Ronald Reagan’s Africa

Ronald Reagan will be celebrated again today (his birthday is February 6, 1911) as a world statesman and champion of democracy (mostly by Republicans and Conservatives in the United States), but this not how people in the Third World experienced his tenure. Take Southern Africa (I grew up in South Africa) for instance. As I wrote a few years ago, there the “Reagan doctrine” or “constructive engagement” not only extended the lifespan of apartheid, but, scholars are now arguing, unleashed the privatization of terrorist violence that has become the central preoccupation of twenty-first century politics.

As far as our corner of the world was concerned, Reagan set the tone of his presidency shortly after his 1980 inauguration, telling a journalist that the United States would try to be “helpful” as long as apartheid’s leaders were making a “a sincere and honest effort” to reform apartheid. White South Africa was a “friendly country” and a good ally in the international battle against Communism. Later that year, Chester Crocker, the highest ranking Reagan administration official on matters African, put it more bluntly: “All Reagan knows about Southern Africa is that he is on the side of the whites.”

Crocker, a protégé of Henry Kissinger from the Nixon era, developed what would become the cornerstone of Reagan’s Africa policy: “constructive engagement”. It was based on two main premises: one, the insistence that regional peacemaking in Southern Africa was the necessary precondition to change within South Africa. This included such extraneous issues as Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola, for example. The second was that President PW Botha and his generals were genuinely capable off reforming apartheid, and in fact were committed to doing just that.

Instead, the 1980s became the most bloody decade in the region’s history as the South African government backed by the US, pursued proxy-wars in Angola and Mozambique, fomented conflict between local groups inside these states conducted commando raids into Botswana hunting for members of the anti-apartheid resistance and occupied Namibia, in the process killing and displacing thousands of people, militarising whole populations and crippling economic systems. The UN estimates the total loss to the Angolan economy from 1980 to 1980 at $30 billion, six times the country’s 1988 GDP.

At home, security forces killed, tortured and detained as many as 10,000 opponents and fed, with funding and guns, what the government passed off as “black-on-black violence” in the South African and international media.

Former Washington Post reporter Bill Berkeley, in his book The Graves Are Not Yet Full, reports that in his first two years in the White House, Reagan eased controls on exports to apartheid South Africa, beefed up its diplomatic mission there, intervened to support South African loan applications to the IMF, approved visas and official visits for military leaders and pro-regime intellectuals, and vigorously defended South African interests in the United Nations. US corporations would also sell computer technology to the South African military.

Despite complaints from within the United States and elsewhere that constructive engagement was benefiting apartheid, the Reagan administration persisted with its strategy until the end of the decade.

Botha’s reforms followed by extreme state terror on the black population and government opponents were labeled a “step in the right direction.” When Botha unleashed full scale state terror in the aftermath of his now-infamous Rubicon speech (where he reneged on promised reforms) in 1985, Reagan instead blamed South Africa’s deepening political and economic crises on the ANC and “tribalism”.

When the US Congress finally succeeded in enacting stringent sanctions against the South African regime and businesses, largely through popular pressure, they met strong resistance from the White House: Reagan first vetoed, then reluctantly implemented the measures.

With political apartheid a thing of the past inside South Africa, one aspect of Reagan’s Southern African policy seems to be coming back to haunt the Americans, and the rest of us, too: Scholars now agree that Southern Africa provided the birth-place for the violence now commonplace of privatized and ideologically stateless groups such as Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.

Columbia University political scientist Mahmood Mamdani, originally from Uganda, in his 2005 book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror, argued that in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the US government shifted from a strategy of direct intervention in its fight against global Communism to one supporting new forms of what was termed “low-intensity conflicts” fronted by proxy states and private armed groups in the 1980s throughout Indochina, Latin America, Africa and Afghanistan. What is referred to now as collateral damage was then not an unfortunate by-product of war, but “the very point of terrorism,” noted Mamdani.

