Constructive Engagement

Constructive Engagement and the Sullivan Principles

Constructive engagement and the Sullivan Principles were the guiding standards for United States conservatives and the business community regarding apartheid South Africa in the late 1970s through the 1980s.  The Ronald Reagan administration adopted constructive engagement with South Africa as its official policy in 1981.  Outlined by Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, constructive engagement called for an open dialogue between the United States and the white-minority government in Pretoria, South Africa, which would improve trade relationships and allow the U.S. government to influence South Africa to move away from apartheid.  The Sullivan Principles were meant to guide U.S. business activities in South Africa.  Enunciated in 1977 by Reverend Leon Sullivan, the first African American appointed to the board of directors at General Motors, the principles called for a set of standards for American-based firms that did business in South Africa, including fair employment, fair pay, and non-segregation of employees in work facilities.  Taken together, constructive engagement and the Sullivan Principles sought to destroy apartheid in South Africa while maintaining the diplomatic status quo between South Africa and the United States.  However, both policies failed to stem the violence apartheid caused in South Africa.  Further, these policies provided a convenient rhetoric for Americans who supported the white-minority government and its business opportunities.

The idea of constructive engagement evolved out of U.S. foreign policy with South Africa since the Truman administration, when the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union expanded into a global phenomenon marked by political competition, economic rivalry, and sometimes military friction.  The white-minority government headed by the National Party and run by white Afrikaners, came to power in South Africa in 1948 just as the Cold War broadened to its worldwide scope.  The United States government, throughout the Cold War, sought to keep radical nationalism and communism from growing into popular movements anywhere in the world, including South Africa.  The white-minority regime in South Africa understood U.S. goals and touted their economic and political conservatism as a means to protect their system of white supremacy, privilege, and segregation.  At the same time, the Soviet Union became interested in the African National Congress (ANC), an organization designed to fight apartheid and help achieve voting rights for black and coloured South Africans.  During the second half of the twentieth century, the United States increasingly supported the white-minority government while the Soviet Union similarly backed the ANC.  Cold War concerns became superimposed on local struggles in South Africa (Schmidt).

The Truman administration felt compelled to ignore apartheid in order to continue trade in uranium ore, a much needed mineral for nuclear weapons.  Taken in the Cold War context, the Truman administration’s decision to allow apartheid to develop unopposed fit with the Truman Doctrine policy of containment, which concentrated on keeping the Soviet Union’s political influence from spreading across the world.  The white-minority government remained friendly with the United States and provided it the necessary materials it needed to build its nuclear arsenal.  Regardless of what the South African government did to its own people, as long as it did not ally with the Soviet Union, the Truman administration was happy to remain positively engaged with Pretoria.  After Dwight Eisenhower took over the presidency from Truman in 1953, U.S. policy toward South Africa changed very little.  The Eisenhower administration regularly ignored United Nations resolutions condemning South Africa’s racial policies and only tacitly expressed any concern over apartheid.  John F. Kennedy’s administration in the early 1960s, however, took the first strides to influence the South African government to ease apartheid measures.  Under Kennedy, the United States cut off arms sales to the apartheid regime in the hopes that Pretoria would change course in its violent program against the black South African population.  However, other forms of trade, investment, and cooperation with the white-minority government remained intact.  Kennedy’s policies continued to guide the U.S.-South African relationship throughout Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.  Essentially, from Truman to Johnson, U.S. engagement with South Africa remained mired in the American need for South African minerals and a certain ally against the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War (Hipp).

The Nixon administration undertook a comprehensive review of U.S. policy in regards to South Africa that was part of a broad overhaul of U.S. foreign policy in general that resulted in changes that carried through to the Carter presidency.  Led by his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the Nixon administration outlined a series of goals for what they called “constructive engagement” between the United States and South Africa that went beyond the Cold War agenda.  Kissinger’s new policy agenda outlined five key objectives related to South Africa that included improving America’s standing among black Africans, minimizing an escalation of violence in the region, encouraging moderation of apartheid, minimizing opportunities for the USSR and China to exploit racial disparities to gain political influence, and protecting U.S. economic interests in South Africa.  With this clear outline in place, the Nixon administration eliminated the arms embargo Kennedy created, but became more publicly antagonistic toward apartheid policies in public releases to the media.  The Nixon administration initiated a public propaganda campaign that excoriated apartheid policies while quietly maintaining consistent trade and diplomatic engagement (Coker).

