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The United States and South Africa: The Binational Commission in the Years Following Apartheid

Directly following the election of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa in 1994, the U.S. government began to work closely with the new South African leadership to facilitate development efforts. Before Mandela’s election, South Africa’s apartheid system and U.S. laws hindered U.S. aid. However, after the election of President Mandela, the binational “Gore-Mbeki Commission” (after Vice President Al Gore and South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki) was formed to help increase development efforts within South Africa. William Elliott, a USAID employee and Development Officer for the Office of Southern African affairs, participated in this commission. From the beginning of Mandela’s tenure as President of South Africa, Elliott was active in the various efforts by USAID and, to a lesser extent, by various other operating agencies in South Africa and the United States. Elliott was interviewed by John Pielemeier in January 2017.

Read William Elliott’s full oral history HERE.  

“The relationship between the U.S. and South Africa had been in mothballs.”

The Binational “Gore-Mbeki” Commission: “From 1994 through 1998, I led the South Africa team in AFR/SA (Office of Southern African Affairs). April 1994 saw the election of Nelson Mandela and the end of Apartheid. Obviously, a very, very big deal for South Africa and for the U.S. government and for the U.S. society. Much could be said about how the U.S. society across color lines had been engaged in the anti-apartheid movement, whether with protests at the South African Embassy, with Congressmen and other leaders and citizens doing civil disobedience and getting put in jail, or the U.S. government’s own 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which, as I said before, its purpose was to accomplish the dismantling of Apartheid. Since the relationship between the U.S. and South Africa had been in mothballs, the two Departments of Energy, the two departments of Interior or Natural Resources, the two Departments of Health, of Education, all twinned. Ministers or Deputy Ministers/Secretaries or Deputy Secretaries, led by the vice presidents of the two countries, would meet every six months, alternating the venue between the two countries. While it formally was called the U.S.-South Africa Binational Commission (BNC), it took on the title of the two vice presidents, the Gore-Mbeki Commission after Vice President Al Gore and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki.”


“The Commission would be held over a one or two-day period where you would, in Washington, be in a meeting room at the State Department. There might have been a dinner the night before, and then the next day, beginning at 9 a.m., you’d have the introductions by the vice/deputy presidents of the two countries to give an overall sense of the work of the Commission. It was quite high-level, and I think in most cases it was the minister and the cabinet secretary, and, if not, it was certainly the deputy. I think it really indicated at that time the commitment of the United States and the commitment of South Africa to really make up for lost time in the relationship between our two countries that without Apartheid would have been a far, far closer one. Without the governmental ties, there were still many, many ties to NGOs, advocacy groups and colleges and universities between our two countries. I don’t recall Vice President Gore or Leon Fuerth [National Security Advisor to Vice President Gore] and his staff being too directive. It was certainly of importance to them and they wanted to hear our deliverables, but I think they left it to the operating agencies in the two countries to do the hard work of seeing what were the priority areas that South Africa had and where we in the U.S. could match up on our governmental talent and know-how to do something together.”       

Drafted by Tyler Ventura



     BS Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), Electrical Engineering

     MBA Columbia University

Entered USAID                                                                                                                          1983

Botswana – Project Development Officer                                                                                 1985-1990

Washington D.C. – Office of Southern African Affairs                                                           1992/1994-1998

Pretoria, South Africa – Project Development Officer (PDO)                                               1993-1994