During my semester abroad last fall at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, I took a course that focused on 20th century South African history, with emphasis on the development of white minority rule. That course demonstrated some of the ways that the people and government of the United States were able to contribute to apartheid’s demise, beginning with grassroots activism and concluding with Congressional action in the mid 1980s. Specifically, I will be researching and writing on the relationship between the Executive and Congress in the development and implementation of foreign policy toward South Africa, culminating with Congress’s passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA) of 1986 over President Reagan’s veto.
President Reagan and many top administration officials came into office in 1981 against white minority rule and the policies of racial separation and disenfranchisement, but were also determined to work with the government in Pretoria to further a transition to democratic government. Their policy, developed largely by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester A. Crocker, labeled “constructive engagement,” was initially met with little Congressional disapproval, especially as few Americans at the time had taken an interest in apartheid. However, as racial violence and oppression by the white minority government escalated dramatically in the 1980s, members of Congress, especially liberals and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, began to push the Reagan Administration to denounce apartheid and enact widespread sanctions. President Reagan’s landslide re-election coincided with the widespread exposure of American audiences to the violence in South Africa, and anti-apartheid forces in Congress began to exercise their Constitutional oversight of foreign policy and push for dramatic economic and political sanctions designed to hasten apartheid’s demise.
Notably, many conservative Republican House members of the Conservative Opportunity Society (COS) also began to push the Reagan Administration to dramatically alter its foreign policy toward South Africa or face a loss of their support. The quote on this post’s title comes from Congressman Vin Weber (R-MN), a COS member and prominent supporter of economic sanctions. This alliance of both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans mainly in the House, but also in the Senate under Senators Richard Lugar (R-IN), Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), and Ted Kennedy (D-MA), led to the passage of the CAAA in 1986 over President Reagan’s veto. Aside from the War Powers Act of 1973, this was the only time that Congress enacted a major foreign policy change over a Presidential veto in the 20th century. The CAAA contained far-reaching provisions ranging from revoking U.S. landing rights for South African Airways to the prohibition of imports of South African-mined minerals and other natural resources, which collectively placed an enormous strain on the white minority government in South Africa. How these disparate factions of Congress came together to deliver a dramatic and almost unprecedented foreign policy rebuke to President Reagan, and how Congress can apply this leadership model to its foreign policy oversight in the future, are the main themes of this project.