This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
A New Mood In Moscow: Soviet Attitudes To South Africa
Policy Research Manager
South African Institute of Race Relations 1989
Published by the South African Institute of Race RelationsAuden House, 68 De Korte Street,Braamfontcin, Johannesburg, 2001 South AfricaCopyright © South African Institute of Race Relations, 1989PD 1/89ISBN 0-86982-351-5ISSN 1011-5552
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The Parameters of Policy 5
The End of Apartheid? - Goals and Means 10
'Group Rights' 10
Ways and Means: The ANC and 'armed struggle' 12
The ANC View 15Interpretation: Have Things Changed or Do They
Stay the Same? 18
Framing Policy: Who Are the Actors? 18
The Limits On Policy Making 20
The Limits of Soviet Influence 23
Recent publications of the South African Institute of Race Relations
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Stanley Mogoba: Race Relations - Survival Kit for the Future (1989)
Charles Simkins: The Prisoners of Tradition and the Politics of Nation Building (1989)
Harry Mashabela: Townships of the PWV (1988) Monica Bot: Training on Separate Tracks (1988) Paul Hendler: Urban Policy and Housing (1988)
Claire Pickard-Cambridge: Sharing the Cities: Residential desegregation in Harare, Windhoek and Mafikeng (1988)
Claire Pickard-Cambridge: The Greying of Johannesburg (1988)
John Dreijmanis: The Role of the South African Government in Tertiary Education (1988)
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Melville Festenstein and Claire Pickard-Cambridge: Land and Race - South Africa's Group Areas and Land Acts (1987)
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These are available from:
The Publications Department,
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P 0 Box 31044,
For two closely related reasons, Soviet thinking on South Africa has received unprecedented attention in South Africa over the past year.
The first is that, since mid-1987, contact has been established between Soviet southern Africa specialists and South Africans who operate legally within the country. Local academics and journalists have visited the Soviet Union (and a correspondent for the Soviet newspaper Izvestia recently visited South Africa) as have opposition figures unconnected to the African National Congress (ANC). Recently, a group of South African academics and politicians held talks with a Soviet delegation (and ANC representatives) in Leverkusen, West Germany. That the Soviets, whose contact with South Africans had been largely limited to the ANC, appeared to be seeking contact with individuals and organisations allowed to operate within the country (including journalists on pro-government newspapers) was seen as significant in itself.
The second is that the Soviet views to which South Africans have been exposed have seemed to reveal a sharp change in the USSR's approach to the country. The superpower which had been accused repeatedly by the government of waging a 'total onslaught' on South Africa and whose South Africa policy seemed to be based solely on a desire to speed a socialist revolution, now appeared to be talking a language which sounded similar to that of anti-apartheid 'moderates' within the country. The rhetoric of class struggle seemed to have been abandoned and some Soviet academics seemed more interested in finding formulae which could allay white fears than in devising ways of overthrowing the white government by force.
The apparent change has been interpreted in a variety of ways. To some, it means that the Soviet Union plans to abandon its traditional ally, the ANC. To others, it suggests that the USSR might seek to co-operate with Western powers, chiefly the United States, to secure a negotiated settlement in South Africa. Some have implied that the new Soviet approach might open the way to formal contact between governments in Moscow and Pretoria. But all the analysts have agreed on one point - that the apparent change in strategy might have a crucial bearing on South Africa's future.
However, despite the increased contact of the past year, for most South African researchers, these analyses are based on second-hand information - opportunities to meet and talk to Soviet South Africa specialists are still rare. Last year, the South African Institute of Race
Relations was invited to send two researchers to visit Moscow as guests of the Africa Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences to hold talks with Soviet researchers and scholars who specialised in Southern Africa issues.
The trip was undertaken by the Policy Research Manager, Steven Friedman, and a Research Officer, Monty Narsoo in November and it allowed them to assess, first hand, the accuracy of current analyses of Soviet policy. They held formal meetings with researchers attached to the Africa Institute's Southern Africa countries department; the Institute's deputy director, Dr Gleb Starushenko; the department of African history at the Soviet Institute of General History; the Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee; journalists attached to the Africa desk at the Novosti Press Agency; and the ANC's permanent mission in Moscow. They also had additional informal meetings with Africa Institute researchers, the Solidarity Committee and the ANC mission. They requested a meeting with a South Africa specialist at the Soviet foreign ministry, but this could not be arranged as the appropriate officials were not available. The discussions confirmed some local perceptions about Soviet policy - but suggested also that much of the reportage and analysis which has appeared in South Africa has over-simplified current Soviet thinking on South Africa. This Topical Briefing is their report.
Recent reports have suggested that Soviet policy towards South Africa has changed dramatically. Talks in Moscow with Soviet South Africa specialists reveal that the approach has changed - but that the shift is more complex than has been implied.
Soviet attitudes are now based on two principles. The first is that the USSR does not want to install socialism here - it insists that its sole goal is the destruction of apartheid and that it is for South Africans to decide what it is replaced by: most Soviet South Africa specialists believe a majority government will not be socialist. The second is that, despite its continued military support for the ANC, the Soviet Union would prefer a political settlement to the overthrow of apartheid by force. These attitudes have been shaped by the reform climate in the Soviet Union and by its unwillingness to devote resources, which it needs at home, to waging foreign conflicts.
Within these parameters, however, there are important differences among Soviet South Africa specialists. Some favour protection for racial group rights and argue that the Soviet Union should pressure the ANC into negotiating: others believe it should continue to support the ANC and its 'armed struggle' unconditionally but should also attempt to allay white fears and so encourage a settlement. Views emanating from Moscow are no longer necessarily those of the government and there is now considerable fluidity in Soviet thinking. Debate is likely to continue at least until the Soviets have a greater detailed understanding of events within South Africa (which they are trying to gain) or until the USSR is forced to take a detailed position on South Africa, which is now a low priority issue. What policy will then be is not yet clear.
Policy will, however, be framed within two limits. The first is the Soviet Union's desire to avoid costly foreign engagements: its chief goal at present is not to wage a 'total onslaught' against Pretoria but to reduce its commitments in the region. The second is its need to continue supporting the ANC: it cannot abandon its ally, if only because doing so would damage its credibility in the Third World. In sum, the Soviet Union would like to be relieved of the need to support the ANC's 'armed struggle' but knows that this is impossible unless a political settlement which can be negotiated is 'sold' to the ANC and can ensure that there is no longer a perceived need for violence. The USSR's chief aim now is to find ways of bringing Pretoria to the bargaining table - a goal it shares with the West.