Carter’s administration felt compelled to react to the Soweto Uprising.  Black African students protested en masse in Soweto in 1976 against a new law that forced instruction in African schools in Afrikaans, the language of the white-minority government.  Police cracked down hard on the protesters, killing hundreds of children and teenagers.  Nixon and Kissinger’s plan failed to minimize an escalation of violence in South Africa and it fell to Carter’s administration to deal with that failure.  When he got into office, Carter came out strongly against the apartheid government.  He signed a trade ban on materials that could benefit South African police forces, including arms and computers.  Further, Carter called for an immediate end to apartheid.  Underpinned by his humanitarian mission, Carter and his State Department put more pressure on the government in Pretoria than any previous U.S. president, but oversaw very little change in apartheid (Hipp).

Under the Reagan administration, constructive engagement reached its most clearly defined manifestation thanks to historian and student of international affairs, Chester Crocker.  Crocker wrote an article for Foreign Affairs in 1980 that criticized the Carter administration’s rhetorical campaign and embargo against the white-minority South African government for spreading mistrust and disillusionment in Pretoria.  Instead, Crocker argued, the U.S. should eliminate punitive trade measures and open dialogue to create and maintain a friendly relationship between the two governments, which would allow the U.S. to guide South Africa away from apartheid.  He based this argument on two key principles.  First, that the white-minority government had settled into a fluid pattern of rule that was open to adaptations and concessions to the black majority population.  Secondly, Crocker believed adamantly that it was impossible for the United States to make sweeping foreign policy moves that would have positive effects in South Africa.  Only domestic actions in South Africa would effectively change a domestic policy like apartheid.  Through constructive engagement, the United States could slowly and over time instigate fundamental domestic changes in South Africa that would help soften or even destroy apartheid (Crocker, A).

At its most basic, Crocker’s plan for constructive engagement was a more nuanced version of the Kissinger program.  Under both Nixon and Ford, Kissinger’s agenda for constructive engagement included overt rhetorical challenges to apartheid.  Crocker called for an end to this form of destructive diplomatic behavior.  He believed that the time for intimidation had passed and that the United States was prepared for a balanced, constructive diplomatic path in South Africa that Pretoria would find far more amenable than direct rhetorical challenges.

Crocker’s article catapulted him into a leading role on African foreign affairs in the Reagan administration as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.  His interpretation for constructive engagement became popular in political circles because it was flexible enough to fit various Republicans’ ideological tenets.  Most importantly, it allowed Reagan to publicly say he was against apartheid while maintaining pro-business and hard line anti-communist stances.  As the policy enactment rolled out, its goals became abundantly clear.  The U.S. wanted to ensure a gradual, non-radical change in the South African government that was sympathetic to American interests without having to face criticism at home or abroad for supporting a program as horrifying as apartheid (Davies).

After Reagan’s first term in office, it was clear that constructive engagement, as it was implemented, failed to engender any change within the government in Pretoria.  In fact, by 1985, it seemed that the white-minority government advocated even stronger apartheid measures believing they were safe from any major international sanctions and under the protection of the United States.   Further, the South African government totally resented the policy.  Leading officials, like South African president P.W. Botha, believed constructive engagement was an excuse for the United States to try to meddle in South African domestic policies without using force and just ignored any suggestions that came from Washington.  Concurrently, sustained black-majority opposition to Pretoria faced growing instances of violence that U.S. news outlets broadcast nightly.  African Americans, university students, and other civil rights activists in America began lobbying Congress to take action against the apartheid regime if Reagan would not (Gleijeses, Field).

As pressure mounted, Crocker was forced to face questioning in the Senate and defend his policy against claims of its failure.  In his statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September of 1984, Crocker declared that constructive engagement was working, regardless of the rising violence in South Africa.  The increase in black rioting and police violence was “a phenomenon that tends to occur precisely when rigid old patterns are beginning to break up” (Crocker, B).

