Ronald Reagan’s Africa

Reagan is celebrated as a world statesman and champion of democracy, but this not how many outside the US experienced his time in office.

Ronald Reagan, left, and a senior US government official, Otis R. Bowen (NIH, Flickr CC).

Ronald Reagan will be celebrated again today (his date of birth 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 of 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, militarizing whole populations and crippling economic systems.

The UN estimates the total loss to the Angolan economy from 1980 to 1900 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.

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