Myth and Geopolitics from Below: Apartheid South Africa and America in the Angolan Civil War

 

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Jamie Miller
University of Pittsburgh
Follow on Twitter @JamieMiller85

In 1975, the armed forces of apartheid South Africa intervened in the Angolan Civil War, carrying the flag of the anti-communist West into a burgeoning Cold War conflict. South Africa’s armed forces, confronted by Cuban troops, ended up in a military stalemate and a political disaster. Its government was pilloried internationally for interfering in a political contest in black Africa. African liberation movements across Southern Africa were emboldened. A model for achieving decolonisation through armed force, backed by Cuban and Soviet assistance, was established. And within South Africa itself, black political movements saw the regime’s aura of invincibility shattered, as did some puzzled white voters. The intervention in Angola, in other words, was an important turning point for the apartheid regime.

Ever since, historians have broadly accepted that South Africa was acting in Angola as an agent of American interests. “The US government urged South Africa, which might otherwise have hesitated, to act,” writes Piero Gleijeses, the preeminent specialist in Cuban and American foreign relations.[1]

In South Africa, a parallel notion has proliferated. The regime is remembered as having acted on America’s behalf in Angola; failure is ascribed to the lack of US congressional support for the commitments the Ford Administration had made to the apartheid regime. Then Defence Minister and soon-to-be Prime Minister P. W. Botha told Parliament:

I know of only one occasion in recent years when we crossed a border and that was in the case of Angola when we did so with the approval and knowledge of the Americans. But they left us in the lurch… . The story must be told of how we, with their knowledge, went in there and operated in Angola with their knowledge, how they encouraged us to act and, when we had nearly reached the climax, we were ruthlessly left in the lurch.

The Director of Operations for the Army Jannie Geldenhuys echoed this line in his memoirs. “The turning point of the war … was the new law passed by the American Congress forbidding military support to any Angolan Party.” Various versions of this thesis have been repeated to me by numerous highly placed apartheid-era diplomats, generals, and politicians alike in interviews.

But new evidence and fresh conceptual approaches turn these narratives upside down. Research in a range of South African state archives—civilian and military—enables us to piece us together a much richer picture of South African geopolitics and the relationship with the United States. Meanwhile, bringing South African actors and their worldviews into the foreground provides an entirely different view on the big picture at stake here.

The Cold War did not mean one and the same thing to different actors around the world. Instead, the localised intellectual history of the Cold War should be prioritised: how different languages and idioms were appropriated and internalised by actors in the global south, reinterpreted in politically useful and self-serving ways, and then utilised within the original Cold War paradigm in ways that were quite unexpected by superpowers.

This approach clarifies much of the mythology of American betrayal in Angola, and allows us to see the Cold War in the global south in a new light. Continue reading “Myth and Geopolitics from Below: Apartheid South Africa and America in the Angolan Civil War”

Rewriting Dutch colonial histories – Final response

"Java, War of Ghosts" by Jompet Kuswidananto, 2009. Collection of Leo Sih, installation at Tropenmuseum "Grand Parade" (2014-15).
“Java, War of Ghosts” by Jompet Kuswidananto, 2009. Collection of Leo Sih, installation at Tropenmuseum “Grand Parade” (2014-15).

Sadiah Boonstra and Caroline Drieënhuizen

Before the holidays we read Paul Doolan’s response to our post with great interest. We appreciate the time and effort Mr Doolan took to reply to our post as we think a fruitful debate will progress knowledge. With this writing we give a final reaction to Mr Doolan and if it is not for knowledge progression, it will at least get Dr Sadiah Boonstra’s name spelled correctly.

In his response Doolan claims that our critique was based on a misreading and that he was referring to a specific period of time, namely 1945-1949, but that we “prefer to talk about something else”. However, in our view this period cannot be separated from the larger framework of colonialism as political, social, cultural and economic structures of domination. And this is exactly what Dutch historians and others have been trying to deconstruct over the past decades as set out in our previous response. We therefore uphold our argument against Doolan’s representation of a Dutch historical “guild” based in Leiden. Instead of calling on “outsiders”, as Doolan suggests, we favor collaborative methods to uncover the depth, multilayeredness and reach of colonialism.  Continue reading “Rewriting Dutch colonial histories – Final response”

Response: Rewriting Dutch Colonial Histories

Paul Doolan
Zurich International School and the University of Konstanz

I sincerely appreciate that Saadia Boonstra and Caroline Drieёnhuizen took the time and effort to offer a reply to my article. However, their critique was based on a misreading. Perhaps it was the obscurity of my prose, or maybe it was the title (not of my choosing) “Decolonizing Dutch History” that led to a misunderstanding.

Their opening sentence already indicates a misreading. They claim that I “criticized Dutch historians for their failure to decolonize Dutch and colonial history”. But that was not the point I wished to make. I wrote that my concern was “in particular, the nature of Dutch warmaking during the final years of the Asian colony, 1945-1949.” In other words, my subject was the history of decolonization, not the decolonization of history. There is a difference.

