Archive (Reagan Library)

South Africa: State Department memorandum for NSC (“South Africa: Looking Ahead”) [declassified 1999]

Document type: Declassified documents
Venue: State Department
Source: Reagan Library (NSC African Affairs Directorate Box 91026)
Editorial comments: A copy of the 11 Nov 1985 NSC request for the report follows the main document.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 2,728
Themes: Commonwealth (South Africa), Foreign policy (Africa), British policy towards South Africa

Washington, D.C. 20520

December 16, 1985


SUBJECT: South Africa: Plan of Action

Attached as requested in your memorandum of November 11 is the Department's proposal for dealing with South Africa in the future.

Nicholas Platt
Executive Secretary

Tab 1: November 11 request
Tab 2: “South Africa: Looking Ahead”

SOUTH AFRICA: Looking Ahead


Since the events of this past summer - the imposition of the State of Emergency, the Vienna meeting, P.W. Botha’s disastrous Durban speech, the moratorium on bank lending and paybacks, and the President's Executive Order - there have been numerous developments that have not changed the scene dramatically but have had an impact on the actions of the principal players.

Within the South African Government, there is a growing appreciation that there must be serious negotiations with credible black leaders. Some SAG ministers have had limited success, especially on the local level; but, for the most part, the effort is suspected by blacks and remains stalemated. The government’s ambivalent response to private white meetings with the ANC and its inconclusive efforts to release Mandela into exile reflect a growing appreciation of the need to have a dialogue but an inability to find a mutually acceptable formula. This floundering has led many to question whether P.W. Botha has the stuff it takes to pull his country through its present crisis. As of yet, however, no clear opposition to him has developed within the party, and we see no evidence that P.W. will soon step down. Nor are we persuaded it would be good news if he did.

Meanwhile, the State of Emergency has not had its desired goal of reducing violence. Clearly, many black parents are anxious to get their kids back into school, but, as yet, efforts to end school boycotts through negotiations with white authorities (usually focusing on the question of police and military presence in the townships and in the schools) have only been marginally successful.

P.W. Botha’s disastrous speech in Durban was followed by a much better one 45 days later in which he outlined his thoughts on reform (an undivided state, citizenship for all, universal suffrage, some black involvement at all levels of government). He was short on specifics and fell back, as he continually has, on the need to negotiate these issues with the black community. Black leaders do not dismiss the importance of these issues, but focus on other points as prerequisites for meaningful dialogue - Mandela’s release, ending the SOE, pulling security forces out of the townships. In any event, P.W. probably has a limited agenda for change, but has not yet revealed a scenario with the creative packaging and outreach beyond Afrikanerdom that would break up the current logjam.

The current impasse must be ascribed not only to limitations of P.W. Botha’s vision or to pressures from the Afrikaner constituency, but to the structural obstacles within the white and black communities and between them. The SAG sits atop an entrenched, vast and backward-looking Afrikaner bureaucracy. The weight of law-and-order-oriented security force leaders is especially heavy at times of nation-wide urban unrest. Factional and personal rivalries in the Cabinet make P.W.’s task still more complex, with the result that he holds his cards very close, keeps lines open to a range of viewpoints (including some people of real vision), rails publicly against communists, the ANC, white liberals, the West and the media, and confuses even those blacks who pray for an early breakthrough to defuse things.

On the black side, the chances for openings are hindered by intimidation (both physical and political) as various politicians maneuver for positions of leadership keeping a careful eye over their shoulders on the postures of rivals, the external ANC and Western media. No one controls the urban kids who are primarily responsible for the violence, and no one dares have a dialogue with the SAG while Mandela and others remain detained.

As for the ANC, its position is ironic. Its campaign of guerrilla terrorism is hardly flourishing and its direct influence over the kids is suspect. Yet mainstream internal organizations like the SA Council of Churches, the UDF and the new labor “super-federation” consider themselves internal manifestations of the ANC, whose leaders are handed a virtual veto. It is by no means clear that the ANC wants an early breakthrough, considering that the SAG has not yet been sufficiently weakened - or the country become chaotic enough - to make real negotiation fruitful. The ANC is probably divided on the issue of terms and timing; Moscow, no doubt, is urging the ANC to wait. Internal mainstream leaders, like Mandela and Motlana, may have more practical and constructive views. Buthelezi, sadly, is torn between these strife-torn communities - increasingly isolated in black politics and under growing pressure to do some sort of separate deal.

