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American People’s Foreign Policy: USAID’s Role in Apartheid South Africa

In 1986 Congress overrode a presidential veto on major foreign policy. During the 1980s, the American public increasingly resented the South African system of apartheid and urged the United States government to take major action. This led to bipartisan Congressional action to override President Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act [CAAA] of 1986. This act imposed broad economic sanctions against South Africa to pressure the government to end the system of apartheid.

USAID Logo (2014) | Wikimedia Commons
USAID Logo (2014) | Wikimedia Commons

While the act may have played a role in hurting the South African economy, it included measures to assist victims of apartheid. Wendy Stickel recounts how the CAAA established policies and objectives that guided the early years of United States Agency for International Development [USAID] programs.

In the summer of 1987, Stickel arrived in South Africa as USAID’s Assistant Director. Because the CAAA was seen as the American people’s policy and not the administration’s policy, it gave USAID entry to South African communities that were hesitant to work with the U.S. government. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Stickel establishes the importance of communicating USAID’s genuine commitment to support and fund projects from South African organizations. Stickel made sure to listen to the South African communities on the type of support they needed from USAID, including an education program, community outreach and leadership development, a private enterprise program, labor union training program, and human rights and legal assistance fund. Stickel recognized that the success of these programs was in part due to the Foreign Service Nationals who helped USAID navigate the changing politics of the South African community and connected them to organizations dedicated to the same causes.

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