What relationship was there between the end of the Cold War and the collapse of apartheid?

Several factors have been identified to have affected the demise of apartheid. As the FW De Klerk speech of 2 February 1990, announcing the unbanning of the liberation parties and the scheduled release of political prisoners, surprised domestic and foreign analysts alike, the literature on this topic remains ambiguous. The announcement formed arguably the most important and definitely the most public first move towards the negotiation phase leading up to eventual majority rule, and as the global events unfolding in the background were all affected by the momentous tremors which followed the symbolic fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent erosion of the USSR, it is surprising that the literature on the collapse of apartheid does not focus more intently on this relationship.

In order to establish a relationship between the end of the Cold War and the collapse of apartheid, the significance of the international factors as compared to the domestic forces in the determination of the course of apartheid should be established. Moreover, the importance of the end of the Cold War as an important cause of international changes in comparison to other international developments, events and decisions by foreign powers is essential. It is most likely that there is a slight positive correlation between these different evolutions, and this is what most scholars have established. However, there is dispute about the nature of this correlation, and the way in which the Cold War affected the different players.
The main international forces which affected the course of the apartheid trajectory include the United States, through its position towards the white minority rule in South Africa, a long-time ally on the continent; the nature of the relationship between the USSR and the ANC; the regional Southern African countries’ civil strife and the position of the governments of nations such as Mozambique, South-West Africa (Namibia), Angola and Zimbabwe, most importantly the way in which the end of the Cold War affected the importance of these regional countries; and the ideological perceptions of domestic factions, including the Nationalist Party (NP), the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the African National Congress (ANC).
Two short papers published in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies in 1996 outline two basic, partly incompatible interpretations of the connection. Firstly, there is Guelke, who emphasizes the importance of the ANC’s ties to the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. He claims that the armed wing of the ANC, the MK, benefited especially from the sponsorship of Soviet weapons and intelligence. The party had two options; either to force liberation through violent military confrontation, in order to establish complete control over South Africa, or to engage in negotiations and accept a compromise with the ruling party. As the fall of the Soviet Union resulted in a lack of support from the Communist powers, including possibly a more limited Cuban presence in Angola, the foreign base of the exiled ANC and MK leadership, the latter option became more viable, and because of the weaker position of the ANC, the NP subsequently became more willing to start negotiations.

Furthermore, Guelke poses another dynamic when he focuses on the decision-making within the Afrikaner elite, where the public and political perceptions of the Communist threat posed by a majority ANC rule, backed by a strong USSR weighed into the decision to start negotiations. He accedes that the “rooi gevaar”, the Red Menace, was an inflated version of the real threat of a communist South Africa, but as years of propaganda had shaped the minds of the Afrikaner electorate, negotiations with the ANC before the end of the Cold War would have been far less feasible. Furthermore, the Afrikaner elite, being a part of an established community of settled white Africans who had no option to flee the country after a regime change, had a very strong incentive to ensure that the new regime would not impose a structurally different and hostile political economy. A communist party ruling the country thus embodied the worst fear of many white South Africans. In fact, in the 1990 speech, the Eastern European developments were cited a  number of times, and De Klerk attributes them as important factors for his seemingly sudden and far-reaching decision.

