drastically decreased.

And while the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe provided an incentive for speeding up the process of domestic change, the constraint of economic sanctions on the country’s beleaguered economy offered another compelling reason for lifting the ban on Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned ANC leader and lifting the ban on that organisation’s political role within South Africa. This was the substance of de Klerk’s speech to the Cape Town parliament on February 2nd, 1990. As he argued, the impact of sanctions had made ‘people realise that we were in a dead end street’.

By the end of the 1980s South Africa was set on a new course, involving negotiations with the ANC. This led to a new constitutional dispensation and South Africa’s first fully democratic election in April 1994. Thereafter, the ‘new’ South Africa has been concerned to define a role in international affairs very different from that which pertained during the Cold War. That search still continues…

J.E. Spence is Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute for International Affairs.

Further reading: 
  • J.E. Spence, The Soviet Union, The Third World and Southern Africa (South African Institute of International Affairs, 1988).


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