The rebel movements, UNITA in Angola and Renamo in Mozambique, both trained and armed with US support by South Africa’s Defense Force, were the guinea pigs for this policy. Renamo became “Africa’s first genuine terrorist movement” discharging aimless violence against Mozambican civilians without any chance of becoming a series contender for national power in a civil war that even outlasted Reagan. Adapting the strategy used in Africa, the US would go on to support the Contras in Nicaragua and elsewhere, before finally encouraging a broad front of extreme Islamists, to fight the Soviet “the Evil Empire” to the finish in Afghanistan.

The American media is currently infused with nostalgia for the Reagan years. We may still be living the Reagan years.

* That’s Ronald Reagan and Pik Botha, longtime foreign minister of South Africa through the 1970s and 1980s, meeting at the White House. Pik Botha who would also serve in Nelson Mandela’s first “reconciliation” Cabinet as Minister of Mineral and Energy Affairs (!).


8 thoughts on “Ronald Reagan’s Africa

  1. I remember the Reagan years as a grim decade in Africa; Constructive Engagement in southern Africa and Structural Adjustment in the rest of the continent. For me, ‘constructive engagement’ was founded on the simple premise that the Cold War and the battle against Soviet Communism was the principal priority globally, and Washington’s anti-Soviet Apartheid allies in southern Africa were not going to be alienated but engaged with ‘constructively’.

    Do not forget Reagan had fans on the other side of the pond (conservative political elites in England mostly but also in parts of Eastern Europe).

  2. Reagan supported the philosophies and brutal tactics of virtually every racist right wing dictatorship in his era, and don’t ever forget that he used our tax money to carry out his evil actions. Despite his veto of a comprehensive sanction bill against apartheid South Africa, African Americans led an intense struggle that pressured the US Congress to overturn his veto and break the back of the racist regime. We will always rejoice in that fact! Simply put, Ronald Reagan was a well documented, heartless racist and a gross embarrassment to the US around the world on the scale of George W Bush. That may sound harsh to his duped believer’s, but the truth is the light…

    • **I couldn’t have said this better myself; well said! And to Sean Jacobs? THANK YOU for reminding whoever is celebrating Ronald Regan these days; what he really stood for. Many of us know but lest the others forget….

  3. Yes, it’s useful to make the connections. But it is a mistake to see the strategy used in Africa as a precedent for the other Contra wars. In fact they were all part of a more general right-wing thrust after the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and the fall of Portuguese colonialism. It was not just Reagan and he actually wasn’t the pioneer. It was multinational and bipartisan. A key covert player was the “Safari Club” ( of French, Saudi, Moroccan, Iranian, and Egyptian intelligence chiefs, who received tacit support from people like Brzezinski of the Carter Administration. The key figure there was Alexandre de Marenches, the French intelligence chief. The U.S. support for terrorist insurgents preceded Reagan and extended to Latin America, Africa, and Asia – contemporaneously. Undoubtedly each served as precedent for the others. And the time of greatest expansion was with Reagan, in the 1980s. For more on these, see Fred Halliday’s book From Kabul to Managua; John Cooley’s Unholy Wars, and my own Apartheid’s Contras (on Angola and Mozambique but also discussing the general contest). Also a workshop paper done some time ago for a conference organized by Mahmood Mamdani is at

  4. @William Minter; interesting comment. I wonder if the ‘Safari Club’ still exists and what work it will find for itself within the context of the Arab Spring and events in the Sahel.

    • Well, I doubt very much that group exists as such, since the countries involved are hardly an alliance any more! But the issue of which intelligence agencies (public or private) are collaborating with which other ones is always interesting although very, very difficult to pin down given secrecy, rumor, and disinformation on all sides.

  5. It is absolutely amazing, and refreshing to read the freely released and unvarnished truth about the Reagan tenure in the U.S. Our media tends to embrace the politically correct version of the truth, or bypass it totally, since it doesn’t feed their ad revenues from the largely conservative corporate world on our shores.

    Congratulations on a well written and appreciated journey into the real story of Ronald Reagan’s Africa.

  6. Chester Crocker told Southern Africa magazine in 1980, around the time his selection as Assistant Secretary of State for Africa was announced, that “the only thing Ronald Reagan knows about South Africa is that he’s on the side of the whites.” It may have been the last time Crocker told the full truth during that decade.

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