It would be wrong, however, to conclude that the situation is conclusively blocked. We see evidence of fluidity and hope in: (a) the growing impact of the legal community on issues ranging from the terms of detentions to the need for a bill of rights; (b) the new activism of the local and international business leadership as a voice for urgent action and a channel of communication between the SAG and blacks; (c) the now hyper-active Afrikaner think-tanks cranking out papers for Botha on reform and negotiating strategies; (d) the evident desire of many in and out of government to find a way to end the school boycott crisis and get Mandela freed; (e) local initiatives as in the Eastern Cape, where UDF, business, local government and the cops have cut a deal ending a consumer boycott and producing a fragile but clearly positive local climate; and (h) the lack of deep hatred between the races.


Left to its own devices, there is a substantial risk that the South African Government will not succeed in regaining the initiative, defusing black protests or satisfying international audiences. A protracted period of violence, with some oscillations, is the most likely scenario. Although we are limited in what we can do, it is unwise to sit back and hope that the parties themselves will work their way out of the frightful mess they have created.

Regrettably, we should also recognize that strong international pressures - including our own - have had perverse as well as positive effects. While the SAG has been jolted and blacks clearly heartened, outside attention has also, undoubtedly, had the effect of toughening black terms for negotiation. Standing back with a public posture implying that only massive and early transformation will suffice can, in reality, have the dangerous consequence of further blocking movement. Failure to restore a positive climate could lead banks to hold back and Western investors to pull out. This siege scenario is clearly not in our interest and could further destabilize the country and the region. It would also dangerously erode our already-limited influence.

For understandable (and correct) reasons, we have been preoccupied in recent months with managing the domestic and diplomatic aspects of the South Africa problem. But the time has come to move beyond a rhetorical and reactive stance. Our policy pronouncements and actions have been a useful form of generalized pressure for progress on the interrelated issues of violence, reform and dialogue. But we now face some choices. Our policy in the coming period needs to steer a course between over-involvement and mere posturing. We need to be alert for additional tools and specific openings, using our influence to keep pressure on, but also to identify priorities and reward positive actions so that the incentives exist to break out of the current path of negative developments. In our judgment, the crucial time, in South African terms, lies between January and next fall; a failure by the SAG to regain the intiative by then could produce an historic and irreversible negative benchmark on the road to an embattled garrison state, isolated, economically strapped and wracked by costly violence.

As we look ahead, we must also be aware that several new players have donned uniforms and entered the South Africa game. The Secretary’s South Africa Advisory Committee is one, as is the Commonwealth’s Eminent Persons Group (EPG), to be headed by Malcom Fraser and Nigeria’s General Obasanjo. The Commonwealth EPG must deliver itself of a report by mid-summer. Our committee will have all of 1986. Both of these groups will have much of the same focus - suggesting to important foreign actors ways of bringing about change within South Africa. Another important new actor is the American business community, operating through Roger Smith and Mike Blumenthal’s U.S. Corporate Council on South Africa as well as through the Sullivan signatory group and other agents. Some of these bodies are likely to enunciate timetables for change within South Africa, which we will have to factor into our own policy. In fact, Reverend Leon Sullivan has already publicly stated, in what could become a trend-setting approach, that he will recommend disinvestment in May, 1987, if by that time the SAG has not eliminated the basic statutory pillars of apartheid. Another set of players are the Western banks and creditor agencies involved in a loose-knit mediating effort with the SAG headed by the Swiss mediator, Fritz Leutweiler.

In the coming months, we should keep these arenas under close review, being alert to openings for passing specific messages or exploiting possible opportunities to help break the logjam. The outside time frame for reversing the negative cycle may be the next 6-9 months. Many clocks are ticking, but few of them are synchronized. For both domestic and foreign reasons, we need to convince important audiences that we are not merely reacting to events and that we do have our own vision about priorities, process and objectives. As we think through what this means in practice, we need to recall that we will continue to face cross-cutting domestic pressures: (1) from the pro-sanctions lobby that will feed off all negative news; (2) from some conservative quarters that will argue for less pressure and more cooperation with a staunchly anti-communist regime; (3) and from the hyperactivists, egged on by some South Africans, who urge the US to step in with a Camp David summit initiative to “settle” the problem, an approach full of pitfalls and one certain to further alienate P.W. Botha.

Essentially, we need to steer a middle course - avoiding the trap of endorsing limited SAG steps that fail with blacks, while also not falling into the other trap of demanding an immediate millenium of progress. We also need an operational approach that identifies priorities and relates closely to local developments on the ground. Our increasingly active contact with key blacks as well as the SAG and business elites will enable us to probe for credible scenarios, test ideas and suggest openings. This could entail becoming involved to a greater degree in discussing the details of how to reach specific objectives, rather than confining ourselves to hortatory generalizations; e.g., “end the violence,” “engage in dialogue.”

