In 1976, the United States suddenly turned its attentions to Southern Africa, wary that events there might escalate into a new Cold War conflict fought along racial lines. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger soon committed to defusing the situation by encouraging an end to white rule in both Rhodesia-Zimbabwe and South-West Africa-Namibia. But he needed the help of South Africa’s apartheid regime to make it happen. For his part, John Vorster gambled that cooperating with the American plan would earn his regime the goodwill needed to survive the recent Soweto upheaval, as well as the breathing space needed to re-establish control in the townships.

By September 1976, Henry Kissinger had laid the groundwork for his Rhodesian initiative and was ready to bring the various stakeholders together. His strategy was to first draw the various parties—the Frontline African states, Ian Smith’s Rhodesian regime, Rhodesia’s nominal rulers in the United Kingdom, and South Africa—into a loose agreement. Then, he would use their support to bring Salisbury and the Zimbabwean nationalists to the negotiating table, where they could hammer out the details. Kissinger told South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha: “My experience in negotiation is, once the parties have made the decision to settle, they have [a] vested interest in settling the details. If they haven’t agreed to settle, every detail is insuperable.” Swift progress was vital. With presidential elections in November, the Gerald Ford Administration might not be in office in a few months’ time. Whatever momentum had been built up could not be allowed to dissipate. And with South Africa finally on board, progress in the negotiations over Rhodesia, so often elusive and illusory, suddenly seemed within reach. At the same time, the parties realized that in the post-Soweto environment Pretoria’s support was tenuous. In a conversation with British Foreign Secretary Tony Crosland, Kissinger mused:

Is his [John Vorster’s] domestic situation strong enough? Especially because some in his country can plausibly say his getting into this negotiation has weakened his situation in South Africa. In June [that is, before Soweto] my argument to him was that this would buy him time for his own problems. I can’t tell him this now.

As a British adviser pointed out to the secretary of state, South Africa had just received television. Images of the “kidnapping and killing of white women” in a lawless Rhodesian transition would rapidly corrode public support for South Africa’s role and make Vorster’s cooperation untenable.

With such issues in mind, Vorster and Kissinger met in Zurich in early September, as a follow-up to their earlier encounters in West Germany in May. Kissinger outlined the details of the package for the Rhodesian whites. Existing land ownership rights would be protected. If citizens wished to sell their homes or farms they would be able to sell them to a public authority underwritten by an international Zimbabwe Adjustment Fund for a percentage of their preindependence market value. That percentage would rise every year for five (later adjusted to ten) years, a clear incentive to remain in the new Zimbabwe. Vorster approved; the package was just what he needed to sell the deal to his domestic electorate.

The meeting was not, however, without its surprises. Vorster was under the impression that South Africa would move last in Kissinger’s choreographed initiative; that is, the African presidents were to have signed onto the Kissinger Plan before he persuaded Smith to accept it. The secretary of state instead stipulated that Vorster secure “99 per cent” of Smith’s agreement first. For all his frustration with Smith and the urgency of avoiding a major Cold War conflict on his borders, Vorster still had serious reservations about taking on the role of Salisbury’s executioner as opposed to facilitating an international process. He told Kissinger: “[W]e cannot be seen to be deposing Ian Smith. The Rhodesians can depose him but not us. . . . [I]t’s immoral for me to do it.” Morality aside, Vorster knew that doing so might well prove political suicide, given right-wing verkrampte sentiment within his own National Party. Kissinger assuaged Vorster’s concerns by appealing to the bigger picture—and by issuing a crucial, implicit, but hollow assurance:

What we’re doing is preventing Communist foreign penetration into Rhodesia. . . . If the war continues, even a Rhodesian victory has the paradoxical consequences that it brings nearer foreign intervention, which we won’t be able to resist, given our domestic situation. . . . [But] If we have brought majority rule, with British cooperation, and there is still foreign intervention, then it’s not in the name of white against black.

