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

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”

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

xenophobia is not a crime

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”

South Africa’s Long Walk: Political Dissent and the Spirit of Resistance at the Mandela Memorial

A section of the crowd boos President Jacob Zuma during the memorial service for former president Nelson Mandela. Picture: Nelius Rademan/Foto24
President Jacob Zuma received boos from some of the crowd attending the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Picture: Nelius Rademan/Foto24

Emily Bridger

The crowd’s booing of Zuma at the memorial service embodied Mandela’s oppositional legacy.

Following Nelson Mandela’s passing early this month, international media and public interest in South Africa has abounded. From the fake sign language interpreter at the memorial to President Obama’s embarrassing ‘selfie’ taken during the service, journalists have had plenty of scandals to sink their teeth into. In particular, the crowd’s booing of current South African president Jacob Zuma during last Tuesday’s memorial has struck a particular chord with journalists, twitter users, and politicians alike. Continue reading “South Africa’s Long Walk: Political Dissent and the Spirit of Resistance at the Mandela Memorial”

Boycotting Apartheid: the Global Politics of ‘Fair Trade’

Free Nelson MandelaDavid Thackeray

As  a  child  there  were  few  experiences  I  looked  forward  to  more  than  a  trip  up  to  London  with  my  father  to  visit  Hamleys  toy  store  in  the  run-up  to  Christmas.  Rather  unusually  perhaps,  these  visits  to  the  capital  were  also  occasionally  marked  by  a  stop  at  South  Africa  House  to  see  the  Anti-Apartheid  picket  of  the  embassy,  organised  to  call  for  the  release  of  ANC  leader  Nelson  Mandela.  We  had  moved  to  the  UK  from  New  Zealand  a  few  years  beforehand,  and  Dad  would  always  use  such  occasions  to  regale  me  with  proud  memories  of  the  protests  which  greeted  South  Africa’s  notorious  rugby  tour  in  1981.  When  the  Springboks  came  to  our  home  city  of  Hamilton,  a  key  centre  of  Maori  culture,  crowd  protests  led  to  the  abandonment  of  a  test  against  the  All  Blacks.  Another  game  became  a  farce  when  flour  bombs  and  leaflets  were  scattered  over  the  pitch  from  a  light  aeroplane. Continue reading “Boycotting Apartheid: the Global Politics of ‘Fair Trade’”

The Black Hole of Apartheid History

Anti-Apartheid posterJamie Miller
Visiting Assistant Professor, Quinnipiac University

Why historians should study the regime, not just its opponents

Last week’s death of Nelson Mandela prompted outpourings of both admiration and introspection across the globe. Public figures scrambled to portray themselves as long-time supporters of the anti-apartheid cause — even where the historical record of their organisation’s relationship with Mandela undercut the credibility of such posturing (the British Tories readily come to mind). Yet amid the panegyrics, there was plenty of consideration of Mandela’s complex legacy. When Tea Party favourite Ted Cruz declared common cause with Mandela, a supporter wrote on his Facebook page: “Tell the truth Ted!!! Who are you??!! Obama?? Don’t rewrite history to try to get people to like you!!! Educate them!! Mandela was a murderer, terrorist, and a Communist!!!! Can we even trust you to be honest now??!!” A more nuanced analysis appeared in an incisive piece in Foreign Affairs. Historian Ryan Irwin traced Mandela’s elusive legacy to his willingness to embody a pluralist and inclusive vision of the anti-apartheid movement, rather than imposing his own ideological litmus test for would-be allies—be they liberals, pan-Africans, union leaders, or communists.

And yet one thing was conspicuous for its absence over the last week. There has been no effort to describe with any similar specificity what Mandela had defined his life against: the apartheid regime itself. [1] Continue reading “The Black Hole of Apartheid History”

How Should Historians Consider Nelson Mandela?

nelson-mandelaRichard Toye

The sad news of the death of Nelson Mandela has led many commentators to reflect on how he will be remembered. His reputation is now, and has been for many years, almost uniquely positive. So it should be, and let’s hope it will remain that way. Let this not, however, be at the expense of historical complexity. Here are some points which historians should bear in mind when reflecting on Mandela’s career and on his evolution from freedom fighter to world statesman. Continue reading “How Should Historians Consider Nelson Mandela?”