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South Africa and Rhodesia: cooperation, confrontation, coercion

By Sue Onslow


The Republic of South Africa occupied a crucial place in Rhodesia’ growing confrontation with London in 1964-1965. As the South African Department of Foreign affairs commented in 1964, the looming crisis for Rhodesia represented just as much a crisis for South Africa. Behind the public façade of studied distance and repeated statements of non-involvement, lay highly ambivalent attitudes underpinned by historic and cultural animosity and divergent racial agenda, together with an acute understanding of the economic, geo-strategic and ideological advantages which could accrue to the Republic in the context of the Cold War. This produced a complex, but highly effective South African policy on the Rhodesian UDI question. Pretoria’s consistent approach was to insulate RSA as far as possible from the potential damage of the Rhodesian rebellion. In this, Pretoria was remarkably successful: as a British official remarked in November 1965, in an unwitting use of irony, Pretoria had not put a foot wrong. As far as Rhodesia was concerned, by 1970 South Africa was effectively the metropolitan power, and appeared to have achieved a remarkable degree of insulation for the apartheid regime from international criticism and black African nationalist condemnation. However, the renewed Rhodesian/Zimbabwean insurgency of 1972 and collapse of the Portuguese empire in Portuguese West Africa and Mocambique in 1974-75 radically altered the regional strategic and ideological picture. This paper focuses upon South African policy in the crucial year of 1976, when the aftermath of South Africa’s intervention in Angola underlined the bankruptcy of Vorster’s policy of dialogue and détente (with Zambia) on the Rhodesia question. This paper consciously focuses upon Pretoria’s policy and the ‘squeeze play’ coordinated by SA and USA upon the recalcitrant Smith regime. Drawing on my research in South African, British, Rhodesian and American archives, this paper seeks to clarify interpretations of South African policy which have, up to now been, conjecture and speculation. 1976 can rightly be regarded as a time of imperial crisis of the white minority regime in Pretoria. It is a classic illustration of how international setback, and domestic turmoil and fear of further disorder at the centre affected policy on the periphery. In 1976 South Africa saw settlement of the Rhodesian question as vital on several fronts: in domestic terms, to cauterize the wound of the psychological blow to South Africa’s prestige and damage to an image of white invincibility, caused by her defeat in the Angolan conflict; to pre-empt possible Cuban intervention in Rhodesia, and possibility of South Africa being sucked into another Cold War regional conflict, without the support and endorsement of the Western powers; to secure international approval and support for her policy towards South West Africa; and overall, to regain South Africa’s ‘moral legitimacy’ and diplomatic credibility. In this process, there emerged an unrecognised triangulation of diplomacy between Pretoria, Washington and London, underpinned by a complex web of ideological affinity, yet moral dislike, great power cooperation but parallel rivalry, personal friendship yet complications of national animosity

Topics: JZ International relations
Year: 2006
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Provided by: LSE Research Online
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