The Political Genius of Republicans in the 1986 Apartheid Debate

From my research on President Reagan and the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA) of 1986, I have been struck by the skilled and successful posturing of Congressional Republicans during that debate. Between 1984 and 1986, apartheid in South Africa was transformed from an issue that was almost entirely the preserve of African-American and liberal Democrats to an issue that captivated the attention and agenda of both Houses of Congress. Many young conservatives within the Republican Party, particularly those in the House of Representatives such as Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Vin Weber (R-MN), and Robert Walker (R-PA) recognized that by coming out strongly against apartheid, they could come out on the winning side of a controversial debate. These young conservatives believed in the possibility that they could build a total and long-lasting majority in both the Senate and the House, and were prepared to take a principled stand against the Reagan Administration to prove it.
These young conservatives worked closely with liberals on the other side of the aisle to craft and pass the CAAA. Without the votes of many House and Senate conservatives, President Reagan’s veto of the CAAA would likely have stood. In the end, 81 House Republicans voted with 232 House Democrats to override Reagan’s veto, while 31 Senate Republicans did the same. These Republicans dealt President Reagan an enormous foreign policy defeat led by members of his own party, and were strongly criticized by others within the Republican Party for abandoning the president on a globally prominent issue. Many House Republicans who criticized apartheid and the Reagan Administration’s position on it rose to prominence within their party during the 1994 elections, popularly known as the “Republican Revolution.” Those voted with Democrats to override Reagan’s veto included: future Senators John McCain (AZ), Dan Coats (IN) and Olympia Snowe (ME), future Governors John Rowland (CT), Tom Ridge (PA) and John Kasich (OH), and future Speaker of the House Gingrich. Judging by nothing more than the lasting prominence of many House Republicans who bucked their party and their president on apartheid, it is likely that the debate over the CAAA provided an interesting crossroads in the future of the Republican Party in the United States.


About Alex P. Ferraro

My name is Alex Ferraro and I am currently a Senior at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A History and Political Science double major with an Anthropology minor from Brookville, Pennsylvania, I will be writing on the relationship between the Reagan Administration and Congress on apartheid-era South Africa in the 1980s. In the Fall 2010 semester, I spent a semseter abroad at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, and chose this topic because of a class on 20th Century South African history. At Gettysburg, I have served as Senator and Treasurer of the Student Senate, a Resident Assistant in the first year residence halls, and play trombone in the College Symphony Band. Last summer, I interned for U.S. Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper and this past summer at the NBC News Washington Bureau on The Chris Matthews Show. I am looking forward to this year's experiences and plan on attending law school after graduation.
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3 Responses to The Political Genius of Republicans in the 1986 Apartheid Debate

  1. wwrer ww says:

    As a white South African, I can only say that the USSR stationed 11,000 troops near South Africa’s borders and 100,000 Cuban troops were stationed in Angola and the USSR spent $1bn to destabilize Southern Africa a year – as confirmed by the CIA. The USSR spent $8bn a year in Afghanistan, but planted more IEDs on the borders of SA than what is found today in modern Afghanistan and Iraq combined – as confirmed by the UN. So apartheid or allow SA to fall to the USSR, it was up to Americans what they wanted to do with SA.

    • D says:

      You are somewhat mistaken about Soviet interests in southern Africa at this time. There were tens of thousands of Cuban troops in Angola supporting the MPLA- who were internationally recognized as the legitimate representative of Angola. If you read some of the more recent literature on the Soviets in southern Africa in the mid-1970s (namely by Sue Onslow, Piero Gleijeses, Vladimir Shubin, and Vladislav Zubok) it’s apparent that the Soviets were reluctant to become involved in southern Africa in any major way at this time. Rather than the notion of “total onslaught” that Pretoria perceived (and accepted by more right-wing hardliners in the Reagan administration such as Pat Buchanan and Bill Casey), it’s fairly well understood that the Soviets did not have a grand strategy in the region (read, for instance, the newly declassified documents from the Reykjavik summit in Jason Saltoun-Ebin’s new book). There really wasn’t much danger of Pretoria “falling” to the Soviet Union. Now, did Pretoria and members within the Reagan administration believe– at least during the first term-and-a-half of his presidency– that South Africa was in danger? Probably. One of the premises underpinning constructive engagement suggests as much. The other thing to keep in mind is that until the Township Uprisings beginning in the fall of 1984, the Bureau of African Affairs was largely left to its own devices in policy-making- reflecting that Africa was largely peripheral to other regions such as Europe and Central America in U.S. Cold War imperatives.

      In my own research– which by-and-large concentrates on Canadian foreign policy toward apartheid in the 1980s– I’ve reached the conclusion that Congress overturned the presidential veto for a multitude of reasons (I should note that this is more of a historical interpretation, rather than a monocausal analysis favoured in political science) that almost came together in a “perfect storm” so-to-speak in 1985-86. Firstly, the growing anti-apartheid movement both within and outside the U.S. Second, the Township Uprisings and subsequent CNN Effect. Third, the general trend in Congressional-Executive relations since the fracturing of the Cold War consensus (I’m not absolutely certain there ever was a Cold War consensus), and a more assertive Congress in foreign policy consequently (i.e. Iran-Contra, the Philippines, Clark Amendment, etc…). Fourth– and lastly– the failings of constructive engagement to achieve any notable results by 1984-85. The only aspect I’m not entirely sure of is whether the shift in Reagan’s foreign policy between his two terms had any effect on executive policy toward South Africa (as argued more generally about Reagan’s foreign policy by Beth Fischer).

  2. www says:

    Freedom of speech, absolutely important in a democracy.

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