We should not operate on the tacit assumption that the SAG remains blind to what has happened and what needs to be done. A number of senior, well-placed Afrikaners are signaling to us a growing realization on P.W. Botha’s part that he wasted good opportunities last year and is groping for ways to (a) repackage reform ideas, (b) publicly articulate a readiness to negotiate “power-sharing” (the key issue), (c) lift the State of Emergency, (d) release Nelson Mandela, and (e) get serious talks going, But it is safe to assume he will lean toward caution and defensive maneuvers. Our role should be to help South Africans turn the corner on these issues.

In seeking more specific, operational handles for US influence, we will be focusing on the question of process and sequence. Incremental reforms parceled out by the SAG in the current violence and polarized climate will not do the trick. Dramatic packages, skillfully articulated and quickly implemented, are needed. Visible movement on dismantling statutory apartheid measures (e.g., influx control, group areas laws) could be a powerful signal, though probably more so here than there. Of central importance to blacks is the question of the State of Emergency (SOE) and police and troops operating provocatively in the townships. Education matters a great deal to blacks as well as to the SAG; another year of education boycotts could further radicalize the urban areas. The detention of Mandela and other key figures is also a major obstacle to any serious dialogue.

As we look at this equation, we will seek possible openings to broker movement on the SOE, education, and prisoner releases. As appropriate, we would plan to test quietly the thinking of blacks (including the ANC) and the SAG on conditions for first steps forward. A tacit moratorium on violence and police-army actions - already in place in Port Elizabeth - could become a central factor. We would also propose to use official and indirect channels to let P.W. Botha know our views of the importance of determined and creative packaging of reform ideas in the first six months of 1986 and on the early release of Mandela. In that connection, we shall propose a letter from President Reagan to State President Botha, to be delivered in the next few weeks, laying out our views on the urgent need for reforms. We should also be ready to send a high-level emissary to Pretoria at the right moment.

Meanwhile, we will proceed ahead with on-going activities recently put in place:

  • A carefully managed augmentation of our embassy's profile and leadership in speaking for reform and an end to violence.
  • Expanded, regularized contacts across the black political spectrum;
  • Opening a new mini-consulate in Port Elizabeth to expand reporting and outreach;
  • Rapid development of our expanded in-country AID programming.

And, on the home front, we will:

  • Build on Dave Miller’s superb start-up by appointing Doug Holladay as Director of the South Africa Working Group to lead our public affairs outreach efforts with interested non-governmental audiences;
  • Make clear here the enhanced activities of our embassy and consulates in South Africa across a range of internal issues;
  • Continue full implementation of all aspects of the September 9 Executive Order, including the December 19 public presentation of the Secretary's Advisory Committee.
  • Encourage individual Americans and US organizations and companies to roll up their sleeves to promote black economic betterment and change in South Africa.

In sum, our goals will be to use our limited but important influence there to reverse the downward cycle, while pressing here to recast last year's debate away from sanctions and toward effective ways to dismantle apartheid. A sustained approach along these lines offers a basis for defending our policies at home and advancing our interests in the region. [end p1]


November 11, 1985

Executive Secretary
Department of State

SUBJECT: South Africa: Request for Plan of Action

The President signed NSDD-187, establishing U.S. policy toward South Africa, on September 7, 1985, which also contained various elements of a coordinated and comprehensive strategy in pursuit of broad U.S. objectives. Developments since September suggest that the South African Government, while undertaking or advocating some reform measures, has yet proved unable to consider the basic question of negotiations with representative blacks, and the future participation of blacks in national political institutions.

This assessment, combined with certain renewal of Congressional pressures in 1986 unless specific progress is made in moving away from apartheid and toward genuine negotiations with black leaders, suggests it would be prudent to develop a specific plan of action for achieving our NSDD objectives in light of the influence, leverage, or pressure we can realistically apply in response to the most likely future events developing in South Africa - political, economic, security, and social. In sum, we would like to see a review assessing possible future scenarios of events in South Africa, the implications of these scenarios on U.S. goals, alternative ways the U.S. might react to likely future events to promote our goals of internal reform through peaceful change, including assessment of Congressional support for the various proposals.

The NSC requests that State, in consultation with DOD, NSC and CIA, provide such a plan of action, by December 1, 1985.

William F. Martin
Executive Secretary