This change in Soviet approaches, although it is still partial, has important implications for South African politics. On the one hand, it strengthens the hand of supporters of a negotiated settlement because it suggests that, if the Soviet view prevails, this would not necessarily require a change in the economic system and might also include guarantees for minorities. Current Soviet thinking might also influence debate within the ANC and the extra-parliamentary movement generally, strengthening supporters of political, rather than military, strategies.
The Parameters of Policy
Perhaps our overriding impression was of the divergence of views among Soviet South Africa specialists. There is certainly no single 'Soviet line' on South Africa and a lively debate is taking place between researchers. On several occasions, members of the groups to whom we spoke differed among themselves on key points and we were frequently told that a particular view - including some which have been reported here - was that of an individual only.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, a key element of the reform process which is under way in the Soviet Union is that academics are being encouraged to express new and unconventional ideas - on foreign as well as domestic policy. This means that researchers' views do not have to be approved by officialdom before they are published and that wider debate is now possible; it means also that their analyses and policy positions can no longer automatically be assumed to be those of their government. Secondly, the Soviets have acknowledged that their previous policy, which was based almost solely on providing military and diplomatic support to the ANC, needs at the very least to be augmented by approaches which encourage a political settlement. Because the old approach is being partly reassessed, a range of new options is being discussed. The Soviets also lack detailed information on South African society, which is obviously essential if they are to frame a more nuanced policy. Since they are entering uncharted waters, the old approach has not been replaced with a detailed alternative and it is inevitable that, in this context, a range of options which might later be altered or rejected is being aired.
Nevertheless, there were broad areas of agreement between all the groups to whom we spoke which set the parameters within which Soviet policy options are debated. These confirm that the traditional South African government view, which suggests that the Soviets are seeking to launch a 'total onslaught' on South Africa, a campaign to overthrow the present system by force and replace it with a socialist one, is inaccurate.
South Africa policy is obviously determined within the overall framework of Soviet foreign policy, which is in turn being framed within the context of the 'new political thinking' in the USSR. One consequence of the current reforms has been a change in the Soviet Union's stated foreign goals; a Soviet historian spelled out to us the broad principles of the new approach.
Its thrust, he said, was that humanity and human values should take precedence over national and class interests in international relations.
Ideological differences between East and West would thus play a secondary role to concerns such as the need to avoid nuclear war and famine, and environmental issues. The Soviets want to reduce their military presence all over the world and seek political resolutions to the major theatres of conflict. In essence foreign policy now seeks to achieve stability in areas in which the Soviet Union is involved, particularly those in which there are - or could be - regional conflicts.
The key reason for this policy, particularly the search for stability, is that the Soviet Union urgently needs to devote its resources to developing its economy: it does not want to become involved in expensive foreign commitments which would sap those resources. If reasonable and peaceful foreign arrangements with the West can be achieved, the Soviets will be not only be able to get on with the job of modernising their economy but their access to much-needed Western technology and trade will be improved. One obvious implication is that conflict with the West is to be avoided and joint Soviet-Western approaches to settling regional conflicts are to be sought. In essence, the new Soviet approach is to try to extricate the USSR from regional conflicts by seeking settlements to them.
Even this general view is, of course, not unanimous. The contrary view was expressed in August by the former Politburo chief of ideology, Mr Yegor Ligachev, who said that 'class struggle' was still a fundamental element of Soviet foreign relations and that the USSR would continue to support Third World 'liberation movements', both by arming them and encouraging domestic dissent within countries whose governments these movements hoped to replace. It is no coincidence that Mr Ligachev is also a critic of aspects of the current internal reform programme: those who favour the old ways on domestic issues do so on foreign policy too. However, at present, the new approach spelled out above is clearly the official one (Mr Ligachev has been demoted to a lesser position in the government) and is likely to remain so unless the current Communist Party leadership is replaced by one opposed or less committed to reform.
On South Africa specifically, we gained the impression that detailed official policy formulation is on the backburner while more pressing domestic and foreign issues are tackled. This may also partly explain the wide-ranging debate which we encountered: since there is no urgent need to frame policy, officials have no reason to encourage researchers to adhere to a policy 'line'. Although there are differing approaches, however, those involved in the debate do share some common perceptions.
The first parameter within which policy is being discussed is that the USSR is not committed to ensuring that a post-apartheid, society is socialist. We were told repeatedly that the aim of Soviet policy was 'the elimination of apartheid' - what it was replaced by was a matter for South Africans to decide. During our visit, an article by Mr Boris Asoyan of the foreign ministry (who acted briefly as Soviet ambassador in Lesotho recently) appeared in the weekly Literary Gazette: it sharply criticised previous Soviet Africa policy, arguing that it had sought to impose socialism on societies which were not ready for it. This view, applied to South Africa, was shared by everyone to whom we spoke.
We were told repeatedly that any post-apartheid system freely chosen by South Africans would be acceptable to the Soviet Union; while Soviets obviously preferred socialism, they would not impose it on others. This view was repeatedly motivated on altruistic grounds, but Mr Asoyan's article and other insights we gathered suggests that it is based more on the strategic view that attempts to establish a socialist system now would be both costly and futile. Most of the people to whom we spoke believed that it was unlikely that a post-apartheid government would be socialist:'It is impossible at present to change the South African social system, only the elimination of apartheid is possible,' a senior academic argued. If anything, however, this gives greater credibility to the Soviets' stated position since it suggests that it is based on a hard-nosed strategic assessment.
We were also told repeatedly that the Soviet Union's opposition to apartheid was shared by the entire international community - our informants made no distinction between the Soviet attitude and that of the rest of the world. This suggests that, having abandoned their commitment to socialism in South Africa (at least as a short- or medium-term goal), the Soviets are now seeking to adopt approaches to apartheid which can be shared by other countries, notably the major Western powers. This raises the possibility of Soviet-Western co-operation on South Africa policy.
