John Vorster’s African adventures

Hermann Giliomee reviews Jamie Miller's book on the NP Prime Minister's détente policy in the 1970s

Jamie Miller, An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and the Search for Survival, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016)

Very little has been published on South African diplomacy during the period of apartheid or on John Vorster, the longest serving head of the National Party government that imposed apartheid between 1948 and 1994. The first study of South Africa’s diplomacy during this time was that of Deon Geldenhuys which appeared in 1984.[1] Seven years later a work on South African foreign policy by James Barber and John Barratt appeared.[2] The only book-length study in English of Vorster as political leader was published forty years ago and does not cover the developments after 1974.[3] A biographical study in Afrikaans came out just after his death in 1983.[4]

Jamie Miller’s An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and the Search for Survival, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) is the first in-depth study, based on primary sources, of Vorster’s efforts to secure for South Africa a better image in the international community and attract allies in the independent African states in Southern Africa.

The rise and fall of Vorster, Prime Minister of South Africa from 1966 to 1978, is one of the most dramatic stories in the contemporary history of South Africa. On 24 April1974 he led his party to its biggest victory ever in a general election, winning 124 of the 169 seats. The NP relied predominantly the support of the Afrikaners who formed 55 per cent of the electorate.

On the next day the Portuguese dictatorship collapsed, spelling the imminent end of Portuguese rule over its two colonies in Southern Africa, Mozambique and Angola. Liberation movements aligned to the Soviet Union seemed set to take power in both colonies. Rhodesia, which, under the leadership of Ian Smith, unilaterally had declared itself independent from Britain in 1965, had come under increasing pressure from guerrilla fighters from several liberation movements.

Unruffled, Vorster seemed to address in a measured way the rapidly deteriorating situation on South Africa’s borders. On 23 October 1974 he declared: ‘Southern Africa has come to the crossroads’. The alternative to a peaceful settlement ‘would be too ghastly to contemplate.’[5] The next day R.F. (Pik) Botha, the South African Ambassador to the United Nations, addressing the UN Security Council, stated that South Africa was moving away from discrimination by all the means at its disposal.

Two weeks later Vorster made an enigmatic comment that briefly stirred the hopes of the subordinate population of South Africa for a radical reform of apartheid: ‘Give South Africa six months … and you will be surprised where South Africa stands then.’[6] Many black South Africans thought that Vorster had decided to extend political rights to them in a common system. They had misunderstood Vorster’s words. He did not intend any break with existing policy of restricting black rights to their respective homelands. A 1970 law made it possible to deprive Africans of their South African citizenship if the government of the homeland to which they were deemed to belong to had opted for independence. It is uncertain if the African presidents willing to deal with South Africa understood this.

Vorster’s priority was talks with African heads of states to ward off foreign pressure on South Africa and to persuade them to block the spread of Soviet influence in southern Africa. His assumption was, as Miller phrases it, that self-interest would persuade these states to embrace mutually advantageous cooperation rather than assume a posture of futile confrontation against the South African regime. He offered several African states financial and economic assistance.

Miller shows how John Vorster tried to reinvent the Afrikaners as an African volk seeking peace, acceptance and co-existence with other nations in Africa. In talking to leaders of African states to the north of South Africa’s border he redefined the Afrikaners as an African volk that was as rooted in the continent as any other nation, one that had fought the first anti-colonial war on the continent between 1899 and 1902.

Vorster found an ally in President Kenneth Kaunda, who was prepared to use all means to nudge the white and black leaders in Rhodesia towards independence and ward off the attempts of the Soviet Union and Cuba to gain a foothold in Southern Africa. Miller describes how in 1974 Vorster told Mark Chona, an emissary from Kuanda: “We are just as much part of Africa as you are.” Chona had told Vorster that he had just come from meetings with several African leaders. All considered Afrikaners as “not merely people in Africa but people of Africa” and South Africa as “independent and sovereign”.

If Vorster had moved decisively in the second half of 1974 to force the Rhodesian leader Ian Smith to accept majority rule after free elections South African history would have been quite different. But Smith stalled, Vorster hesitated and the moment passed. The Soweto uprising two years later would greatly weaken South Africa’s international status.

