Archive (Reagan Library)

South Africa: NSC & State Department comment on Botha letter to Reagan (reform of apartheid) [declassified 1999]

Document type: Declassified documents
Venue: Washington
Source: Reagan Library (NSC African Affairs Directorate Box 91026)
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 2pp
Themes: Foreign policy (USA), Commonwealth (South Africa), British policy towards South Africa



February 8, 1985



SUBJECT: South Africa: Botha's Letter to the President

Attached at Tab A is a copy of President Botha's response to the President's letter of January 7. The interesting part – that on internal developments and new approaches toward blacks – is a verbatim repeat of Botha's speech at the opening of the SA Parliament, and thus I don't believe it is necessary to send a memorandum to the President unless you believe it would be useful.

While we shouldn't go overboard on what Botha said, I believe it is an important development in the South African context, where any positive change concerning internal racial reforms, however small, is to be welcomed, and encouraged. Most blacks, including Buthelezi and Tutu, have rejected portions of Botha's offers or been ambivalent toward others; whites have either accepted the ideas cautiously or condemned them as a sell-out of white interests. Botha was careful to put a caveat on everything he said, but he did announce some steps, or present some issues for discussion which in time could develop into larger reforms, including

– suspension of forced removals, pending a review;

– acceptance of the political reality of nearly ten million urban blacks (or nearly half the black population) who have no links to the various homelands, by suggesting constitutional and citizenship arrangements for these blacks within “white” South Africa (this could be an important step away from “Grand Apartheid” under which all blacks are to be based – and have their political voice – in tribal homelands;

– elimination of negative aspects of pass laws and influx control on black movements inside SA;

– seek to create “informal” negotiating structures with black leaders and black interest groups.


[end p1] On regional issues, Botha requests that we raise the level of our assistance to Mozambique, joining them in efforts to wean Mozambique away from the Soviet Bloc. He also denies that SA is assisting RENAMO.


Tab A

State memo to you transmitting Botha's ltr to the President

[end p2]

United States Department of State

Washington, D.C. 20520


February 5, 1985


Subject: South African State President Botha's Letter to President Reagan

Attached is a letter to President Reagan from South African State President P.W. Botha in response to the President's letter of January 7. President Botha's letter is dated January 25 and makes many of the same points on internal developments as the speech Botha gave opening the 1985 session of the South African Parliament the same day. The main points (and our analysis) follow:


The main portion of the letter deals with internal reform and is a verbatim repeat of portions of Botha's January 25 speech. We see these as an important statement of the general direction on internal reform that Botha and his colleagues have developed over the past six months or so. Unfortunately, nearly all the positive positions are sufficiently caveated and occasionally contradictory that we would be foolish to embrace it simplistically as “a solution” to the problem of apartheid. (Realistically, of course, dismantling apartheid is a complex business; the process has been underway for some time, but many more major decisions lie ahead.) On the other hand, Botha's commitment in principle and his newly stated vision of the reform process signal a new determination to reduce racial polarization at home and to defuse foreign criticism. Botha's letter is significant not so much for the novelty of his ideas, since they reflect the intellectual ferment of recent years in the enlightened Afrikaner community, but for his strong articulation of these concepts in the form of decisions in principle.

[end p3] The key elements in the letter are:

– an explicit acceptance of the political reality and permanence of nine million urban blacks who have no political voice of any kind, even in the homelands. (This undercuts a central premise of “Grand Apartheid” theory under which all blacks are to find their political voice through rural, tribally based homelands which were supposed to accommodate 72 percent of the total population on 13 percent of the land.);

– suggesting constitutional arrangements for these urban blacks; political participation at a “higher level” and control of their own affairs at the “highest” level. (SAG doctrine draws a fundamental distinction between control of “own” and “general” affairs of each ethnic group; by extending that “group rights” doctrine to the Black African urban population, Botha is opening the door to some sort of political model in which urban blacks could gain a share of power along the lines offered to coloreds and Asians last year);

– flowing from the previous points, the need to clarify and define citizenship rights for blacks (another implicit step away from apartheid since the classic doctrine holds that blacks only have citizenship in their ethnic homelands);

– forced removals of settled black communities must be resolved “to the greater satisfaction of all”;

– eliminate negative aspects of pass laws and influx control on black movement from homeland to city;

– seek to create an “informal” negotiating structure with black leaders and “interest groups”, to discuss constitutional and related matters and to create a basis for further negotiations;

The lack of precision on these is both welcome – it provides the SAG plenty of maneuver room and does not present the blacks with a predetermined (take-it-or-leave-it) governmental program – but also fuzzy. Botha will try to be all things to all people as he assesses the political reaction to these proposals among his Afrikaner electorate.

[end p4] The reaction to the internal reform proposals of Botha's speech in South Africa has been mixed. Most blacks, including Buthelezi and Tutu, have rejected portions of the speech while not closing the door to cooperating (none of them can afford politically to be the first to accept the Afrikaner's hand until they know better what Botha has in mind). White liberals welcomed the ideas cautiously, while the white right wing has condemned them as a sell-out of white interests.

U.S. reaction will be carefully watched both here and there. We cannot be overly warm, in part because it is so carefully couched and larded with reassurances of fidelity to cherished principles as to support a variety of interpretations. But we also must see the speech in its historical context; it may be the most important step to date by the Afrikaners to come to terms publicly with South African political reality and the imperative of change. We should cautiously welcome the spirit in which it appears to have been issued, indicate that we hope the important subjects it raises are clarified and that a genuine reform process based on dialogue between all peoples in South Africa will flow from it. A copy of our public position on the speech is attached.


The letter breaks little new ground on the important regional issues but restates known SAG positions on many points.

President Botha is very positive about working with us to promote regional stability. He denies aiding the RENAMO rebels in Mozambique since the Nkomati accord was signed almost a year ago. However, our information is that at least one South African supply delivery to the rebels occurred after the accord. There are also unconfirmed reports suggesting some possible continued South African military assistance to the rebels.

Botha asks that we consider raising the level of our economic assistance to Mozambique. This we are already trying to do by increasing aid to the private sector in 1985. Botha recognizes that it is in his interest to get maximum U.S. and Western involvement in his efforts to wean Mozambique away from the Soviet bloc.

[end p5] On Angola, Botha's letter is another confirmation that the South Africans are considering our suggestion that they complete the withdrawal of their forces from that country. Such a withdrawal would represent the completion of the disengagement under the Lusaka accord mediated by the U.S. last February. However, we do not expect the South Africans to withdraw until they see whether SWAPO makes major rainy season incursion attempts.

Moreover, this hint of flexibility about withdrawal is offset by Botha's implied threat to act militarily in Angola, depending on SWAPO's raining season actions. If this threat resulted in a new incursion deeper into Angola, it could disrupt our current negotiating efforts. Even though the South Africans regard current SWAPO bombings as a sign of military weakness, Botha could still come under political pressure to retaliate.

We see no need for an immediate response to this letter, preferring to monitor developments in the region and in South Africa and await a propitious moment before suggesting a Presidential response.

Nicholas Platt

Executive Secretary


1. State President Botha's Letter to President Reagan of January 25

2. Press Guidance on our reaction to Botha's speech