The second assumption shared by all our informants is that a political settlement would be preferable to a military one. The Soviets, of course, continue to arm the ANC. But they insist that the ANC has been forced to resort to 'armed struggle' and that its aim remains a negotiated settlement. No conflict since World War Two, a Soviet journalist noted, had been settled entirely by military means. If the South African government was willing to end apartheid and negotiate with the ANC, the need for violence would disappear and it would be abandoned. Until then, 'armed struggle' was necessary, but not as a substitute for negotiation. It was, rather, a means of forcing Pretoria to the negotiating table. In language reminiscent of that used in western Europe, people to whom we spoke talked of the need to avoid a damaging civil war - one view expressed was that the Soviets would not like to see South Africa experience a revolution as bloody and costly as their own. Some stressed also that South Africa should not be allowed to become a theatre of East-West conflict. Apartheid had to be opposed not only because it was not humane, but because it was a threat to stability.
One obvious implication of favouring a political settlement is that South Africa's fate will not be settled only by the military balance of force between the government and the ANC: political pressures for change within South Africa are therefore more important than they were to the previous approach. This translates not only into an interest in making contact with opponents of apartheid within the country (of which the Leverkusen meeting is the most conspicuous evidence) but into a desire to know more about developments within South Africa. The Soviets accept that their knowledge of South Africa is scanty - none, of course, has ever visited the country - and, significantly, they see this as a problem. This is in itself significant: foreigners who believe that only guerrilla war or sanctions can end apartheid often show little desire to know details of events within the country since they regard these as irrelevant'. The current Soviet desire for information about our internal politics therefore itself implies that approaches to South Africa are changing.
These views are in sharp contrast with those which South Africans schooled in 'total strategy' theory would expect to hear in Moscow: they suggest that policy has indeed changed dramatically. Interestingly, however, most of the groups we met were at pains to stress it had not changed at all. And, the closer they were to the official view, the more eager they were to emphasise this. We were told that Soviet researchers had stressed more than 20 years ago that arms alone could not overthrow apartheid; the desire for contact with non-ANC opponents of the system was not new but contact had only become possible now because significant internal opposition to the system had emerged only in the past few years - it was South Africa, not Soviet policy, which had changed. People who held this view were at particular pains to stress that the Soviet relationship with the ANC had not changed - indeed that it had become closer - and that the Soviets are, for example, as opposed to contact with the South African government as they have ever been.
On this point, most people stressed that, despite the greater willingness to talk to South Africans within the country, there would be no official contact with the South African government or people linked with it. They acknowledged that there had been contact between the two governments - at both the Angolan talks and at the International Atomic Energy Agency, for example. There has also been contact with private sector representatives of the precious metals and minerals industries. They insisted, however, that these contacts were informal and occurred only where they were absolutely necessary: there is little likelihood of more formal contact in the near future.
At the same time, this does not rule out the possibility of negotiation on specific issues. A Soviet academic noted that the international community is now more inclined to negotiate with the government because of its role in the Angolan talks. He added, however, that this view would only be strengthened if the government showed an intention to abolish apartheid. If it did, the tendency by the world community to simply mete out punishment would be lessened and support and contact in specific areas would be enhanced. But at this stage, it seems likely that formal contact with the government on internal political issues would only be possible if this was formally approved by the ANC.
The Soviet Union does have a clear interest in insisting that its policy has not changed. It derives substantial credibility in the Third World from its support for 'national liberation' movements such as the ANC and it does not want to give the impression that it is preparing to abandon its ally. But this constraint also means that there are limits to the extent to which policy can change: there is no prospect of the Soviet Union abandoning its formal support for the ANC to forge a relationship with the South African government or, indeed, with opposition groups hostile to the ANC.
At the same time, there clearly has been a change in approach: Mr Asoyan's article certainly suggests that the views which are now current in Moscow were not always so. The Soviet leadership is now committed publicly to avoiding regional conflicts and the new approach reflects this. While it will certainly not result in a Moscow-Pretoria pact, it may have important implications for events in South Africa. These are discussed below.
The End of Apartheid? - Goals and Means
The views discussed thus far are shared by all the groups to whom we spoke: the goal of current Soviet policy is indeed to end apartheid, rather than capitalism, and to do it if at all possible by peaceful means. But that is where the unanimity ends. There are important, although at times subtle, differences on what would constitute the end of apartheid and on how this should be achieved.
One divide is over racial 'group rights'. The view that these would have to be built into a post-apartheid political system has been argued by Dr Starushenko in a paper which has been reported within South Africa. He argued, in effect, that white power could not simply be defeated and that the rights of whites as a group (rather than as individuals) would therefore have to be accommodated. He suggested an upper house of parliament in which whites would have a number of guaranteed seats and a veto right. The paper has not, to the best of our knowledge, been publicly repudiated (perhaps because South Africa is a low priority issue and officials therefore see no burning need to react to unconventional views), although we were told that Soviet officials had partially distanced themselves from it.
In an interview, Dr Starushenko defended his position on two grounds. Firstly, he implied that ethnicity was a South African reality which had to be recognised: 'You will have ethnic differences in your country for the next one hundred years,' he said. Apartheid would be abolished, he suggested, when all ethnic groups (rather than individuals, presumably) had equal rights.
This view is partly influenced by contemporary Soviet politics in which demands for national and regional autonomy are a key issue - he referred explicitly to this in our discussion, noting that the Soviet experience has been that ethnic differences outlast for many years attempts to abolish them. In one state there could be several nations: another reference to the USSR itself. He stressed that he personally did not sympathise with people who valued ethnicity - he believed they were 'misguided' - but that events in the USSR had shown that they could not be wished away. Political arrangements had also to reflect the 'spiritual development' of people: it was not necessary to impose solutions for which people were not yet ready, and South Africa might not yet be ready for an entirely non-racial system.
Secondly, he saw the need for racial guarantees as a tactical issue.
Revolutions, he explained, could only occur when the 'ruling class' lost confidence in itself, when deep divisions opened up within it. But the May, 1987, white election had shown that the bulk of South African whites were united in their support for the system: the 1988 municipal elections had shown that the right wing was not as strong as had been thought, and this, too made a split within the ruling group less likely. These and other developments confirmed that the conditions for revolution were simply not present in South Africa. A compromise between white and black interests was necessary and this was also in line with a world-wide trend to seek political solutions to conflicts. These solutions would, however, have to reflect the balance of forces between the contending parties in a society and the formula he had proposed might accurately reflect the most blacks could gain under present conditions, he implied. Asked whether a settlement based on 'group rights' would constitute an end to apartheid, he replied that 'the truth is what people can live with', implying that a settlement based on 'group rights' might fall short of the goals of 'purist' opponents of apartheid, but that it might provide a compromise with which black and white South Africans can live. He did, however, add that it was up to black South Africans to decide when apartheid had been abolished.
