South Africa's Cold War history is essentially the history of apartheid, or racial separation. The National Party (NP), which came to power in 1948 and would dominate South Africa until 1990, fully codified apartheid. The NP built a strong state, and consequently South Africa became the preponderant power in southern Africa. But its racial policies also rendered it a pariah in the international community. Still, South Africa, through its involvement in civil wars in Angola and to a lesser extent Mozambique and Zimbabwe, played an important role in Cold War geopolitics.
The apartheid era, which neatly coincides with the Cold War, can be divided into four periods: 1948–1958, including the administrations of D. F. Malan (1948–1954) and Johannes Strijdom (1954–1958); the premiership of Hendrik Verwoerd (1958–1966); the reign of Prime Minister John Vorster (1966–1978); and P. W. Botha's premiership beginning in 1978 and resignation as state president in 1989. The subsequent rise of F. W. de Klerk marked apartheid's denouement, hastened by the end of the Cold War.
During the late 1940s and 1950s, the NP's consolidation of state power was most clearly reflected by its policy of job reservation for whites. In the late 1950s, many businesses, most of which were run by English speakers, preferred to hire cheap black labor. The government responded by reserving fifteen different occupations for whites. This period also witnessed the inchoate institutionalization of apartheid by, for instance, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949), the Suppression of Communism Act (1950), the Population Registration Act (1951), and the Bantu Education Act (1955). Domestic resistance to apartheid was barely active during this period and came mainly from black political groups through civil protests. Malan, and then Strijdom, advanced Afrikaner dominance while the colonial (white) dominance of the rest of Africa was in full retreat. Shielding South Africa from what they saw as the contagion of decolonization and the advancement of majority rule was their chief foreign policy priority. Malan outlined his Africa policy in a document titled The African Charter (1949), which was imbued with the notion of an African continent safe for "Western European Christian Civilization." Strijdom took a somewhat more pragmatic and prudent path. For instance, the growing importance of Africa to South Africa's foreign policy was reflected by the 1959 creation of South Africa's Africa Division in the Department of Foreign Affairs, its first geographic division. Throughout the 1950s, South Africa maintained a favored position in the West.
Civil unrest and the brutality at Sharpeville defined Verwoerd's premiership. In March 1960, the South African police fired on a group of demonstrators whom the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) had called upon to protest the South African Pass Laws, enacted by the government to restrict the movement of nonwhites. (Except when required for domestic help or other certified jobs, blacks had to remain in their own designated areas.) In the confrontation, 67 Africans were killed and another 126 wounded. Without doubt, Sharpeville changed the nature of the antiapartheid resistance. In 1961, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, Spear of the Nation), made up of African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party (SACP) cadres, was formed as the armed wing of the ANC. And Poqo ("pure" or "only") was formed as the armed wing of the PAC. The antiapartheid movement also began to reach beyond South Africa's borders as neighboring countries became rear guards for the antiapartheid struggle.
Nonetheless, while domestic and international opposition to apartheid intensified, Verwoerd advanced Afrikaner dominance at home and only further entrenched apartheid. The South African state successfully suppressed the antiapartheid struggle. Antiapartheid crusader Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1962, and seventeen of the MK's high command were arrested in Rivonia the following year. Because South Africa was in the middle of the Great Boom (1961–1970), the NP further consolidated its power, had greater economic resources to maintain the apartheid edifice at home, and was able to protect itself from black majority rule in the rest of Africa.
Vorster's premiership actually encompasses two distinct periods. He rode to office in 1966 on the tailwind of Verwoerd's strong state, South Africa's economic boom, and a mature apartheid. But he left office in 1978 with the apartheid system under siege and South Africa in an economic tailspin. The second phase of Vorster's tenure presented him with a new set of economic and political dynamics. By 1975, the economy was in serious decline, with the growth rate down 2.2 percent for the year. The Vorster government also faced the inchoate black union movement, symbolized by the Durban strikes of 1973, leading to the Bantu Labour Relations Regulation Amendment Act, which gave black Africans a limited right to strike. The impact of South Africa's economic downturn was felt mainly in the townships.
Soweto most certainly defined Vorster's latter period. On 16 June 1976, 15,000 school children gathered to protest the government's insistence that Afrikaans be the official language in black schools. A subsequent confrontation with police triggered a month-long revolt, causing 1,000 deaths. The government reacted to Soweto by becoming even more repressive, while businesses responded by calling for more reform, forming the Urban Foundation to lobby the government for change, especially concerning housing for blacks.
Vorster's Africa policy was known as the outward policy. It differed from South Africa's earlier Africa policies by accepting the irreversibility of the transfer of power from the European metropoles to the African centers, ending a long period of stubborn denial. South Africa could accept the reality of a steady transfer of power to African centers because in the first half of the 1970s its cordon sanitaire was still intact and its economy was booming.
After the oil crisis of 1973–1974, Pretoria argued that its store of key raw materials (platinum, manganese, chrome, and vanadium), vital sea-lanes, and strong anticommunism made it an ideal ally of the West. But there was also a growing movement in Africa to condemn South Africa's domestic and regional policies. In September 1969, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) adopted the Lusaka Manifesto, calling for an end to colonialism in Mozambique, Angola, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and South West Africa (Namibia). It also included South Africa within its anticolonialism mandate.
