In Transition: The United States and South Africa, 1976-1977

The South African government’s 19 October 1977 crackdown on dissent sent shockwaves throughout the country. The “October crackdown” also convinced many members of the United Nations Security Council that it was time to impose mandatory sanctions on South Africa. Jimmy Carter, however, ordered the USUN ambassador to veto sanctions banning trade, investment and nuclear cooperation with Pretoria. A few days later, facing increased African pressure, Carter supported a mandatory arms embargo. Although this was the first time the Security Council had imposed mandatory sanctions on a UN member state, the action did not represent a major departure from America’s past position on South Africa; the United States had been observing a voluntary arms embargo since 1963. This thesis seeks to illuminate why Carter—a president who campaigned on infusing morality into American foreign policy—responded mildly to the October crackdown. Using documents from the Carter Library and online repositories such as the National Archives, this thesis argues that the Carter administration developed its South African policy under severe constraints, which limited its flexibility in pressing Pretoria to abolish apartheid. As much as Carter wanted to encourage racial justice in South Africa, his more immediate need was to convince Pretoria to help resolve the crisis in Rhodesia. Additionally, in August 1977, the Soviets informed Washington that they had discovered a South African nuclear weapons test site in the Kalahari Desert. When Carter challenged the South Africans about it, they denied everything. Pretoria’s shrewd handling of its secretive nuclear weapons capability trapped the Carter administration: if Washington cut nuclear ties, it risked losing its ability to persuade Pretoria to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Documents from the South African Department of Foreign Affairs Archive reveal that a previously unstudied constraint on the Carter administration came from the South African government itself. Despite Carter’s demands on Pretoria being measured, the South African government launched a public relations campaign that alleged that Carter had demanded an immediate end to apartheid. It argued that this imperiled the stability of South Africa. Pretoria painted Carter as a naïve and therefore dangerous president who did not understand US strategic interests in the anticommunist nation. Pretoria’s strategy hamstrung Carter: if Washington denied the South African interpretation of events, it would look as though it supported apartheid; and if it used any of its sticks to prod Pretoria to change, it would give the Pretoria more ammunition for its campaign. Thus by the time of the “October crackdown,” Pretoria had curtailed Carter’s ability to impose tougher sanctions. This thesis shows that, because of the constraints it faced, the Carter administration never constructed a hardline policy toward apartheid; it crafted a flexible, carrot and stick approach to encourage Pretoria to implement small steps toward racial equality. Carter himself never promised dramatic changes in South Africa and—more to the point—no members of the US Congress and no black African leaders expected apartheid to end in the near future. Scholars who express surprise that Carter did not react more harshly to the October crackdown are, to a certain extent, victims of Pretoria’s public relations campaign. If scholars recalibrate their own expectations to reflect the historic record more accurately, and then look at the constraints on Carter—including Pretoria’s successful propaganda campaign—then Carter’s reaction to the crackdown would be seen as consistent with the moderate carrot and stick policy he articulated in the early days of his administration.

Zavelo, Kelsey Lynn. “In Transition: The United States and South Africa, 1976-1977.” (Under the direction of Dr. Nancy Mitchell.)

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