We asked Dr Starushenko for his views on the indaba proposals which, we noted, seemed similar to his own. He replied that he was personally 'rather sympathetic' to them because they contained 'elements of rationality' but that 'political realities', specifically the stance of the ANC, would make it difficult for the USSR to endorse them. This illustrates the point implied earlier: that the Soviet Union would not be totally free to support proposals advanced by the ANC's opponents or to take positions which it rejected. We will return to this point.
Dr Starushenko's thesis has been portrayed in some analyses as the current Soviet view on South Africa. However, most of the people to whom we spoke were at pains to stress that it was not. We were told repeatedly that it reflected his personal views only and that these were explicitly rejected by most other Soviet researchers and policy-makers. Westerners, we were told, seemed to assume that anything a Soviet researcher said in public was the official position. However, particularly since perestroika, Soviet scholars were permitted, indeed encouraged, to express independent views and the fact that Dr Starushenko was permitted to express a view so sharply at variance with majority thinking was evidence of this. Opponents of the Starushenko view do not advance an alternative constitutional model: they reiterate the view that South Africans should decide for themselves what system they want and that to extrapolate from Soviet experiences might not be a good idea. As noted below, this is the ANC's position, too, and this view is advanced by people sympathetic to it.
The suggestion that Dr Starushenko is a lone maverick overstates the position. His view is endorsed by some of the researchers within his institute (possibly by most of them, according to one source) and, they told us, his paper setting them out had been based on their work. Some went further than he had, suggesting, in language similar to that of South African conservatives, that minority African 'tribal' groups feared domination by bigger groups such as the Zulus and that their concerns would have to be accommodated. (This was not the only occasion on which we found ourselves arguing for a more liberal position than that advanced by some of our hosts.) However, it is indeed misleading to see it as the Soviet position. It is one view only and it has influential opponents. As noted above, South Africa specialists do indeed differ and Soviet thinking appears more fluid than ever before. To see it as the official view would therefore be as inaccurate as to dismiss it entirely.
Ways and Means: The ANC and 'armed struggle'
Similar differences emerged on how apartheid was to be eliminated. The traditional position was put by the deputy chairman of the Solidarity Committee, Dr Vassily Solodovnikov, a former Soviet ambassador to Zambia, who was, several years ago, regularly portrayed in the local National Party press as the man who conducted the 'total onslaught' from Lusaka. He rejected the view that foreign agencies would have most impact on South Africa if they sought to influence domestic pressures for change. Attempts to do this had failed over the past four decades and only international isolation, as well as pressures such as sanctions (and, presumably, guerrilla warfare) were likely to end apartheid.
However, several other members of the committee stressed that these were his personal views, with which they differed. They saw the emergence of forces within the country which posed a challenge to apartheid as important and suggested that the Soviet Union should seek to strengthen them. What this difference means in practice, however, was not entirely clear. Thus both Mr Solodovnikov and Solidarity members who differed with him said they believed it important to make contact with white anti- apartheid opinion-formers. They went on to suggest that, far from representing a reduced commitment to the ANC, this approach was actually designed to strengthen it. White South Africans, they said, believed both that the ANC was controlled from Moscow and that both it and its Soviet 'masters' were determined to engineer a bloodbath here.
The more white South Africans were exposed to Soviet views, the more they would realise that this was a caricature and the more likely would they be to entertain a settlement with the ANC. The aim of these contacts was, therefore, specifically to aid the ANC in its attempt to secure a political settlement.
This explanation is important, because the current Soviet interest in groups and individuals within the country could be - and has been - seen as a weakening of its commitment to the ANC's 'armed struggle', or even to the movement itself. The Soviet Union's relations with the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) goes back many decades. It has provided the ANC with material aid including arms. It has also provided academic and military training for ANC cadres. This was part of its policy of providing support for resistance movements and in particular for its ideological allies worldwide. Its relationship with the ANC and in particular with the SACP was close.
On this issue, too, some differences were discernible. As noted above, people who seemed closest to official thinking stressed that this alliance had not weakened at all. The Solidarity Committee insisted that the commitment to the ANC remained: Soviet strategy may have become more flexible but it had not changed. A Soviet journalist acknowledged that there had indeed been a change in approach - the situation in South Africa was not seen in simplistic black (ANC) versus white (NP) terms and this had obviously changed perceptions - but this did not mean abandoning principles or allies. Far from reducing its links with the ANC, the Solidarity Committee noted, the USSR had, a year ago, invited it to establish a permanent mission in Moscow whose head, Mr Simon Makhana, has near-ambassadorial status.
People who held this view noted that the ANC was itself committed to a political solution and to strengthening anti-apartheid pressure within the country: if the USSR could help it do so, it would. At the same time, until the South African government was ready to negotiate, it had to be subjected to a variety of pressures, of which 'armed struggle' was one: an 'armed liberation struggle' was necessary if there was no political movement. The Soviet Union was thus obliged to help the ANC wage guerrilla war.
This view was, however, qualified: the Soviet Union would make a clear distinction between 'armed struggle' and 'terrorism' which, we were told, had never been a Marxist tactic. If the targets were military, police, transport, and communications, violence was legitimate: if it was population, crops, and atomic installations than it was unacceptable. But this qualification did not mean that the USSR had to supply arms to the
ANC conditionally (on an undertaking not to attack civilian targets).
When asked whether guerrilla action against civilian targets would not hamper attempts to achieve a political settlement, they referred us to ANC statements distancing the movement from these incidents and added that attacking civilian targets was clearly not ANC policy: there was no need to impose conditions even if this was feasible. Solidarity Committee members also suggested that the Soviet Union's role as a supplier of arms to the ANC did not give it the leverage which we implied: it was easy to buy arms on the world market and, if the Soviets did not supply them to the ANC, someone else would. A similar view was put by Dr Starushenko, who argued that the South African government's perceived refusal to abolish apartheid weakened the hand of those who opposed 'terrorism'. As long as little was done to end apartheid, he argued, the Soviet Union was compelled to support 'armed struggle' because this appeared to be the only way of hastening change (international law, he argued, did not define a 'war of national liberation' as 'terrorism') - 'and this puts us in a difficult position because we cannot tell our friends that we approve of one part of their struggle, but not another'. In other words, attacks on civilians might end only when 'armed struggle' did and this would only become possible if there was movement towards a political settlement.
