Archive (Reagan Library)

South Africa: President Reagan letter to President P.W. Botha (presses case for reform) [declassified 1999]

Document type: Declassified documents
Venue: White House
Source: Reagan Library (NSC African Affairs Directorate Box 91026)
Editorial comments: Following the draft letter is a covering memorandum by John Poindexter.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1,722
Themes: Commonwealth (South Africa), Foreign policy (Africa), Foreign policy (USA), British policy towards South Africa


January 4, 1986

Dear Mr President:

As we enter a new year, your country is very much on my mind. I have reflected long and hard on your letter of October 4 in which you set forth your agenda for change in South Africa. Let me state as clearly as possible that I and many Americans recognize the awesome dilemmas you face, the monumental challenge of leading your country toward justice and full participation for all South Africans without unleashing a destructive upheaval. Few leaders anywhere in the world confront such a challenge. I recognize also that your leadership has moved South Africa impressively away from the failed policies of the past.

It pains me, Mr President, to see your land torn by violence. It pains me, too, to see your country become the object of criticism and abuse, much of it based on over-simplified or distorted notions and frequently from sources that have little to brag about themselves. As you know, I do not want to see South Africa isolated or subjected to ill-advised punitive sanctions. I deplore, as you do, the actions of some violent elements that add to the divisions and complicate the chances for successful negotiation in your country. I want you to succeed in propelling your country forward on the path of peaceful, constructive change. If you do, your friends abroad will be better able to guide the international debate in positive directions.

It is in this spirit that I write you today. Your letter speaks of changes made and changes planned. In the coming months you will have further occasions to make your intentions known in terms that no one can misunderstand. I urge you, as a friend, to do so.

[end p1]

Regrettably, the legacy of the past has left an abyss of suspicion, fear and distrust that requires special effort to bridge. I write to you, not as an expert on South Africa but as one who is mindful that such situations can tear a country apart unless its leadership is prepared to face facts, seize the initiative and create its own historical legacies. This is what your friends are hoping you can achieve.

I would not presume to offer suggestions on a specific formula, but dramatic action to carry through on reforms that you and your colleagues have already addressed would do much to set conditions for further progress and dialogue among your people. I speak of such areas as citizenship rights, pass laws, forced removals, education policy and other topics. You have spoken of your vision of a South Africa that is united while reflective of its diversity, of political rights, including citizenship and the vote, for all in a manner that effectively shares political power while protecting the rights of minorities. As the leader of a great democracy, forged over centuries in peace as well as civil war, I can say that Americans understand those goals provided that rights are not allocated by race or ethnic group.

You have written me of your frustration that your own record and stated commitments have not been given greater recognition abroad. You have a point. For our part, we will continue to insist that credit be given where it is due. The essential fact, in my view, is that the international response to your actions takes its cue increasingly from widely recognized South African blacks. This makes it all the more imperative that pro-democratic blacks join – and be seen to join – you in building a new South Africa. This is surely the way not only to restore peace at home but also to counter the negative attention you are receiving from abroad.

You have often spoken, Mr State President, of the need for negotiation to create new structures and a new system. We agree. But in current circumstances, negotiation appears blocked by a variety [end p2] of factors. Many South Africans who are not with you today could be your partners in building the South Africa of tomorrow if you could wrest the political initiative from those who are more interested in destroying than in building. It occurs to me that bold, dramatic steps are needed. Lifting the state of emergency and pulling security forces out of the townships could help create a new climate, make it easier for schools to function and remove some of the tinder radical youngsters are exploiting. Committed black moderates need to see a climate created in which they can come to the bargaining table without fear of losing their political base. They must feel politically that they can afford to respond to your initiatives. I know you have given much thought to the question of releasing politically prominent prisoners and detainees. Such action, in my view, could strengthen moderates and check the actions of those who seek only chaos.

Mr State President, I hope that you will not view these thoughts as unnecessarily intrusive. South Africa must remain strong and its economy must prosper for the sake of its people, Africa, and the world at large. It must not become a playing field for Soviet ambitions. If under your leadership the South African government can assert a vision, a direction which permits you to regain the political initiative, it will be possible for my administration, our business community and key allies of the United States to play a more constructive role. It is in this spirit that I have asked my Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Chester Crocker, to visit South Africa and discuss with you, candidly, how we might work together to help South Africa achieve the peace it so richly deserves. I count on you to share with him your thoughts and I have asked that he discuss with you in detail our thoughts about the challenges ahead.

As you know, we also seek to work productively with your government to help bring peace to the region. I say this at a time when tensions are rising and the need is greater than ever to control the region's cycle of violence. I would like 1986 to be the year that agreement is reached to [end p3] begin implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 435 to start the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. In this way Soviet political influence over Angola will erode. I want you to know that my policy is designed to see Dr Savimbi strong and able to freely and democratically compete for power in Angola. I appreciated the useful answer your government provided us in late November on the subject of our March 1985 proposals. Your action gives us the ability to insist on a constructive response from Luanda. Mr Crocker will be in a position to give you a first-hand update on where that effort stands.

Another regional issue that greatly concerns me is your country's relationship with Mozambique. The Nkomati accord was a triumph of reason over emotion and peace over violence. It is imperative that your government press every effort to make that agreement work. In my discussion with President Machel, I found him to be firmly attached to Nkomati and respectful of your leadership, but perplexed over your government's real attitude toward that historic agreement. I hope that you will ensure that President Machel's doubts about South Africa's commitment to the Nkomati agreement are dispelled and that you will lend your full support to the achievement of peace and stability in that unhappy land. I, like you, want to see an end to the influence which the Soviet Bloc has enjoyed there.

More broadly, I want to assure you that our views on regional violence and terrorism are firm and clear. As we offer you these thoughts, I and my associates are in frequent contact as well with neighboring leaders to impress upon them their responsibility to curb violent actions across your borders and to make constructive use of the diplomatic channels that exist for resolving differences. We will continue to bring our influence to bear for this purpose.

[end p4]

Mr State President, may I wish you, your family and the people of South Africa a peaceful, fruitful New Year. May God grant us both the physical and spiritual strength to meet the historic challenges that await.


Ronald Reagan

His Excellency

Pieter Willem Botha

State President of the Republic of South Africa


[end p5]




January 3, 1986



SUBJECT: Letter to South African President Botha


To sign a letter to South African President Botha.


State has requested that you sign the proposed letter to South African President P.W. Botha, which will serve as the focus of Chet Crocker's planned meeting next week with President Botha in South Africa.


Your letter at Tab A recognizes the dilemmas and difficult situation President Botha faces in seeking genuine reform while ensuring that change is peaceful and constructive. It also notes that Botha's record and commitments for reform have not been given due recognition abroad. However, it also notes the present and urgent need for negotiations now with recognized South African black leaders in order to create political structures which can build a new South Africa. Bold leadership is needed now to unblock negotiations with moderate blacks, and to wrest the political initiative from militants who want to destroy rather than build. You suggest several steps which would help improve the reform climate, including lifting the state of emergency. You note your desire that 1986 be the year of peace in the region, and express your appreciation for South Africa's helpful response to our March 1985 negotiating proposals concerning an Angolan settlement, adding that it is your policy to see Dr Savimbi strong and assume his rightful share of power in Angola. Finally, you note that you found President Machel of Mozambique committed to the Nkomati accord, and express hope that South Africa will continue to support that agreement.

cc Vice President


[end p6]



— — Sign your letter to President Botha.

Tab ALetter to President Botha
Tab BIncoming letter from President Botha

Prepared by Phillip Ringdahl