Additionally, Crocker attempted to shift the view away from the core tenets of constructive engagement in order to focus on the successes of private programs.  He cited the influx of millions of dollars for humanitarian projects into South Africa, specifically an education program that funded black South African students who achieved advanced study in the United States and then returned to South Africa to help set up university-level institutions.  As the anti-apartheid movement in the United States gained steam, so too did the call for divestment.  In order to rhetorically combat the push for divestment, Crocker cited the economic opportunity the companies who adhered to the Sullivan principles provided to the black African population.  He stated flatly that removing U.S. corporate investment in South Africa would sabotage the people who needed it most.  He claimed that with patience, these programs of expanded opportunity would inevitably lead to expanded rights for black Africans.  Further, by conflating constructive engagement with the Sullivan Principles, Crocker attempted to shift the focus away from the failures of constructive engagement onto the horrors of apartheid and the magnanimity of U.S. private business (Crocker, B).

In his attempt to claim the successes of private programs for constructive engagement, Crocker and the State Department helped craft a political rhetoric that excused limited U.S. government intervention in South Africa.  They argued that constructive engagement sought to improve the material conditions of black South Africans through Washington’s influence on Pretoria to curb its apartheid policies.  The foreign policy initiative had no concerns about getting or keeping black Africans jobs.  However, Republicans in Washington and conservatives across the United States began to adopt the notion that constructive engagement and corporate responsibility were the same policies.

Contrary to what Crocker and other conservatives began to say in the mid-1980s, the Sullivan Principles had nothing to do with the policy of constructive engagement.  Reverend Leon Sullivan, a General Motors board member and anti-apartheid activist, developed his principles strictly as a plan to undermine apartheid.  Initially, Sullivan’s ambitions coincided with U.S. Congressman Charles Diggs’s plan that American companies with U.S. government contracts should provide equal opportunity provisions around the world.  However, after the Soweto Uprising, Sullivan solidified his position that if American companies did not provide fair employment and equal opportunity in South Africa, they should formally withdraw from the country (Mangaliso).

Sullivan’s initial goals for South Africa were clear.  Overall, he wanted to undermine apartheid and, if possible, destroy it.  He essentially sought to provide U.S. constitutional rights to South African workers who labored for U.S. corporations.  Initially, Sullivan outlined three key duties for American businesses to apply to their South African branches in addition to integration, fair pay, and equal work.  First, they should develop and provide training programs to blacks, coloureds, and Asians for skilled and technical jobs.  This first principle was essential for the second, which required all businesses to significantly increase the number of blacks, coloureds, and Asians in management and supervisory positions.  This second point was key to undermining apartheid. The hierarchy of U.S. businesses operating in South Africa should reward skill and hard work, not racial or ethnic background.  If a black African could hold a management position over white employees in the work environment, that same pattern should extend beyond into the social sphere.  Finally, Sullivan called for improving workers’ lives outside the workplace, so he pushed for collection and disbursment of corporate funds to pay for schools, recreation centers, and health care facilities.  All of these duties sought to breed equality in the workplace and beyond to undermine the inequality inherent in apartheid (Richardson).

Sullivan remained tenacious about getting and keeping corporate heads to adhere to his fundamental human rights standards.  He held informal and formal meetings with corporate representatives throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s.  He also helped found the International Council for Equality of Opportunity Principles (ICEOP), which resulted from his past work as a community leader and organizer in Philadelphia.  Sullivan had moved to Philadelphia in the 1950s to lead the Zion Baptist Church and recognized the abject conditions of the African American community in the city.  He established community oriented organizations, called Opportunities Industrialization Centers, to train unemployed and untrained people and connected them with employers in need of skilled workers.  His organizations promoted the basic tenet that skilled labor is essential to economic development regardless of race, creed, or class.  Those exact same principles translated to the ICEOP and his philosophy for undermining apartheid in South Africa (Stewart).