A further potential qualification was the view that, in foreign policy generally, the Soviet Union should not offer 'liberation movements' support which would enable them to threaten regional stability. But we were also told repeatedly that, at present, it was not the ANC or 'armed struggle' which threatened southern African stability but apartheid and the stance of the South African government: until the government's stance changed, therefore, there was no conflict between support for 'armed struggle' and a desire for regional peace.
Again, however, these views were not unanimous. Some Africa Institute researchers were critical of the 'armed struggle', arguing that it could not end apartheid and could not therefore, be justified morally or politically. Some criticised a view which they discerned among some ANC activists that guerrilla war could on its own achieve change. They were particularly critical of attacks on civilian targets, and suggested that the Soviet Union indeed could - and should - exert pressure on the ANC to prevent these. This view must also be qualified: people who advance it argue that it is not politically feasible for the Soviet Union to refuse to arm the ANC. But one researcher argued that it could refuse to do this unless attacks on civilians ended and that it could also withhold arms unless the ANC offered the South African government a 'truce' on condition that Pretoria agreed to negotiate with it. (These researchers' opposition to violence also had implications for their attitude towards Inkatha and hence to the indaba - they argued that Inkatha's apparent willingness to use violence against its opponents made it difficult to support an arrangement from which it would benefit.) We were told that this approach had significant support within the Africa Institute, but this could not be confirmed. At present, however, it appears to be very much a minority position.
Discussions on this issue again confirmed differences of opinion among South Africa specialists. Differences on 'armed struggle' and relationships with the ANC are, however limited: they reveal differing emphases rather than a battle between two distinct policy options. This may well reflect the limits within which Soviet policy on this issue can be made.
The ANC View
In an attempt to test whether Soviet attitudes to the ANC had changed, we also met Mr Makhana and a member of his mission. They, too, stressed-that there had been no change in the relationship. They pointed to the ANC's new status in Moscow and noted also that, while there were indeed contacts between Soviets and non-ANC South Africans, the ANC was consulted about them and had approved them. The ANC, they said, was regularly consulted by the Soviet government on issues affecting southern Africa.
We then pointed out that the Soviet Union had played a prominent role in negotiations on Angola and Namibia which could well culminate in an agreement which would deprive the ANC of its bases in Angola. This seemed to imply that the Soviet Union placed the settlement of regional conflicts above its alliance with the ANC: if it did this in Angola, why should it not do so in South Africa itself? The response was that, if the ANC lost its Angolan bases, it would be because this was in the interests of the Angolan government, rather than the Soviet Union: the ANC would understand Angola's reasons and sympathised with them. The matter was one between an African government and an African 'liberation movement' - there was no suggestion that the USSR has imposed its own agenda on an unwilling ally.
The ANC representatives stressed that, as Soviet allies, they expected to be consulted on Soviet policy shifts. They had no reason to believe they would not be since, as noted above, they were regularly consulted. Since the Soviets had given no indication that policy had changed, the ANC had no reason to believe that it had.
Like many of the Soviet specialists we spoke to, the ANC was critical of proposals such as Dr Starushenko's. It attacked them on two grounds. The first was that the ANC had not been consulted about them - its representatives suggested that Soviet academics should consult South Africans which, in Moscow, means the ANC, before devising proposals for their constitutional future. The second was that the details conflicted with the ANC's firm opposition to incorporating racial 'group rights' in a political settlement, a view which has not changed. However, the ANC, too, sees these views as those of a small minority and, its representative said, is not overly perturbed by them.
The ANC's insistence that there has been no change in the relationship between it and the Soviet Union may well be formally correct, at least at this stage. But the ANC is apprehensive, if not about its relationship with the USSR, about the way it is being portrayed. The ANC representatives told us that reports of a shift in Soviet policy had created problems for the 'liberation movement' - some of its own members were alarmed by them and had asked for clarification. The reports, they said, had created the impression that even the ANC's most loyal ally was beginning to abandon it and this was obviously damaging to the movement. The ANC was therefore eager to refute these reports.
This implies, of course, that, even if the relationship had changed, the ANC would have no interest in confirming this publicly and every interest in denying it. As noted above, the Soviet Union would have an equal interest in denying a change. This, of course, does not necessarily mean that one has occurred - but it does suggest that if, or when, the relationship was changed, the evidence would not be readily apparent.
The picture is further complicated by the fact that a search for new strategies is not only taking place in the Soviet Union - it is occurring within the ANC as well. Since it commenced 'armed struggle' in the early 1960s, the ANC has never seen this strategy simply as a means of overthrowing the government, but as a complement to political strategies: the recourse to arms was initially reflected in a sabotage campaign which aimed to warn whites of the depth of black grievances - attacks on civilian targets were explicitly prohibited. Since armed resistance began, it has been aimed as much, if not more, at bringing the government to the negotiating table as at defeating it physically. During the mid-1980s, the ANC did move towards an insurrectionary strategy in reaction to conflict in the townships, but this strategy has been largely halted, at least for the time being, by government security action. At the moment there is a debate within the ANC on whether to escalate 'armed struggle' or to step up political and diplomatic initiatives. Some analysts have detected an increased ANC interest in negotiation and have attributed this to Soviet influence. But, as the preceding account has implied, the 'shift' within the ANC is not as clear-cut as that: options are still being debated and, even if negotiation is emphasised, this would simply highlight a long-standing strain in ANC thinking. In addition, any shift could be as much a reaction to strategic realities as to messages from Moscow.
