Constructive engagement

Constructive engagement
International opposition
to apartheid in South Africa

Academic boycott · Sporting boycott
Disinvestment ·Constructive engagement

Instruments and legislation

UN Resolution 1761 (1962)
Crime of Apartheid Convention (1973)
Gleneagles Agreement (1977)
Sullivan Principles (1977)
Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (1986)


Anti-Apartheid Movement
UN Special Committee against Apartheid
Artists United Against Apartheid
Halt All Racist Tours
Organisation of African Unity


1964 Conference for Economic Sanctions
1978 World Conference against Racism

UN Security Council Resolutions

Resolution 181 · Resolution 191
Resolution 282 · Resolution 418
Resolution 435 · Resolution 591

Other aspects

Elimination of Racism Day
Biko (song) · Activists
Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute
Equity television programming ban

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Constructive engagement was the name given to the policy of the Reagan Administration towards the apartheid regime in South Africa in the early 1980s. It was promoted as an alternative to the economic sanctions and divestment from South Africa demanded by the UN General Assembly and the international anti-apartheid movement.[1]


Encouraging South Africa

The Reagan Administration vetoed legislation from the United States Congress and blocked attempts by the United Nations to impose sanctions and to isolate South Africa.[2] Instead, advocates of constructive engagement sought to use incentives as a means of encouraging South Africa gradually to move away from apartheid.[3] The policy, echoed by the British government of Margaret Thatcher, came under criticism as South African government repression of the black population and anti-apartheid activism intensified.[4] The policy's architect, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker, designed it to link the independence of South African–occupied Namibia to an easing of the arms embargo against South Africa and the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola.[5] Author/journalist Christopher Hitchens blamed constructive engagement and "the fearlessly soft attitude displayed by Chester Crocker towards apartheid" for the ten-year delay in implementing United Nations Security Council Resolution 435 and securing Namibia's independence:[6]

"Independence on these terms could have been won years ago if it were not for Crocker's procrastination and Reagan's attempt to change the subject to the presence of Cuban forces in Angola. Here again, the United States dogmatically extended diplomatic recognition to one side only – South Africa's. Here again, without 'neutral' mediators American policy would have deservedly become the victim of its own flagrant bias. An important participant was Bernt Carlsson, UN Commissioner for Namibia, who worked tirelessly for free elections in the colony and tried to isolate the racists diplomatically."

Influence of the Cold War

Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 offered the regime in Pretoria a conservative president who, in an early speech, declared his support for the white minority government of South Africa, and their support for the U.S. in times of war.[7] After the administration of previous President Jimmy Carter had pledged to support majority rule in South Africa, South African President P. W. Botha saw in Reagan what he saw in Thatcher: a leader who would respect his regime's battle against communism in Southern Africa.[8] The Cold War and threat of Soviet influence in the region, Namibia in particular, enabled the South African government to appeal to the Reagan Administration's fear of an African "domino effect." In light of this, South Africa received both economic and military aid during Reagan’s first term.[9] The U.S. State Department also believed that “Constructive Engagement” would lead over time to a regime change. U.S. policy feared a sudden revolution in South Africa as being a potential power vacuum, opening the door to a Marxist, Soviet-backed regime, like that in Angola.[10]

Presidential veto overridden

The build up to what was to become the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 can be traced to Archbishop Desmond Tutu who visited the United States in 1984. This visit occurred after President Reagan’s comfortable re-election. Speaking on Capitol Hill Tutu delivered a speech, declaring “constructive engagement is an abomination, an unmitigated disaster.”… “In my view, the Reagan administration’s support and collaboration with it is equally immoral, evil, and totally un-Christian.”[11] This speech was the turning point for the Reagan administration, and also the beginning of the end of “Constructive Engagement”. In April 1985 President Reagan came under attack from within the Republican Party itself. The Republican majority in the Senate voted 89-4 on a resolution condemning Apartheid.[12]

In October 1986, the United States Congress overrode President Reagan's veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (the Senate vote was 78 to 21, the House vote was 313 to 83), despite objections by conservative Representatives such as Dick Cheney, who noted that Nelson Mandela was the head of an organization that the State Department had deemed "terrorist".[13] In the week leading up to the vote, President Reagan appealed to members of the Republican Party for support, but as Senator Lowell P. Weicker, Jr. would state, "For this moment, at least, the President has become an irrelevancy to the ideals, heartfelt and spoken, of America."[14] The legislation, which banned all new U.S. trade and investment in South Africa, also refused South African Airways flights from landing at U.S. airports. This legislation was seen as a catalyst for similar sanctions in Europe and Japan, and signalled the end of the constructive engagement policy.

See also


  1. ^ Sanford J. Ungar and Peter Vale, "Why Constructive Engagement failed", Current Affairs, Winter 85/86
  2. ^ Manzo, Kate, "U.S. South Africa Policy in the 1980s: Constructive Engagement and Beyond", Review of Policy Research, Vol. 6 Issue 2 Page 212 November 1986
  3. ^ Deborah Toler, "Constructive Engagement: Reactionary Pragmatism at Its Best", Issue: A Journal of Opinion, Vol. 12, No. 3/4 (Autumn - Winter, 1982), pp. 11-18
  4. ^ James Hamill, "South Africa and the Commonwealth part one: the years of acrimony - Commonwealth of Nations", Contemporary Review, July 1995
  5. ^ J.E. Davies, Constructive Engagement?: Chester Crocker & American Policy in South Africa, Namibia & Angola, Ohio University Press, 2007
  6. ^ Hitchens, Christopher (1993). For the sake of Argument: Essays and Minority Reports. Verso. pp. 99. ISBN 0-86-091435-6. 
  7. ^ Bell. Coral “The Reagan Paradox” Edward Elgar publishing page 117 (1989)
  8. ^ Davis. J.E “Constructive Engagement?” Ohio University Press page 72 (2007)
  9. ^ Kyvig. David E “Reagan And The World” Rotberg Robert I “Reagan Era in Africa” Greenwood Press page 125 (1990)
  10. ^ Davis. J.E “Constructive Engagement?” Ohio University Press page 26 (2007)
  11. ^ Jackson. Derrick Z “Reagan’s heart of darkness” The Boston Globe June 9, 2004 retrieved on 24 January 2009.
  12. ^ Coker. Christopher “The United States and South Africa,1968-1985: Constructive Engagement and its Critics” Duke University press Durham page 266 (1986)
  13. ^ "Cheney and Mandela: Reconciling The Truth About Cheney's Vote". 
  14. ^ Roberts. Steven V “Senate ,78 to 21, Overrides Reagan’s Veto and Imposes Sanctions on South Africa” The New York Times October 3, 1986 retrieved on 2 February 2009.

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