Through the ICEOP, Sullivan successfully urged fifty-four firms to sign on to his set of principles within six months of the program’s announcement.  The next year, that number jumped to one hundred and seventeen.  As the number of companies that joined swelled, the ICEOP had to create methods to oversee that they adhered to the principles and did not just sign on for the positive publicity. Officers in the organization created a three category classification program to keep track of firms that became Sullivan signatories.  The top category listed firms in compliance with the principles.  The second tier noted firms in non-compliance, but who had admitted their shortfalls and submitted plans to rectify the issues.  The bottom tier named all the companies not implementing the required duties and that failed redress the problems.  These lists of firms were regularly reported to public institutions in the United States and Europe for publication (Stewart).

As the number of Sullivan signatories grew and adhered to their duties, Leon Sullivan became more worried about the slow pace of change in South Africa.  In 1984, he decided the expand the scope of the Sullivan Principles to include more duties for compliant firms.  Primarily, they all had to publicly support and call for an end to all apartheid laws.  Sullivan also encouraged all firms to use their influence to both support unrestricted rights to black businesses and push non-Sullivan firms to follow the standards of equal rights.  Finally, companies needed to encourage freedom of mobility for black South African workers through building adequate housing near the workplace.  All of these new principles were meant to encourage and facilitate the quicker demise of apartheid (Richardson).

The expansion of the Sullivan Principles coincided with the obvious failures of constructive engagement and the growing political rhetoric that conflated the two.  As Chester Crocker and his boss, the Secretary of State George Shultz, were claiming the Sullivan Principles as a part of the success of constructive engagement, Leon Sullivan began to distance himself from Reagan’s administration.  Even after he expanded the scope of his program, anti-apartheid activists began to criticize the Sullivan Principles for helping to prop up the white-minority government in South Africa.  By 1987, Sullivan gave up completely on his own program.  In June, he called for the complete withdraw of all American companies operating in South Africa and a total U.S. embargo against South Africa until apartheid ended (Davies).

Even though he declared in favor of divestment and the immediate end to apartheid, Sullivan could not change the rhetoric born from the Reagan administration conflating his principles with constructive engagement.  The ideas that divestment was illegal and would leave black South Africans destitute and unable to survive spread quickly among conservatives in the United States from the upper echelons of the federal government to student governments on college campuses.

At the state level, the Texas House of Representatives wrangled with the complex issues of United States foreign policy, the Sullivan Principles and divestment.  Representatives filed divestment bills in the Texas House every year from 1979 through 1986, but none ever made it past debate on the floor.  Often led by Representative Al Edwards, the House Bills sought to limit state investment in firms that operated in South Africa.  Proponents of divestment in Texas argued that their state’s corporate investments in companies that operated in South Africa propped up the government that enacted apartheid.  Opponents to the bills successfully argued that their investments in firms in South Africa provided job opportunities to black South Africans and helped promote a peaceful transition from apartheid by only supporting companies that adhered to the Sullivan Principles.  Others argued that, as an individual state, Texas had no right to try to influence foreign policy, thus state-level divestment was illegal.  State legislators had to trust the U.S. State Department and constructive engagement to help ensure the end to apartheid.  Even after Sullivan himself declared that divestment was the only way to end apartheid in South Africa, Texas congressmen used his set of principles to ensure the economic and social status quo in regards to South Africa (Lavine).

In contrast, in Dallas, council members rarely relied on the constructive engagement and the Sullivan Principles to undermine movements for divestment.  Instead, opponents to divestment made the very basic argument that divestment would hurt Dallas employees.  The push for divestment in Dallas, led by council members Diane Ragsdale and Al Lipscomb, sought to remove the $427 million in the city pension fund from investments in companies operating in South Africa.  By doing so, Ragsdale and her supporters hoped to make a statement that Dallas did not support racial violence anywhere in the world.  The argument between proponents and opponents of the bill revolved around financial issues.  Ragsdale and her supporters argued that apartheid made South Africa a politically and economically unstable nation and that significant turmoil there could threaten foreign investment in that nation.  Opponents, led by Mayor Starke Taylor, countered that shifting 89% of the pension fund into a new investment portfolio brought undue risk to city employees who relied on those funds.  Employees, though, overwhelmingly supported the resolution and showed up en masse to the city council to express their approval and helped the resolution pass.  Local issues and local people carried the arguments for and against divestment in Dallas (Ragsdale).

