Special Relationship: South Africa and the US in the 1970s


South African soldier takes aim during the Border War/Angolan Civil War

South Africa was the Free World’s black sheep during the Cold War. Too often in the US and Western world, South Africa’s postwar history boils down to Nelson Mandela and racism (maybe they’ll recognize Steve Biko-a far more important figure in anti-apartheid activism in my opinion) While hated by many countries for its domestic apartheid policies, it became the United States’ partner during the covert action in Angola.

The origins of the US-South African relationship began in earnest during the early to mid-1970s. The United States had neglected Southern Africa since the early 1960s. By the end of the decade, several issues came to a head in the region. Portugal’s colonies in Angola and Mozambique were in full scale revolt, bogging down the Salazar government in a costly counter-insurgency campaign. Rhodesia’s white government declared independence unilaterally from Great Britain, leading to a political debacle that


White dominated states, 1965. Rhodesia in green, others in blue.

went back and forth from 1965-1972, when the African communist insurgents embarked on a large scale offensive. South Africa, the subject of this article, tried to navigate their situation on the African continent. The Afrikaner dominated government, their country was not a “white” state; the Afrikaner saw themselves as fundamentally different to the British with whom they had hostility toward for conquering their Republics. In 1966, South Africa’s Prime Minister John Vorster  wanted to pursue detente with black Africa. While this seems like a contradiction given the country’s domestic policies, to the Afrikaner dominated government at the time this made perfect sense. Afrikaner, after all, means African in Dutch.

By the early seventies, the United States under the Nixon administration turned its attention to Africa, and Southern Africa in particular. Henry Kissinger was heavily involved in the Rhodesia independence negotiations, which involved the South African government. During the late 1960s, Secretary of State Kissinger was reticent to follow suit with the international community and ostracize South Africa. As the fighting in Rhodesia between the Rhodesian Security Forces and Communist backed ZANU and ZAPU intensified, South Africa turned to appeasing the rest of the West on the Rhodesian conflict while to buy themselves time. The US officially maintained an arms embargo on South Africa in 1970. The major change came in 1974 when Portuguese military officers toppled the Estado Novo after over a decade of costly war in the colonies. Vorster recognized the new government in Portugal immediately. The situation in Angola changed for the US and South Africa after the new regime in Portugal negotiated for independence with the fighters in Angola. The former no longer supported pro-independence fighters, they began to back Jonas Savimbi’s  anti-communist UNITA. It was the beginning of the South African Border War and Angolan Civil War.


Jonas Savimbi (center with red beret) and members of UNITA

Despite recognizing the new Portuguese government, South Africa did not accept the peace agreement, which left the Angola dominated by the Soviet supported MPLA. The President Ford approved the Clark Amendment in July 1975 that approved covert aid for UNITA. In August, South Africa sent in troops to guard their workers on hydroelectric dams, followed by supplies to UNITA.While the South Africans withdrew police forces from Rhodesia’s Zambezi Valley, they shifted their attention to Angola.  Ultimately, the SADF invaded Angola. Days before official independence in November 1975, South African and Zairian military forces went into Angola to prevent the MPLA from taking hold, which ultimately resulted in failure. By March of 1976, South Africa withdrew ground forces from Angola. Importantly, the American CIA helped fund and backed South African intervention. South Africa, like the UNITA were part of the United States’ proxy forces in Southern Africa in the 1970s. While the Border War would rage on for the rest of the Cold War (and the Angolan Civil War into the 2000s) South Africa and the United States started on their relationship birthed out of Cold War realpolitik than lasted into the 1980s.



Hanlon, Joseph. Beggar Your Neighbors: Apartheid Power in Southern Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Flower, Ken. Serving Secretly-An Intelligence Chief on Record: Rhodesia to Zimbabwe 1964-1981. London: John Murray, 1987

Smith, Ian. The Great Betrayal: The Memoirs of Africa’s Most Controversial Leader. London: Blake Publishing, 1997.



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