The implication was clear: if communist intervention occurred against a predominantly black, post-Smith Zimbabwean government, Washington would find it easier domestically to intervene. Vorster fell into line, later telling his Cabinet in private: “If all this leads to conflict, he [Kissinger] can give no guarantees because it is the US Congress that must decide. However, [the Ford Administration] will be especially amenable [toward intervention].” Kissinger cabled back to Ford: “It is clear that Vorster has not swerved from his earlier promises to us; this is an extremely courageous decision for him, particularly in light of the domestic problems erupting in his country. It looks now as if real progress on Rhodesia is possible unless the black side collapses on us.”

On his return to South Africa, Vorster promptly convened his Cabinet. It had been just a month since the tense August 3 meeting, convened in the wake of the Soweto uprisings. Yet as he divulged the results of his discussions with Kissinger in Switzerland, the mood could hardly have been more different. The prime minister reported progress on every front. On Rhodesia, South Africa would not be required to be the hangman: “South Africa’s position was that interference in Rhodesia’s internal affairs, such as to remove Ian Smith as Prime Minister, could not be permitted. This was accepted.” On South Africa’s position at the UN, Vorster announced that Kissinger had committed to blocking any move at the UN to declare apartheid a threat to world peace: “[The] US will veto any decision under Chapter 7 [of the UN Charter] so long as the Ford Administration remains in power.” Finally, Kissinger had agreed to visit South Africa itself—and would meet with homeland as well as Indian and Colored leaders. The validation that this last might provide for South Africa’s besieged separate development policies could not have gone unnoticed. The minutes concluded: “The result that has been achieved is almost unbelievable. . . . [T]he cause of peace has been substantially promoted.”

Vorster must have been ecstatic. His colleagues had responded to his briefing with rapturous praise for what they saw as his skillful diplomacy and mature statesmanship; “our Prime Minister’s integrity and capability are accepted [internationally]”, the minutes purred. He was about to complete ten years as prime minister, more than any of his apartheid-era predecessors. The first homeland in the Transkei was due for independence in October. And to crown it all, South Africa seemed on the path back to acceptance by the West. In public, the Ford Administration continued to keep Pretoria at arm’s length. Kissinger told the American Ambassador, William Bowdler, that acquiescing to Vorster’s request to mention to the press a “drawing together” of the two countries would be “a most unwise move.” But in private, what Kissinger told Vorster was music to his ears: “In my judgment our meetings over the past months have laid more solid foundations for relations between the United States and South Africa.” After the devastating disappointment of the Angolan Civil War and the arresting shock of Soweto, Vorster’s stock had once more returned to heady heights. “I do not want to put it any higher than this [hoër stel as dit nie],” the ebullient Vorster told the Free State NP congress a few days later, “but it can possibly flow from this that the matter of Southern Africa is settled.”

Safari Diplomacy

Having secured South Africa’s commitment to persuade Smith to accept his settlement proposals, Kissinger embarked upon his “safari diplomacy” in sub-Saharan Africa. He found that Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere and his Zambian counterpart Kenneth Kaunda were both more than receptive to the unfolding scheme. Meanwhile, Ian Smith headed to Pretoria. Kissinger and Vorster had been meeting for months, but had kept the Rhodesians in the dark. Now, for the first time, the South Africans revealed the details of the Kissinger Plan. The Five Points, often referred to as Annex C, were:

Salisbury would accept majority rule within two years.

  1. Salisbury would meet immediately with nationalist leaders at a conference to organize an interim government.
  2. The interim government would consist of two bodies. The Council of State would consist half of blacks, half of whites, with a white chairman with no casting vote. Functions would include passing legislation and supervising the drafting of the new constitution. The Council of Ministers would be the executive branch of the interim government and have a black majority and a black first minister. Decisions would be taken by a two-thirds majority.
  3. The UK and Salisbury would both enact the necessary legislation to give effect to the interim government.
  4. Upon establishment of the interim government, sanctions would be lifted and all guerrilla violence would cease.