The US administration of Jimmy Carter would show little sympathy with the white minority governments Southern Africa. Vorster’s attempt to install a moderate black government in Rhodesia failed when the international community refused to recognise the Abel Muzorewa’s government in 1978 despite it being voted into office in an election with turnout of 65 per cent. This would pave the way for Robert Mugabe of the ZANU movement to come to power.

In 1975 Vorster and Kuanda became very concerned with developments in Angola, which was due to receive its independence from Portugal on 11 November 1975. Here Unita and the FNLA, two pro-Western liberation movements, were up against the MPLA, a Soviet-aligned movement.

In April 1975 Kaunda visited Washington to tell President Ford that Cuban advisors and Soviet arms deliveries were being sent to Angola by Fidel Castro. He persuaded Ford to give US American assistance to the FNLA and Unita.[7] Kissinger used Kaunda’s plea to get Ford to accept the necessity of weakening the MPLA enough to force the formation of a government of national unity on Independence Day.

Kissinger wrote in his memoirs that both President Ford and the national security adviser, General Brent Scowcroft, sided with him in strongly favouring American intervention, but that it would turn out that the three of them were ‘spread far too thin’ to bring this about.[8] In effect, it meant they would be unable to defend the intervention if Congress got wind of it.

Despite his firm insistence on non-intervention in the internal affairs of African countries Vorster yielded to pressure from P.W. Botha, then Minister of Defence, to send a covert South African military force into Angola. The broad plan was to help Unita and the FNLA compel the MPLA to accept them as partners in a government of national unity. In a meeting of the Organisation of African Unity that would be held in January 1976 half the members would endorse the idea of a multi-party government

Miller explains that Botha could force Vorster’s hand in sending troops into Angola as a result of the virtually free hand the South African Defence force enjoyed in preserving the security of South African-ruled South West Africa, lying just south of Angola. He does not make enough of another factor.

Of 75 000 whites living in SWA, most were Afrikaners many of whom were farmers. Those who lived in the northern part of the country were vulnerable to guerrilla attacks from the South West African People’s Organisation, a liberation movement operating from bases in Angola. NP leaders frequently told their followers that the government would have no hope of making any progress of securing a settlement with blacks in South Africa if they were deemed to have betrayed whites in SWA.

In October a force of 2 500 regular South African troops and 600 vehicles entered Angola. Piero Gleijesis, the only researcher who has had access to the Cuban archives, argues that the Soviet-backed Cuban intervention was a response to this South African incursion.[9] But this is at best a half truth. The Soviet Union and Cuba had already by the end of 1974 decided to send arms and advisors to the MPLA, the pro-Soviet movement in Angola. Hundreds of Cuban advisors entered Angola in the first nine months of 1975. It is however true that the first division of Cuban troops arrived in Luanda, Angola only in first week of November just before the election. By the end of November President Ford complained of the millions and millions the Soviets were pumping in and of the presence of 4 000 to 6 000 Cuban troops.

Vorster had quite unrealistic expectations of American military and financial assistance. On the basis of official documents Miller reveals for the first time that the South African embassy in Washington believed that South Africa could count on material US help. On 17 December 1975, two days before the US Senate was to meet on the issue, Pik Botha, SA Ambassador to the UN, cabled Pretoria: “Reliable sources inform me that there is a more than 50 percent chance that Senate would provide help to the FLNA and Unita [two pro-Western liberation movement in Angola] out of the Defence budget”.

On 19 December 1975 the US Senate approved by a margin of 54 votes to 22 –hardly a close vote –a motion prohibiting the Ford Administration from contributing further funds to the anti-communist coalition.

