President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Representative Kweisi Mfume, at an event at the Library of Congress. October 1994. Source: Library of Congress

From Music to Madiba

A History of U.S. Relations with South Africa

Thirty years ago this week, Nelson Mandela, the renowned civil rights and anti-apartheid leader, was released from prison. His release marked the beginning of the end of South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime and a new future for black South Africans.

So on this episode of BackStory, Joanne, Ed and Brian take a look at the complicated and often contentious relationship American officials and anti-racism activists have had with South Africa.

This episode and related resources are funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this {article, book, exhibition, film, program, database, report, Web resource}, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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From Music to Madiba Lesson Set

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From 1948 to the early 1990s, South Africa used an institutional policy of segregation known as apartheid to marginalize the nonwhite population. Though whites were a minority group in South Africa, apartheid allowed them to exert control over the government, economy, and society. Apartheid faced opposition from the global community including the United Nations especially in the 1970s and 1980s. Social movements within South Africa intensified during this time as well, even as prominent black leaders like Nelson Mandela were imprisoned.

The United States government shifted its stance on South Africa throughout the 20th century. During much of the Cold War, the U.S. prioritized maintaining friendly alliances with anticommunist regimes over the fight for global equality. In competing with the Soviet Union, the U.S. also relied upon valuable minerals exported by the segregationist South African government. There were clear racial elements to U.S. policy as well, as many politicians were in favor of a continuation of domestic Jim Crow era laws promoting a segregated society.

This lesson, and the corresponding BackStory episode, focus on the evolving history of relations between the U.S. and South Africa. Though the U.S. and South Africa have different histories, they shared racial and political upheaval throughout the 20th century. Examining the U.S. response to South Africa allows students to explore the complicated issues that shaped foreign policy during the Cold War era.