The Five Points were not unattractive to Salisbury. The Zimbabwe Adjustment Fund in particular, which essentially constituted a Sixth Point, was a major and concrete reassurance that Rhodesia’s white community would have a future in the new Zimbabwe. Pretoria made it clear what they expected Smith to do and reiterated that no last-minute assistance to the regime would be forthcoming. The South Africans repeated an earlier tactic of pretending that the real pressure was coming from Washington, rather than Pretoria, so as to pre-empt criticism from the National Party’s right-wing that it was selling out other whites in Southern Africa. “It is not Ian Smith who is being pressurized so much as it is a case of John Vorster having his arm twisted,” Bureau for State Security chief Hendrik van den Bergh told his Rhodesian counterpart Ken Flowerdisingenuously. The Rhodesian leadership “accepted in principle,” but insisted on discussing the details with Kissinger before they took it to Cabinet.

Kissinger duly arrived in South Africa on September 17. His presence was a landmark experience for both the South African electorate and its government, still reeling from the waves of civil disorder sweeping through South Africa’s townships. Now, the American secretary of state—“Super K,” the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, one of the most famous and powerful people in the world—had arrived in sleepy Pretoria to ask for white South Africa’s help. Die Burger covered the arrival of “Superman Kissinger” in no fewer than six articles across the first two pages. Yet the same day that Kissinger touched down at Waterkloof Airport, police in Soweto killed six demonstrating children and injured thirty-five more. “[T]here is a definite anti-American feeling among many Blacks,” editorialized the World. The youth, in particular, viewed Kissinger’s enterprise with “deep suspicion” and “fear[ed] another American ‘sell out’ of their aspirations.” It was a stark reminder of the vast and growing distance between Vorster’s vision and African hopes.

With his state-based view of geopolitics, Kissinger considered Pretoria’s domestic policies essentially extraneous to his need to engage with its leaders on the diplomatic level. However, the negotiations were not occurring in a vacuum, but were intimately connected to the imperative to restore domestic control. One Broederbond circular from the time makes this all too clear:

During a recent meeting with a friend in a responsible position [read: a high-level NP official or government minister] it became clear that, depending on the development of foreign relations, considerably increased action can be expected in the interest of the restoration of law and order in black townships, especially in Soweto. In this connection the [Broederbond] Executive wants to stress that our black population is substantially different from the white Westerner, especially in terms of respect for power, violence, and strong action. It has become urgently necessary to give conclusive proof to the vast majority of non-rioting blacks of the Government’s will and power to maintain law and order in everybody’s interest.

As in West Germany and Switzerland, Kissinger and Vorster quickly found common ground in Pretoria. Vorster fulsomely agreed to deliver Smith: “On Annex C . . . I think I can persuade him to come in. And if he does come in, I am prepared to guarantee personally that he will go through with it—as a person and as a party. I am prepared to stand in as guarantor for his commitments, in toto.” This was much further than he had gone in 1974–75, when he only tentatively nudged Smith towards a settlement. But if Kissinger’s central role in the overall settlement architecture was liberating the prime minister from his domestic political restraints, Vorster was performing a similar function for the Americans: the secretary of state was loath to sit down with Smith, thereby according Salisbury a measure of recognition and perhaps offering the Rhodesians room to maneuver, unless he was assured that a positive outcome would ensue.

With Vorster covering him, however, Kissinger sat down alone with Smith at the American ambassador’s residence on Sunday, September 19. The secretary of state hit the right emotional notes, expressing his sorrow at what needed to happen. The two then drove across town to Libertas, where they carefully went over the details of the Five Points. Vorster said very little, but his presence spoke volumes to Smith. The Rhodesians emphasized that they wanted the Defense and Law and Order ministries in the interim government to be controlled by whites so as to ensure a “stable transition.” Kissinger would not guarantee this, but he repeatedly assured the Rhodesians that he would strongly support their wishes on this point:

Kissinger: I’ll tell them [the African presidents] orally [that] you insist on the Law and Order and Defense Ministries, and I will support it…

The conversation soon circled back to this central point, with much the same result:

Minister for Finance David Smith: It is essential that the two security ministries be white. There is no alternative.

Kissinger: So I can tell them [the African presidents] that you accept a two-thirds majority of blacks, with a veto for the whites, in the Cabinet [the Council of Ministers], provided the two security ministers remain white for the two years of transition?