John Daniel, in a direct response to Guelke’s arguments, agrees that the end of the Cold War had an effect on the decline of apartheid, in fact, he insists that international factors were considerately more important than individual motives or domestic tensions, but he has several points of disagreement. The main point of agreement is the latter argument of electorate and ruling class perceptions of the communist threat, whereas his main criticism focuses on the lack of attention to the role of the United States in bringing about the eventual change of guard.
By focusing on the United States, Daniel introduces another important recurring theme within the analysis of the international factors contributing to the development of South African politics. Daniel claims that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the failed hardliner coup d’etat in Russia in 1992 were important events in the history of the Cold War, but they really only reflected the evolution of the later stages of decline within the Soviet empire. The Reagan administration was already well aware of the structural and potentially fatal weaknesses of the USSR by the mid-1980ies, and US policy directed at the African continent and South Africa in particular was shaped by this understanding of finding itself in the terminal phase of the Cold War.
The main influential factor which forced the NP leadership to seriously consider negotiations, he claims, was the implicit or explicit threat of the US to impose harsher sanctions on the country. This is not a novel or unusual opinion, although most academics who claim an important causal connection between the sanctions and the apartheid termination do not link this directly to the demise of the Cold War. To understand how Daniel supports these statements, the Reykjavik meeting of Gorbachev and Reagan in 1986 is a central event, as Daniel states the superpowers agreed here that Africa would fall within the American sphere of influence.
Having identified the broad outlines of two views on the relationship between the end of the Cold War and the end of apartheid, there arise a number of points which need to be validated in order to comprehend the nature of this relationship on a meaningful level. First of all, the effect of the Soviet demise and American hegemony on the decision-making of the ANC and NP leadership should be explored. Daniel claims that the ANC never seriously considered violence to result in majority rule, assuming instead that the NP was the only player without full commitment to negotiations. Moreover, he claims that the end of the Cold War caused a shift in power within the National Party, which led to more power to diplomatist individuals who favored negotiations the latter claim is compatible with Guelke’s view, whereas the former is incompatible.
Secondly, the claim that the effect of US sanctions levied against the apartheid regime was significant should be fully evaluated. This is a controversial, but important issue. Philip Levy argues that the sanctions’ effects were minimal, and only ever psychological. As an alternative explanation for the end of apartheid, he does claim that the disintegration of the communist bloc combined to bring about this change, but he also identifies the economic stagnation of South Africa, for domestic reasons. This position is thus partially opposite to Daniel’s, and if true, it might minimize the impact of the end of the Cold War on the end of apartheid.
Lastly, if the sanctions did have some sort of effect, their implementation still needs to be linked conclusively to the (perceived) Cold War stagnation. Audie Klotz argues that the sanctions were not a part of the kind of rational, calculated thinking Daniel implies in his assumptions about the Reagan approach. Instead, she argues that, given the past diplomatic moves of the US with regards to South Africa, it was a political anomaly, brought about by successful transnational anti-apartheid activism.
As the literature on sanctions is the most extensive and the sanctions are generally understood to have had an impact on the latest apartheid phase, Daniel’s statement that US sanctions came about because of a perceived structural weakness of its communist nemesis, combined with a secret agreement between Reagan and Gorbachev shall be unpacked firstly.
This argument seems to be implausible, for a number of reasons. The Reagan administration supported one of the more cautious presidencies in terms of the USSR. Reagan himself remained  a staunch supporter of the Afrikaners throughout his tenure, and his statements about the apartheid regime imply that he protected the NP specifically because he appreciated the mutual anti-communism felt between his administration and the NP regime. South African violent repression of peaceful demonstrators against apartheid were dismissed by the US President, where he insisted that the wounded and murdered black protestors were “rioting”, while pointing out that several members of the South African police force were black.
The most persuasive proof of the US belief that South Africa should remain under control of the white minority out of fear for the Communist threat can be found in the way the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act was executed. After a partially bipartisan approval in Congress, the President vetoed this Act, on account of the strategic importance of the Southern African ally. His veto was subsequently overturned by the Senate. This goes to show that Reagan was all but confident that the USSR was about to expire, and the Act seems to have passed despite of the communist threat, rather than because of a lack of such a threat.
Klotz’ detailed account of the influence of a transnational anti-apartheid activism is persuasive. The activists informed a large segment of the American electorate of the gross violations of human rights, while a gradual historical move towards the endorsement of racial equality, rooted in the US domestic anti-segregation developments helped convince a majority of Congressmen and Senators of the need to promote racial equality through economic and symbolic sanctions.
Thus it is convincingly outlined that the US sanctions were not positively linked to the end of the Cold War. Instead, they were executed despite continued fears of the Communist threat. If the sanctions did prove to be a significant international contribution to the end of apartheid, this would seriously weaken the case for a positive correlation between the two transitions.
However, the insightful alternative posed by Levy strongly suggests otherwise. His argument that the end of communism alone is far more likely to have brought about the end of apartheid than the extra sanctions imposed during the 1985-87 period hinges on four key elements; the limited historical impact of previous sanctions levied; effective sanction-evasion; misinterpretation of the cause of disinvestment and a time line which strongly prefers the Cold War factor.
Firstly, UN military sanctions against apartheid go back as far as 1960, while European and Commonwealth sanctions had  been increasingly severe long before the mid-1980ies. None of the sanctions had any significant impact, which goes to show that the psychological factor could not have been instrumental. All of the sanctions levied, including the latest round, excluded key exports such as gold, which accounted for almost half of South African GDP.
Secondly, sanctions were evaded by routing a lot of the exports through non-sanction abiding countries. Although this did affect the terms of trade for South Africa negatively, an estimate decline of 0.5 percent of GDP is the total effectiveness of the combined sanctions, an unsubstantial figure, especially given that the white minority was harmed far less than the black majority in the process.
Thirdly, disinvestment and capital retreat by transnational banks and other financial institutions has been more effective at hampering the South African period throughout this period, but the businesses involved have all issued statements claiming the decisions to be non-political. The states of emergency called for by the South African presidents and the increase in violence and widespread domestic political activism caused the investment climate in the country to decline, rather than vice versa.
Lastly, the historically significant lag between the sanctions and regime change, combined with the more instantaneous announcement of change after the fall of the Wall as a clear signal of the inevitable decline of the Soviet power, suggests that the apartheid regime valued the lack of a strong enemy more than the decline in the support of allies. After almost half a century of international isolation and anti-communist propaganda, this explanation also makes more logical sense.
In conclusion, Guelke’s assumptions about the effect of the Soviet demise on the ANC’s decision to enter negotiations are largely unfounded. There is a large body of evidence which proves that the ANC did not rely on violence to bring about regime change, and the party had always been committed to negotiations, mainly because they were confident that any outcome leading to a majority vote would eventually guarantee the party dominance, as township support was well-established. The ANC was not blind to the reality that the South African situation differed largely from colonial dominance in other sub-Saharan African countries, because of the nature of the Afrikaner society. A prolonged military approach would be extremely costly and self-defeating.
It has also been established that the international sanctions levied against South Africa were implemented despite of the Cold War, as they were levied when the Soviet threat was still perceived to be very real, especially by the United States.
However, it is very likely that among the foreign effects on the development of the regime change process, the sanctions rank very low, as their economic impact was minimal compared to the economic impact of domestic opposition and the structural problems of an artificially segregated racial labour market.
Instead, even though domestic factors determined the eventual inevitability of the end of apartheid, the direct end of apartheid was caused by the end of the Cold War, as the ruling class saw the communist threat as the greatest obstacle to reform. It has thus been established with a significant degree of certainty that there was a significant positive correlation between the end of the Cold War and the end of apartheid.

(Rik Moors, Kaapstad, oktober 2009)