The point that I made in a nutshell is this – for many decades Dutch historians have inadequately investigated the decolonization of Indonesia (1945-1949). In my article of 80 lines, 60 lines focus directly on the decolonization of Indonesia. In their response of 38 lines just four focus on this topic. My claim is that if you mention the subject of decolonization, many Dutch historians of colonialism prefer to start talking about something else. I think Boonstra and Drieёnhuizen inadvertently have proven my point. Continue reading “Response: Rewriting Dutch Colonial Histories”

Rewriting Dutch Colonial Histories

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Sadiah Boonstra and Caroline Drieënhuizen

Paul Doolan (Zürich International School / University of Konstanz) recently criticized Dutch historians for their failure to decolonize Dutch and colonial history, and suggested the contribution of what he calls ‘outsiders’ as a solution. In doing so, however, he overlooks the fact that there are and have been many initiatives to rewrite Dutch colonial history. We propose instead that approach, method, and the writing of multiple histories are of much greater importance in decolonizing Dutch history.

Critical research on colonial history in the Netherlands

Doolan’s main observation is the existence of what he calls a ‘Guild of Historians’, consisting of mainly white males based in Leiden, which has resulted in a neglect of attention for the dark sides of Dutch colonial history. He sees that the ‘guild’s power’ has started to wane only recently following historical work by ‘outsiders’ like Rémy Limpach, who shows in his recent publication that the Dutch war crimes in colonial Indonesia were widespread, structural and fully supported by the legal, political, and military leadership. Continue reading “Rewriting Dutch Colonial Histories”

Decolonizing Dutch History

The Bushuis: Formerly the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company in Amsterdam. Today this building belongs to the Humanities Department of University of Amsterdam.
The Bushuis: Formerly the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company in Amsterdam.
Today this building belongs to the Humanities Department of University of Amsterdam.

Paul Doolan
Zurich International School and the University of Konstanz

Last month the academic year commenced at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) with speakers celebrating diversity and internationalism. Ironically, the audience in the auditorium was almost entirely white. In Amsterdam the majority of school age children come from migrant backgrounds, yet the university has an overwhelmingly white faculty that lectures to an overwhelmingly white student body. Most remarkable is the widely held attitude that this is not a problem.

As a historian interested in the roots of Eurocentrism and the legacies of imperialism, I would suggest that such an attitude is linked to the failure in teaching imperial history in the Netherlands. Through eight decades since the eviction of the Dutch from Indonesia, Dutch historians have consistently abdicated their responsibility by refusing to properly teach the public about the nature of Dutch rule in the former Dutch East Indies and, in particular, the nature of Dutch warmaking during the final years of the Asian colony, 1945-1949. Continue reading “Decolonizing Dutch History”

Forum Interview – An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and Its Search for Survival

african-volk

Dr. Jamie Miller’s new book, An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and Its Search for Survival (Oxford University Press, 2016), is an ambitious new international history of 1970s apartheid South Africa. In it, he makes sense of the many domestic and foreign political, economic, and ideological forces at work in South Africa at the time: decolonization and European imperialism; economic development and cultural globalization; nationalism and anti-communism; Afrikanerdom and African nationalism; white supremacy and postcolonial rights agendas; local politics and the Cold War in the global south. Based on newly declassified documents and oral histories in multiple languages on three continents, Miller gets inside the “official mind” of South Africa’s apartheid regime in Pretoria and uncovers the ways in which these myriad forces found their complements and contradictions.

Miller, having earned his doctorate from the University of Cambridge in November 2013, has been a Fox Predoctoral International Fellow at Yale University, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Quinnipiac University, and a Postdoctoral Fellow at both Cornell and Pittsburgh Universities. He has published articles in the Journal of African History, the Journal of Cold War Studies, and Cold War History. His work has also appeared in the London Review of Books and the Imperial & Global Forum, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @JamieMiller85.

Here is the Forum interview with Dr. Jamie Miller. Continue reading “Forum Interview – An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and Its Search for Survival”

Debating the History of Humanitarianism

Human-Rights

Andrew Thompson
Director, Centre for Imperial & Global History
University of Exeter

Humanitarianism developed at the intersection of Decolonization, the Cold War, and new & accelerating forms of Globalization. Decolonisation was about much more than the ending of colonial relationships: what was at stake was the dismantling of an entire global order: an old world of imperial states was replaced by a new world of nation states and this ushered in new patterns of cultural, political and economic relations. In the existential struggle that was the Cold War, the control of overseas territory mattered intensely to each side’s sense of security and power.

Capitalist West and socialist East competed to convince nearly and newly independent African and Asian states to adopt their models of humanitarian and development aid. As a result it became more difficult to distinguish aid given to further state interests from that given according to recipient needs. Globalisation meanwhile expanded the range of voices to which humanitarians had to listen while radically differentiating them. Aid agencies intensified their use of the international media, yet were exposed to greater pressures from their donor states and publics.

Together these 3 geopolitical forces − Decolonization, the Cold War, & Globalization − raised far-reaching questions about the relationship of international organizations and NGOs to state power; the basis upon which humanitarian needs were identified and prioritized; and the interaction of humanitarians with non-state armed groups. Continue reading “Debating the History of Humanitarianism”