Ian Smith: Yes.

Kissinger: That is not unreasonable.

The copy of the Five Points sent to the Rhodesians by Kissinger on September 22 duly stipulated in writing that the two ministries would indeed be controlled by whites. It also reiterated the agreed-upon structure for the Council of State: equal representation between blacks and whites, with a white chairman with no casting vote. Yet even as Kissinger visited Pretoria, the British were reminding the secretary of state in diplomatic cables that they were far from committed to the Five Points and had serious reservations over the make-up of the Council of State in particular.

Kissinger proceeded regardless. He made it clear to Smith that he had only two choices. “Our option was to accept or reject. If we rejected, the next offer would only be worse,” Smith later recalled. Kissinger promised Smith that if the interim government came under communist attack, “we would at least give you diplomatic support and look favorably on others who give military support.” However, if a Democrat were to win the US presidential election, he pointed out, things would be different. For his part, Vorster warned Smith in a private side-meeting that South Africa was no longer going to support Rhodesia either economically or militarily. To bolster the point, South Africa closed its border with Rhodesia while Smith was in Pretoria, leaving less than twenty days of oil in the country’s stockpiles. Smith would later lament the “South African eagerness to throw us to the wolves in their desperate panic to try to buy time and gain credit for solving the Rhodesian problem.” But Vorster continued to obscure the nature of his involvement. In November, in his first interview on American television, he told Face the Nation:

All that I did was to give Mr. Smith the position as I saw it. We discussed the various alternatives, but the decision—and I want to make that quite clear—the decision that Rhodesia arrived at was its own decision, and Rhodesia wasn’t pressurized [sic] in any way by South Africa at that time or at any time before that. . . . I’ve always adopted the attitude . . . that I was not prepared to twist Mr. Smith’s arm, but that any decision arrived at would be his own.

None of this was true.

Smith reluctantly agreed to recommend the Kissinger Plan to his Cabinet. The parties concurred that pending its approval, the Rhodesian prime minister would make a public announcement on the Friday, less than a week later. Kissinger’s entire strategy hinged on this moment. If Smith publicly committed to a transfer of power, the secretary of state believed that the skeptical but long-suffering African Presidents and nationalists, as well as the increasingly apprehensive British, would embrace the entire process. Accordingly, as deliberations continued in Salisbury in the lead-up to the Friday announcement, Kissinger sent Smith numerous messages designed to sweeten the deal for Rhodesia’s whites. He indicated that both a qualified franchise and a white blocking mechanism in parliament, the two means that Salisbury had proposed to maintain additional white control in the new state, were not precluded by the Kissinger Plan and would remain on the table at any subsequent conference over Rhodesia’s future. Kissinger was also at pains to stress that there would be no bait and switch. He assured Smith in a cable: “It is our considered judgment that the best course for the Rhodesians at this moment is to accept the Five Points as they are, coupled with our assurance that we will not repeat not allow new demands to be raised from the other side beyond what is agreed in Annex C [sic].” He told the South Africans the same thing: “Whatever the British do, we will not deviate from or ask for any more concessions than we’ve agreed to.” This was utterly unrealistic, as events would soon prove.

On September 21, Smith duly advised his Cabinet to accept the Kissinger Plan. Although the deal amounted to “an ultimatum,” he nevertheless told his colleagues that “[t]hese proposals represented the best offer Rhodesia could expect from the free world. Furthermore, South Africa had emphasized the need for a settlement now otherwise Rhodesia would be faced with a deteriorating situation with the prospect of being forced to accept a less favorable settlement at a later stage.” As Central Intelligence Organization head Ken Flower later recounted: “The South African political, economic and military arm-twisting, which had been growing steadily more painful, had finally proved too much for Smith, his government and his country to bear.” Smith recalled the experience more dramatically: “On that fateful day in Pretoria, Vorster placed the proverbial pistol to our head.”

Reprinted from An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and Its Search for Survival by Jamie Miller with permission from Oxford University Press.  © Oxford University Press 2016