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”

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

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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”

Charleston Shooting Exposes America’s Pro-Apartheid Cold War Past

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R. Joseph Parrott
University of Texas at Austin
Fellow, Miller Center, University of Virginia
Follow on Twitter @RJParrott_

In the wake of the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the United States has undergone a deep soul searching. Images of the confessed shooter posing with the Confederate Battle Flag have launched a long-overdue national debate about the meaning of Confederate imagery. But they have quickly overshadowed the shooter’s use of two other symbols: the defunct standards of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and apartheid South Africa.

Though not nearly as ubiquitous as the “stars and bars,” these totems symbolize an international segregationist philosophy of white superiority. While historians have rightly focused on the transnational dimensions of decolonization and the civil rights movement, there was also a smaller, if no less global, reaction against these trends. Both South Africa and Rhodesia actively cultivated alliances with reactionary white populations abroad, building support in the United States, particularly in the area of the old Confederacy. The Charleston shooting therefore serves as a violent reminder that American racism today is not only a regional issue – it has also been shaped by a decades-long global opposition to human and civil rights. Continue reading “Charleston Shooting Exposes America’s Pro-Apartheid Cold War Past”

Xenophobia in South Africa: Historical Legacies of Exclusion and Violence

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Emily Bridger
History Department, University of Exeter

Over the past several weeks, a new wave of xenophobic violence has swept across South Africa, beginning in Durban and quickly spreading to Johannesburg and its surrounding townships. The targets are makwerekweres, a derogatory term used for foreigners, in reference to the “babble” they speak. They are Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Nigerians, Somalis, Bangladeshis and other foreign nationals. Initial violence in Durban was sparked by the remarks of Goodwill Zwelithini, the king of South Africa’s largest ethnic group, the Zulus, who reportedly called on foreigners to “pack their bags and go back to their countries.”

In the following weeks, the violence claimed the lives of seven people and turned thousands more into refugees. Media images depicted scenes of terror, displacement and hatred: foreign-owned shops looted and ransacked; tent cities hastily assembled for refugees; foreigners boarding buses back to their home countries; and even the brutal stabbing of Mozambican Emmanuel Sithole in Johannesburg’s neighbouring township of Alexandria. Yet these images are not new for South Africans. Just earlier this year, another episode of xenophobic-induced looting and violence occurred Soweto. Recent violence particularly calls to mind scenes from just seven years ago, in May 2008, when 62 foreigners were killed and thousands displaced in the worst xenophobic attacks in the country’s post-apartheid history.

These episodes of violence are not sporadic. They represent long-simmering anti-migrant sentiments that have been increasing in the country since the early 1990s. As apartheid collapsed and South Africa opened its borders to foreign migration, many within the country found new scapegoats for their dissatisfaction with democracy’s failed promises. They blamed foreigners, rather than whites or the government, for high unemployment and scarce resources.

But these sentiments can be traced back much further than 1994 – fear or hatred of foreigners has a long history in South Africa. Continue reading “Xenophobia in South Africa: Historical Legacies of Exclusion and Violence”

Sonny Ramphal’s Global Life

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Stuart Mole
Mr. Mole is a PhD Student at the University of Exeter. He was Special Assistant to the Secretary-General (1984-1990), Director of the Secretary-General’s Office (1990-2000), and Director General of the Royal Commonwealth Society (2000-2009).

Nowadays, Sir Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal – lawyer and international diplomat – is well settled into retirement, though still a giant figure in his native Caribbean and still able to stir the memories of older generations who remember his boundless activism on the world stage.

From 1975 to 1990 he was the longest-serving Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations, and for six of those years I was lucky enough to be his Special Assistant. It was an exhilarating time, now given new immediacy by the recent publication of his memoir Glimpses of a Global Life (2014).

This weighty and enthralling record demonstrates a contribution to international affairs which was multi-faceted and never less than exceptional. He served on a string of international commissions, including Brandt, on development and the North-South divide; Bruntland, pioneering the notion of sustainable development; and Palme, on peace and international security. There were other issues where his intellectual leadership and courage stood out. He was among the first to warn Africa and the world of HIV/AIDS – and among the first to speak of sea-level rise and climate change, many decades before such talk became common currency.

But perhaps he is best remembered for his titanic struggle against racism in Southern Africa – in the eventual vanquishing of white minority rule in Rhodesia and, more than a decade later, in helping bring to an end apartheid in South Africa. Continue reading “Sonny Ramphal’s Global Life”

The British Anti-Apartheid Movement: A Brief History

Fieldhouse Anti-ApartheidRoger Fieldhouse
Emeritus Professor, University of Exeter, former member of the Anti-Apartheid movement, and founder of the Northalterton Anti-Apartheid Group in 1965

In recent weeks, the Imperial & Global Forum has explored the Anti-Apartheid boycott’s relationship to the modern ‘fair trade’ movement and the historiographical black hole of the apartheid regime itself. But who supported the British Anti-Apartheid movement, and what was its local, national, and global strategy? Continue reading “The British Anti-Apartheid Movement: A Brief History”

Top Christmas Picks in Imperial & Global History

christmasbooksNeed some fun reading on imperial and global history over the holiday break? Here are some of the Imperial & Global Forum‘s top recommendations: Continue reading “Top Christmas Picks in Imperial & Global History”