In retrospect, Genl. Constand Viljoen, director of operations of South African Defence Force, described South Africa’s intervention as a Cold War game played with very little integrity – a textbook example of how it should not be done.[10] In his book John Stockwell, a CIA operative who in Washington was part of an interdepartmental working group in Angola shares this view: “Vorster’s plan – putting in a small, covert force –violated the cardinal rule in military strategy: the clear definition of a desired objective.”[11]

In 1978 Vorster came close to a settlement to end South Africa’s rule over SWA, which it had ruled since 1919 as a mandate from the League of Nations (later United Nations). After having met with a contact group representing several major Western governments he agreed to accept UN Security Council Resolution 435, which made provision for an UN-supervised election for the government of an independent Namibia.

But when Kurt Waldheim, UN Secretary General, unilaterally altered an agreement with Vorster on the modalities of the elections Vorster suspended the agreement. He also authorised an attack by South African forces on a SWAPO camp named Cassinga, deep in Angola. More than 600 people including women and children were killed. South Africa’s relationship with the world community had reached its nadir.

The last chapter of Miller’s book tells the tale of the Vorster government’s response to the much tougher approach of the Carter government in the USA, which wanted to resolve the Southern African crises on the basis of categorically insisting on majority rule and recognising the liberation movements as legitimate actors in the struggle to free blacks in Southern Africa.

In the last year or two in office Vorster became mired in a scandal related to the illegal activities of the Department of Information. He stepped down to assume the ceremonial position of state president of South Africa, but was soon asked by his successor P.W. Botha and cabinet members to resign. Under Botha South Africa entered the 1980s fighting a costly war in Angola and having to combat growing internal resistance. Vorster died an embittered man.[12]

Miller tells this entire story with great aplomb. An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and the Search for Survival is in my view the most outstanding debut of an historian of South Africa that has appeared in the last thirty to forty years.

The book is based on a very wide range of primary sources in the archives of several countries and on personal interviews with many of the main actors. Proficient in Afrikaans, the language of most white political leaders and civil servants, Miller was able to develop an acute understanding of the dynamics of Afrikaner politics and the often contradictory goals of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the military establishment.

 What particularly impressed me of Miller’s work is the combination of a very good grasp of the theoretical literature on the Cold War and African states, on the one hand, and on the other the exhaustive research of documents related to Southern Africa. He is obviously well read in various disciplines and has a very good understanding of Superpower rivalry, the strength and weaknesses of the South African system of rule and the demographic and economic forces that were at play.

Miller has several other strengths. He writes with such self-assurance in handling complex issues that one would easily consider an unsigned manuscript by him as the work of a well-established authority in the field. He is careful not to speculate or generalise but has shown great ability in tracking down primary sources and carefully constructing an argument or a thesis on the basis of looking first for evidence before accepting any theory. He understands that power is not a property but a relationship and he is free from the preoccupations and prejudices with which many foreign students and scholars approach South Africa. He is remarkably open- minded, innovative and inquisitive. He clearly has the energy, will and determination to establish himself as a recognised scholar and researcher.

Hermann Giliomee is Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Cape Town and was subsequently Extraordinary Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch,


[1]Deon Geldenhuys The Diplomacy of Isolation: South African Policy Making. (Braamfontein Macmillan, 1984)

[2] James Barber ad John Barratt, South Africa’s Foreign Policy: The Search for Status and Security, 1945 -1988 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[3] John D’Oliviera, Vorster, The Man (Johannesburg: Ernest Stanton, 1977).

[4] H.O. Terblanche, OB-Generaal en Afrikaner-vegter (Roodepoort CUM Boeke, 1983).

[5] B.J. Vorster, Select Speeches, (Bloemfontein: University of the Free State Press, 1979). p. 221.

[6] Vorster, Select Speeches, p. 231

[7] Henry Kissinger, Years of Renewal (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1999), p. 791.

[8] Kissinger, Years of Renewal, p. 811.

[9] Piero Gleijesis, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, Pretoria (Alberton:  Galago Books, 2003), pp. 230-72

[10] Hermann Giliomee, The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Crucial Test of Power (Charlottesville: Virginia. 2014). I cite here fax messages to me by Gen. Viljoen.

[11] John Stockwell. In Search of Enemies: A CIA Story (London: André Deutsch, 1978),

[12] For an account of my interview with him just before his death see my “B.J. Vorster and the Sultan’s horse”, Frontline, November 1983.