In other words, it is not clear whether ANC thinking is being influenced by that in the Soviet Union or by the strategic challenges which face the banned movement. What is clear is that current Soviet thinking coincides with that of an influential strand in the ANC which seeks to emphasise the political, rather than the military. Clearly, the changed climate in Moscow will strengthen the hand of those within the ANC who favour a similar approach - perhaps decisively. The irony for 'total onslaught' theorists, of course, is that, whatever influence the Soviet Union enjoys within the ANC, it is being exercised in favour of 'moderation'. One other point about the relationship must be noted. Until recently, Soviet information on South Africa has been gleaned largely from the ANC. If contact with non-ANC people inside the country continues, the Soviets will encounter different perspectives, and this could influence both their strategic approach and their relationship with the ANC. This point should not be misunderstood: the people with whom they are likely to maintain contact will share the ANC's commitment to a non-racial society and are unlikely to be overtly hostile to the ANC, even if they rejects its recourse to arms. The contact would not, therefore, pose a challenge to the ANC as an organisation. But people operating legally inside the country inevitably have slightly different concerns to an exiled movement and Soviet researchers and policy-makers have, until now, been largely unaware of these. Increased contact would introduce them to new concerns and new issues which could have an influence on policy.
Interpretation: Have Things Changed or Do They Stay the Same?
The analysis and reportage thus far have attempted to convey in detail some Soviet attitudes towards South Africa. The obvious question, however, is what the varying views mean for policy - and what a change, or lack of it, in Soviet policy would mean for South Africa. It is useful to begin with some brief observations on the nature of Soviet decision-making on South Africa policy.
Framing Policy: Who Are the Actors?
The point that there is no monolithic South Africa policy approach in Moscow has already been made. A variety of actors - and approaches are contending for influence and the debate may be just beginning. Indeed, in some respects, we were struck by the similarity between debate on South Africa in Moscow and discussion within our own officialdom on internal reform. In both cases, an orthodoxy has been discarded and it is not clear what is to be put in its place: in both cases, this results in a divergence of views which is not always readily apparent to the casual observer. In both cases there are broad guidelines - we have noted that the Soviets agree in principle on the desirability of a political settlement and on the inadvisability of actively seeking socialism but room for a great deal of difference on emphasis. And, in both cases, the differences in emphasis may be great enough to imply very different policy approaches. The fluidity of the Soviet debate on South Africa is increased by the fact that the country is a low foreign policy priority at present. This means that the incentive for politicians to demand support for a particular line is diminished - indeed it is not at all clear that the Soviet government feels that there is a need to frame a detailed official policy yet.
At one end of the debate is the Africa Institute, at least some of whose researchers are adopting extremely novel approaches - some of which are conservative even when measured against the debate within South Africa. At the other is the Solidarity Committee, most of whose members stressed repeatedly that no policy change had occurred. In the 'middle', perhaps, is the African history department. Its director, Professor Appolon Davidson (who was lecturing at America's Yale University when we visited Moscow), has suggested that the Soviet Union needs to frame a South Africa policy based on a detailed understanding of events within the country and its researchers need to improve their understanding of the country's internal political dynamics: the need to improve the Soviet 'feel' for events within the country was also stressed by the members of his department whom we met. However, they have not endorsed the new positions advanced by some members of the Africa Institute and were critical of many of them. The position is complicated by the fact that members of the two academic institutions also serve on the Solidarity Committee.
On the surface, the Solidarity Committee is the most influential of the three bodies. We were told that it was closer to official thinking - several of its key members also belong to the Communist Party while the researchers we met at the Africa Institute do not - and the Soviet delegation to the West German meeting was made up of committee members. The Africa Institute's members were themselves at pains to stress that they did not see themselves as influential: researchers, a senior institute academic noted, had more freedom to explore alternatives than officials - but less influence. Politicians, they insisted, paid very little attention to academics when they framed policy. There is a temptation to see the Solidarity Committee leadership as hard-headed political actors who represent the mainstream view and the researchers as intellectuals who are free to tinker with theories to which officials rarely listen.
On the other hand, Africa Institute research is submitted automatically to political decision-makers and it does function at least in part as a 'think tank', although some of its members were not enthusiastic about that description. It may play a role similar to that of local academic institutes sympathetic to the government: to articulate positions which are not necessarily endorsed by the politicians, but are read by, and considered, by them. In South Africa, these academics have repeatedly been ahead of government thinking: on issues such as trade union rights, influx control or citizenship, their views have been rejected - or, at least, not adopted - by politicians at first, but were adopted later when realities forced a revision of traditional policies.
Similarly, it is likely that the mainstream views on the Solidarity Committee broadly represent official thinking but it is at least conceivable that some of the more unconventional views expressed by academic researchers could gain influence in the future. This possibility is increased by the fact that South Africa is a low Soviet priority now. Firstly, politicians have less of a direct stake in policy (what happens in South Africa is unlikely to make or break a Soviet official or politician) and so may be liable to listen to other views; secondly, if the Soviet Union is obliged to take a detailed policy stance on South Africa in the future,
the politicians' lack of detailed knowledge may force them to turn to researchers for advice. An Africa Institute researcher may have partly summed up its potential influence by citing the parable of the wise and the foolish rabbi: the wise rabbi is one who gives advice only when asked for it. The Institute, he implied, favoured the same sort of wisdom - it tried to offer advice only when officials felt they needed it and this might increase the likelihood that it would be heeded.
Perhaps the key point, however, is that there are differences within the institutions themselves and that, as noted above, Soviet policy is in a state of flux. This is hardly surprising. As noted above, the Soviet Union is now seeking, albeit indirectly and in a very limited way, to support political pressures for a settlement and to frame approaches to events within South Africa - events for which they have very little 'feel'. If their attempt to seek first-hand information continues, it is likely that the debate will become more clearly focused as the options come to be based on a clearer understanding of how South Africa works.
If a clearer, more detailed, policy does emerge, however, it will not be framed entirely freely. The options will be limited by realities which the Soviets will have to take into account.
The Limits On Policy Making
The first limit is the Soviet Union's current unwillingness to devote resources to supporting foreign allies in regional conflicts - or, as the Soviets themselves put it, their commitment to seeking peaceful solutions to these conflicts in an attempt to guarantee stability. This has, of course, already been partially demonstrated in Afghanistan and Angola.
This is only a limit if the choice has been forced on the USSR: a freely-taken decision to pursue a different foreign policy approach can always be reversed. Most of the people to whom we spoke were, of course, at pains to stress that the desire for regional settlements was a freely-taken decision, a moral option designed to make the world a safer place.
