Greasing the Wheels of Apartheid

The election of Ronald Reagan to the U.S. presidency was an answered prayer for white South Africa. No other event could have so bolstered the confidence and lifted the morale of the apartheid regime.

Gone were the days of public remonstrances and the embarrassing tirades of Andy Young against human rights abuses in South Africa. While U.S. investments in South Africa rose during the Carter years, and while Ambassador Young consistently vetoed U.N. resolutions calling for economic sanctions against the apartheid regime, Pretoria was irked by the Carter style. It was peeved by the holier-than-thou attitude of the United States—the official snubs and embarrassing hand-slaps—while U.S. companies carried on business-as-usual and reaped handsome profits from the system they publicly deplored.

Pretoria's optimistic assessment of the new U.S. president could not have been closer to the mark. In a pre-election interview, one of Reagan's top Africa advisers admitted, "The problem with Reagan is that all he knows about Southern Africa is that he's on the side of the whites." As the administration's South Africa policy took shape, the full import of this statement began to emerge. Less than two months after taking office, President Reagan was interviewed by Walter Cronkite. When asked what the U.S. attitude should be toward the white regime in Pretoria, Reagan responded, "Can we abandon a country that has stood by us in every war we've ever fought—a country that is strategically essential to the free world in its production of minerals we all must have? I feel that ... if we're going to sit down at a table and negotiate with the Russians, surely we can keep the door open and continue to negotiate with a friendly nation like South Africa."

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