The matrix of threat and opportunity facing South Africa inalterably changed on 24 April 1974, when Portugal's President António Salazar was overthrown. The cordon sanitaire was broken. Northern Namibia was now open to attacks by the anti–South African guerrilla force, SWAPO, from southern Angola. Mozambique became a base for forces fighting the Ian Smith regime in Rhodesia, and South Africa was now directly vulnerable to ANC and PAC penetration from Mozambique. South Africa was pulled into the Angolan Civil War, with at least tacit support from the United States. In 1975, the U.S. Congress passed the Clark Amendment, however, ending covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assistance to UNITA, the rebel group fighting the Soviet Union/Cuban–backed Angolan government.
Growing global hostility toward South Africa led to the promotion of secret ventures initiated by Dr. C. P. Mulder, minister of information, and Eschel Rhodie, secretary of the South African Department of Information, to shore up South Africa's international image. The exposure of these activities, which became known as Infogate, led ultimately to the fall of Vorster.
Botha came to power on 28 September 1978 promising to accelerate the reform process begun by Vorster. Instead, Botha instituted a near-totalitarian state. The 1980s were a period of stagnation and decline for the South African economy. South Africa's real economic growth rate since World War II had averaged more than 5 percent annually. By 1979, however, it declined in every five-year period thereafter. During 1975–1980, the real growth rate was 2.8 percent, whereas during 1980–1985 it was a mere 1.1 percent.
Botha did allow for the abrasion of the petty aspects of apartheid, but his most radical and important reform was the 1983 constitution. It was meant to placate international public opinion by replacing the white-only franchise with a multiracial franchise. However, the new franchise and its two new chambers included only Indians and coloreds (people of mixed race or Malaysians). The first election in 1984 under the new constitution witnessed only a 29.6 percent turnout by coloreds and a 20.2 percent turnout for Indians. But most importantly, the new constitution triggered new instability and political changes.
The 1984 disturbances were to the Botha administration what Soweto had been to Vorster and what Sharpeville had been to Verwoerd. And, just as Soweto was a greater threat to apartheid than was Sharpeville, the 1984–1986 disturbances were a qualitatively different phenomenon than their precursors. The trade unions, the United Democratic Front (UDF), and the ANC were better organized and had deeper support both within and outside the country. In addition, portions of the white population were becoming increasingly critical of the government. Rising emigration and a growing reluctance to serve in the armed forces reflected the weakening confidence in the state.
The new constitutional dispensation triggered the August 1983 formation of the UDF, which was not a political party but rather an umbrella organization encompassing many local groups that had accepted the ANC's 1955 Freedom Charter, which had advocated ideals of justice, equality, and economic development through state intervention in the best interest of the entire population. By March 1984, the UDF had more than 600 affiliated organizations with a combined membership of more than 2 million. Also, the new constitution led to a split in the NP. In 1982, Dr. Andries Treurnicht, NP leader for the Transvaal, and twenty-one other NP members refused to support Botha's reforms and were expelled from the party. Treurnicht subsequently formed the Conservative Party.
South Africa's foreign policy under Botha, which was run out of the State Security Council (SSC), was part of South Africa's total national strategy, a reaction to what was labeled as the total onslaught of communism. It held that the Soviet Union would cling to any territory over which it acquired control in Africa and would only surrender it if the center collapsed or if overall strategy favored such a move and that in black Africa, the Soviets had already selected and effectively controlled at least three states and were preparing the ground for three more: Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa. To combat this perceived threat, Pretoria undertook a massive destabilization program, which included military forays as far north as Zambia and cost the region an estimated 1.5 million lives during 1980–1988 with a cumulative cost to the region of approximately $60.5 billion.
On 15 August 1985, Botha gave his much-anticipated "Rubicon Speech" at the Annual National Party's Province Congress in Durban. South Africa's foreign minister, Roelof Frederik Botha, had briefed Western leaders in advance, and the speech was in fact broadcast to the United States, Great Britain, and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany). However, what P. W. Botha delivered was not a radical departure from apartheid but rather a continuation of incremental reforms and the maintenance of apartheid. The international community was shocked. The South African rand, which had been falling since 1983, fell to a low of 0.35 to the American dollar in August 1985; the Johannesburg Stock Exchange was closed for the first time since Sharpeville; and Chase Manhattan Bank in New York decided not to roll over maturing short-term loans to South Africa. Other banks soon followed suit. South Africa had sunk to the depths of its pariah status.
In 1984, Pretoria reached an agreement with Mozambique, via the Nkomati Accord, which was to end South African support for the Resistencia Nacional Moçambicano (RENAMO), the rebel force fighting the Mozambique government, in return for an end to Mozambique's support for the ANC. The Nkomati Accord was as much a signal to the West as a sincere effort to improve regional relations. Botha followed this success with an eight-nation tour of Europe. In 1988, military stalemate in the southern Angolan town of Cuito Cuanavale precipitated the end of South Africa's Angola war, which had become Pretoria's Vietnam.
Ill health ended Botha's reign in 1989, and an internecine struggle within the NP ensued. The next president, de Klerk, would ease South Africa into its transition away from apartheid, if not actually direct it, although the transition was certainly hastened by the end of the Cold War.
De Klerk released Mandela from Robben Island Prison on 11 February 1990. Mandela had been incarcerated for twenty-seven years. Nine days prior to his release, all opposition groups, including the ANC, were unbanned. Apartheid was in full retreat, and South Africa then entered a transition period that led, four years later, to full democratic freedoms.
Frankel, Philip. Pretoria's Praetorians: Civil-Military Relations in South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.; Geldenhuys, Deon. The Diplomacy of Isolation: South African Foreign Policy Making. Pretoria: AIIA, 1984.; Grundy, Kenneth W. Confrontation and Accommodation in Southern Africa: The Limits of Independence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.; Price, Robert. The Apartheid State in Crisis: Political Transformation in South Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.