But not all were - some insisted that the Soviet Union had no option but to pursue the course it is now pursuing. Echoing some analyses in the West, they said that the pressures were economic: the Soviet Union simply could not afford the resources necessary to throw its weight solidly behind foreign 'liberation movements'. In South Africa, particularly, the commitment required to unconditionally support the ANC's 'armed struggle' indefinitely might well become burdensome.
This point clearly has some substance. It implies that, regardless of internal shifts in Soviet politics, the USSR will retain an interest in a settlement in South Africa and that it will grasp the opportunity for one should it present itself. None of the people to whom we spoke denied this - indeed, all were eager to stress it. The difference between them, of course, lies in what kind of settlement they believed the USSR could accept and on the extent to which they felt it should seek to influence the ANC to accept opportunities for a settlement which might present themselves. At present, the point is academic: there is no prospect yet of a settlement in South Africa which Western conservatives, let alone the Soviets, could credibly support. In the future, however, this point could be extremely significant for it raises the prospect of co-operation between the USSR and the West to secure a settlement. The relationship between the Soviets and the ANC is crucial, of course, because, if that possibility were to present itself, the Soviet contribution would stein from its real or potential influence with the banned movement.
This introduces the second limit on policy - that there are limits to the extent to which the USSR can be seen to adopt strategies or pursue settlements which would imply abandoning the ANC. We have already referred to aspects of the relationship between the two. The Soviet Union does, of course, have actual or potential influence with the ANC because it supplies it with arms and other resources. In theory, it could always refuse to continue doing so. Protestations that supplying arms confers no influence at all because the ANC could always find these elsewhere are implausible - while the ANC would obviously survive without the USSR, it would clearly be weakened, politically and militarily, if the relationship was severed or even weakened: hence its concern, reported above, to counter suggestions that Soviet support is weakening.
But the ANC is certainly not a pawn of the Soviet Union - nor could the USSR lightly abandon the movement even if it decided that it was in its interests to do so. At the very least, to be seen to do so would damage Soviet credibility in the Third World and would create the impression that it was an unreliable ally. South Africa's leaders, an academic noted, had to realise that, by the end of the century, five out of every six human beings would inhabit the 'developing world' - the twenty first century would be the 'century of the developing world' - and the Soviet Union had to take this into account: it could, therefore, not abandon its support for 'national liberation'.
Further evidence that the relationship between the Soviets and their allies is not a one-way process was provided by informants who noted that allies - the Afghan Communists were cited as an example - did not always act in ways which seemed to advance their own interests. The Soviet Union, they said, could advise them to act differently, but it was still obliged to support them. The Soviets, of course, might ultimately have ditched their Afghan allies (while officially insisting that they continued to support them) but the process took a long time: the 'leftist errors' Afghan Communists were said to have made dated back to well before the settlement in that region and the USSR continued to aid them for some years despite that.
Similarly, we were told repeatedly that Soviet aid to the ANC was offered 'without strings attached', that the USSR offered aid to the ANC only when asked to do so. Soviet policy on 'liberation movements' was motivated purely by moral concerns and often meant that the Soviets had to offer help which it was not in their interests to offer. To outsiders, that may seem disingenuous (the idea that foreign policy is motivated entirely by altruism does not sound particularly Marxist). Nevertheless, these views do seem to reflect the extent to which the Soviets now see their alliance with 'liberation movements' as a burden rather an opportunity for enhanced influence. But it implies also that it is a burden which the Soviet Union is obliged to continue to shoulder.
This does not only mean that the USSR must continue to issue statements of support for the ANC - or even only that it must continue to supply it with arms. It means also that policy decisions must also be informed - and limited - at least in part by the ANC's own stance, hence Dr Starushenko's suggestion that support for an indaba-type settlement might not be feasible in the face of ANC objections and the insistence by even the most unconventional Africa Institute researchers that the Soviet Union would have to continue supporting the 'armed struggle', even if it tried to do so conditionally.
This constraint does not exclude a change in the relationship between the Soviet Union and the ANC. Despite the rhetoric from both sides, our impression was that they had slightly different priorities - the Soviet Union's chief concern is a settlement which can guarantee stability and so relieve it of the need to support the ANC in a potentially expensive conflict (albeit not at the expense of jeopardising its commitment, held in common with the ANC, to the elimination of political apartheid), the ANC's is one which transforms the South African political system. The two goals might not always coincide and the Soviet Union might, for example, seek to use its influence to persuade the ANC to accept a settlement which fell short of its ultimate goals but which met at least some of them. Again, no settlement of this sort is likely now - but it could become so in the future.
One further point is worth noting. The ANC's enhanced diplomatic status in Moscow might well confirm the continuing alliance between the two but it does not confirm that their relationship is unchanged: it might actually do the opposite. If the Soviet relationship with the ANC is changing, this will be manifested chiefly in a Soviet attempt to offer more political and less military support to the 'liberation movement'. Greater diplomatic status implies increased stress on the political, rather than the military, and so may well be entirely consistent with a changed approach. There is certainly no evidence that the USSR is stepping up its commitment to the 'armed struggle' by supplying the ANC with more arms than in the past.
In short, the relationship operates both ways and is subtle. But, just as there may be no way in which the Soviet Union could wage a 'total onslaught' on Pretoria even if it wanted to, there are equally firm constraints preventing it from abandoning the ANC or 'armed struggle', even if it wanted to do that.
These pressures may explain the implicit message which was stressed by all the people to whom we spoke, particularly those closest to official thinking. They implied repeatedly that they would like to see the 'armed struggle' ended but that only Pretoria could ensure that it was by moving towards a political settlement. This is not simply rhetoric - it implies that the Soviets would, for pressing economic reasons, like to end or reduce their role in supporting 'armed struggle' but can only do that if conditions, in which they can credibly argue that the need for it has fallen away, are created: and that would only be possible if a political settlement, which could realistically be 'sold' to the ANC, was offered.
The Limits of Soviet Influence
We have suggested that there are indeed changes in the Soviet approach to South Africa, although these are, at least in practical terms, more subtle than many analyses have suggested. The key question, however, is what this means for South Africa given that, contrary to 'total onslaught' theory, the Soviet Union has limited influence here.
