Magazine article Monthly Review

The United States and South Africa

Magazine article Monthly Review

The United States and South Africa

Article excerpt


"The policies and actions of the government of South Africa constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy and economy of the United States." Ronald Reagan's September 1985 declaration that the white minority government in South Africa was a threat to the United States appeared to be a sharp reversal of the administration's "constructive engagement" policy toward Pretoria. Only a few days earlier the president had firmly rejected economic pressure on the white republic; now he was suddenly imposing a series of limited economic sanctions, including restrictions on bank loans, computer exports, and the sale of nuclear technology.

Something had changed and changed radically. The difference was that by September 1985 South Africa had entered a state of virtual civil war: the army was fighting pitched battles with the residents of the shattered black townships, the economy was on the verge of collapse, and South Africa's creditors were beginning to ask serious questions about the country's long-term stability. At the same time, in the streets and in the Congress of the United States, a coalition of civil rights and anti-apartheid activists had succeeded in making U.S. policy toward South Africa a major political issue.

It was the certainty of stiffer Congressional action that forced Reagan finally to abandon some of the tenets of constructive engagement--the policy that repudiated any type of economic or political pressure on South Africa in favor of "quite diplomacy" and a strategic alliance with white minority rule. But it is clear that Reagan's retreat has only been tactical: the administration's strategic goals in South Africa remain the same. Indeed, despite the appearance of radically different approaches to southern Africa by the Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations, the policies have been designed to protect and promote a remarkably consistent set of interests. Any understanding of U.S. policy and policy options toward the region must therefore proceed from an analysis of those interests and an analysis of how contending fractions of the U.S. ruling class define threats to those interests.

One set of interests is economic. For the past hundred years, the capitalist powers have sought to preserve access to South Africa's supply of strategic minerals and to the cheap black labor force by working to maintain capitalism as the dominant mode of production in the region. Central to the development of capitalism in southern Africa has been the establishment of white supermacist regimes, and later of apartheid itself, because it is these regimes that have made possible the superexploitation of black labor, particularly in the mines.

The United States has profited from apartheid, and U.S. policy toward the region, now and in the past, has been determined by its growing economic stake in South Africa, a stake that today totals some $14 billion in direct investment, bank loans, and holdings on the Johannesburg stock exchange. Consequently, the United States has supported the survival of pro-Western capitalist governments in the region, both in order to maintain its economic interests and to reduce or eliminate the perceived threat that the Soviet Union will gain a foothold in what has always been considered a Western economic and politico-military preserve. We will examine how different administrations have pursued these goals, but the point here is that the importance of ideology in the formation of U.S. policy toward southern Africa must not be underestimated. Beginning at least with the assassination of the prime minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, in 1960, U.S. policymakers have viewed the region as a U.S. sphere of interest--that is, as an area that was integrated into the capitalist economic system by the colonial powers and was and must remain an area for capitalist exploitation in the postcolonial era. …

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