Arguments at the university government level followed the national and state trends.  The student senate at Southern Methodist University in Dallas spent much of its meeting time in September and October of 1985 discussing a bill to send to the SMU Board of Trustees to consider university divestment from South Africa.  Led by law student Arif Virji, proponents of university divestment at SMU called for all people of the United States to stand against apartheid’s injustice and divestment was the most vocal and active way of showing opposition to the violent program.  Opponents of the bill fell back on the arguments that conflated the Sullivan Principles with constructive engagement.  Janet Watson, who headed the opposition to the bill, claimed that divestment would further degrade black South Africans’ standing in life and that the United States had no right to directly impose its values on another country.  She basically adopted the idea that the Sullivan Principles and constructive engagement would undermine apartheid in due time, when South Africans were prepared for it.  Rather than one argument prevailing over the other, the SMU student senate produced a compromise bill that asked for the Board of Trustees to consider divestment rather than the senate demanding divestment (The Daily Campus).

Ultimately, the debates about what constructive engagement and the Sullivan Principles meant formed people’s perceptions about how the United States should interact with South Africa and apartheid.  For conservatives, it meant conflating both ideas to ignore the violence apartheid inflicted on black Africans and excuse American businesses reaping the rewards of an oppressed workforce.  Increasingly, for liberals and moderates the debates created a more sustained push for divestment.  In October 1986, at the behest of the American people, Congress took foreign policy matters into its own hands and passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA), which inflicted heavy economic sanctions on South Africa.  With the passage of the CAAA, constructive engagement was effectively dead and Leon Sullivan was on his way to supporting full divestment from South Africa.  Though both programs failed to undermine apartheid, they marked important grounds for American debate over the best way to deal with the oppressive South African white-minority regime.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Crocker, Chester. “An Update of Constructive Engagement in South Africa.” U.S. Department of State, September 26, 1984.

Crocker, Chester. “South Africa: Strategy for Change.” Foreign Affairs 59 no. 2 (Winter 1980-1981): 323-327.

Lavine, Dick. “Assets and Apartheid: The South Africa Divestment Dilemma.” Austin: Texas House Research Organization Special Legislative Report, no. 133, February 24, 1987.

Ragsdale, Diane. Interview by Kyle Carpenter and Alyssa Sheraden. March 24, 2017. Dallas, Texas.

The Daily Campus.

Secondary Sources

Coker, Christopher. The United States and South Africa, 1968-1985: Constructive Engagement and Its Critics. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 1986.

Davies, J. E. Constructive Engagement?: Chester Crocker & American Policy in South Africa, Namibia & Angola, 1981-8. Oxford : Athens: James Currey ; Ohio University Press, 2007.

Field, Connie. “From Selma to Soweto.” no. 5 of Have you Heard from Johannesburg Series. on Kanopy.

Gleijeses, Piero. Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976 – 1991. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.

Hipp, S. D. “Constructive Engagement: Ronald Reagan’s Problematic Policy of Appeasement with South Africa.” Georgetown University, 2012.

Mangaliso, Mzamo P. “South Africa: Corporate Social Responsibility and the Sullivan Principles.” Journal of Black Studies 28, no. 2 (November 1997): 219–38.

Richardson, Henry J. “Reverend Leon Sullivan’s Principles, Race, and International Law: A Comment.” Temple International and Comparative Law 15, no. 1 (March 2001): 55–81.

Schmidt, Elizabeth. Foreign Intervention in Africa: From the Cold War to the War on Terror. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Stewart, James B. “Amandla! The Sullivan Principles and The Battle to End Apartheid In South Africa, 1975-1987.” The Journal of African American History 96, no. 1 (2011): 62.

Thomson, Alex. Incomplete Engagement: U.S. Foreign Policy towards the Republic of South Africa, 1981-1988. The Making of Modern Africa. Aldershot, Hants, England ; Brookfield, Vt: Avebury, 1996.