To put the point another way: let us assume that the current debate produces a Soviet decision to support moves towards a political settlement. What could it do about it? Unlike the West, it has no investments here and no other sources of influence within the society. Its only obvious source of influence is its relationship with the ANC which, we have noted, it cannot change at will. Why, then, should partial shifts in the Soviet stance mean very much for South Africa at all?
The most obvious point is that the Soviet Union is unlikely, even if its position changed radically, to become a significant direct influence on events within South Africa. It could not devote the aid it is currently supplying to the 'armed struggle' to strengthen initiatives for change within the country: since its primary goal is to reduce its involvement, it probably would not wish to. But that does not mean that a change in approach would have no implications for South African politics.
A change would firstly have implications for the most conspicuous source of Soviet influence, its relationship with the ANC. Despite the limits on that influence, it is a reality and the Soviet Union could use it - in some ways already is using it - in different ways.
One way in which it could do that is, if opportunities for a political settlement were to present themselves, for the Soviets seek to persuade the ANC to make compromises it might otherwise reject. That prospect is not in sight now, but Soviet approaches could have a bearing on ANC strategies even before it is. Support for a political settlement does not simply entail agreeing to accept one if it is offered: it also entails different political strategies to those employed in an attempt to overthrow the government. The most obvious example is attacks on civilian targets - in theory, these might help a military strategy (by sowing alarm among civilians) but would impede prospects for a political settlement. A similar choice might be presented by the emergence of grassroots organisations in the townships. For those who favour a military strategy, they might be seen as vehicles for 'armed struggle', as potential recruiting grounds for armed cadres: for those who support a largely political one they might be important sources of non-violent domestic pressure which should not be compromised. There are many other similar choices.
It is precisely these sorts of choices which are now being debated within the ANC. The Soviet Union could clearly influence that debate, if only because it enjoys high credibility among many ANC activists. If, as seems likely, it seeks to exercise its influence on the side of ANC supporters of a primarily political strategy, its impact on the debate would be considerable. If it is, the result is unlikely to be an ANC decision to abandon 'armed struggle' but it could be a greater reliance on other strategies, and a greater willingness not to compromise forces within South Africa working for change.
Secondly, the USSR's influence is not restricted to exiled members of the ANC. It has, for decades, served as a model for intellectuals and activists within the 'liberation movement' inside the country: it is no accident that some activists call Soweto 'Sovieta'. This identification may be based less on a detailed knowledge of Soviet society than on the old principle that 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' but it is nevertheless true that, for many activists, identification with the Soviet Union is one aspect of their total rejection of the current South African system.
If the public policy approach emanating from the Soviet Union were to begin to emphasise different concerns to those it has stressed in the past - stability rather than revolution, negotiation rather than 'armed struggle' - this could well influence the approach of many activists within the country as well. The possibility should not be overstressed: local activists are even less likely than the ANC to change positions simply because the Soviets believe they should and some might react to a new Soviet stance simply by finding a new model. But a new Soviet approach should have at least some influence on the political climate within the country.
Finally, a new Soviet approach could have some influence on white thinking within the country. Decades of 'total onslaught' theory have played at least some role in stiffening white resistance to change by bolstering the idea that universal franchise would automatically turn South Africa into a Soviet colony. The perception that white South Africa is a beleaguered target of Soviet imperialism had done little to increase white willingness to entertain a settlement. The more that perception erodes - as it would if it became clear that the chief concern of the 'Russian ogre' is to extricate itself from southern Africa rather than to colonise it - attitudes to change could become more relaxed. This point, too, should not be overemphasised - much white resistance to change is based on fears which have little or nothing to do with perceptions of the Soviet Union - but nor should it be ignored.
There is indeed a new Soviet approach to South Africa, even if its extent and likely effects are less dramatic than some believe. The details of that approach remain unclear - to the Soviets as well as to South Africans. But there is little doubt that the new approach is potentially important and that it presents an unprecedented opportunity for South Africans.
For pragmatists in the white 'establishment' who accept that a political settlement in which exiled movements are included is inevitable, the new Soviet approach may well mean that a settlement concluded while present attitudes in Moscow are in force would be more favourable than whites have been led to believe. There is little doubt that the Soviet Union wants a settlement in South Africa - if only because the alternative would be too costly. We were told that the international climate was now more favourable to a settlement than ever before and that this could not be guaranteed to last. As noted above, most of the people to whom we spoke were concerned to send a message to the South African government - that, by refusing to negotiate, it was forcing the Soviets to support 'armed struggle' rather than the political solution they preferred. To some, this may sound implausible - the limits on the Soviet Union's ability to support foreign conflicts suggest that it is not, that the USSR would like nothing more than to be divested of its responsibility for supporting 'armed struggle' in South Africa.
Certainly, even the new Soviet approach does not mean that a settlement which entrenched white privilege would be feasible - the USSR is hardly likely to accept an arrangement which the West would probably be obliged to reject. At present, the maximum the South African government is prepared to concede falls far short of the minimum which foreign opinion, whether in Moscow, Bonn or London, could accept. But the realisation that Moscow would support a settlement which did not install a socialist government, and which might well include guarantees for minorities, does place a powerful weapon in the hands of those who favour domestic policies - such as the release of political prisoners and other measures designed to encourage freer political activity - which might ultimately make a settlement possible.
It also presents an opportunity for opponents of the government who favour non-violent strategies for change. At the very least, a changed Soviet approach will strengthen prospects of a strategic rethink which will increase support for more patient, political strategies within key sections of the liberation movement. If these strategies can be shown to be effective in eroding apartheid, this could have unprecedented impact on the approaches of those forced into exile and their allies. Before the strategic rethink within the 'liberation movement' - and the Soviet Union - began there were very limited possibilities for debating these strategies, let alone for winning acceptance for them. The debate within the Soviet Union is one further example of a new fluidity which may have made strategic debate more feasible than in the past.
One aspect of this new environment is the unprecedented opportunity to debate strategies and policies with the Soviets themselves. Soviet policies are no longer cast in stone - indeed, for a variety of reasons, they may well be more fluid than the approaches of anti-apartheid activists in the United States. A new Soviet approach is evolving and its final form will depend partly on the extent to which Soviet researchers and policy-makers receive the detailed information and analyses from within South Africa that they now seek. And that means that contact with the Soviet Union, once viewed by white South Africa as the ultimate act of betrayal, may have become an indispensable contribution to South Africa's future.