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American People’s Foreign Policy: USAID’s Role in Apartheid South Africa: Wendy Stickel interview
June 9, 2021
2:57 pm
Tish Butler
Forum Posts: 93
Member Since:
April 22, 2016
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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. 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.

Wendy Stickel’s interview was conducted by Carol Peasely on March 28, 2018.

Read Wendy Stickel’s full oral history here:


STICKEL: Okay. Well, there was a lot bubbling and it was not just in Washington, D.C. but all over the country. If you remember there was a lot of pressure to impose sanctions on South Africa and for American companies to divest all their holdings in South Africa as an act of resistance to the apartheid regime and support for the anti-apartheid activists in the country. And a lot of American actors were involved in this. The foundations were very much in the forefront and there was a lot of pressure on Congress for something with real teeth in it to express the concerns about the apartheid government’s policies. The Reagan Administration was not comfortable with these more demanding measures and fought them very hard. And so, it was an effort, really, to force the administration into a position that was more supportive of the anti-apartheid movement than they wanted. And to pre-empt that there was an Executive Order issued in September 1985 that expanded AID funding for South African bursaries to $20 million in FY86, to increase to $25 million in FY87. But that came along with only limited sanctions and the Congress was not satisfied. They continued to press for their legislation, which would have married the idea of broad economic sanctions with a program of assistance to the “victims of apartheid.” And so that executive order was followed in 1986 by the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which increased funding levels for the program, and included more extensive sanctions measures as well.

“…this is not part of the administration’s foreign policy; this is part of the American people’s foreign policy.”

American People’s Foreign Policy:
Q: And you were not at the embassy, you were at a commercial rental space?

STICKEL: Right. And that was a very important choice, that carried a lot of symbolism. It also created difficulties with the Embassy. We had to bend over backwards to reassure the Embassy that we were going to stay in touch and not do anything that they wouldn’t know about. But it was very important for the credibility of the AID program that we demonstrate a bit of distance from the Embassy. The CAAA was invaluable to us as our authorizing legislation because it enabled us to say this is not part of the administration’s foreign policy; this is part of the American people’s foreign policy. And were it not for that we would have gotten nowhere. It was very important for us to be able to invoke that separate source of authority because there were the very politically motivated groups, the leadership really, of the ANC (African National Congress) and their in-country partners in the United Democratic Front had a clearly defined policy of opposition to any governments that were seen as destabilizing governments in Southern Africa. And so, it wasn’t just constructive engagement with the South African Government that was creating problems for the USG [United States Government].

STICKEL: So, there were a lot of obstacles arrayed against us, and the CAAA was our calling card. And it was very important; the language in that legislation made it really clear what the people of America wanted to see happen and there were, basically, two goals: one was to end apartheid, which was a statement of support for regime change, a pretty bold statement from the USG about any foreign government; and second, to build a foundation for non-racial democratic majority rule in South Africa. So, the clarity of the goal statement and the fact that it came from the U.S. Congress was what made it possible for us to carry out the program.

“…we were there to fund South African ideas and programs and not come in as donors so often do with their own solutions and their own ways of doing things.”

Sign from apartheid South Africa | Wikimedia Commons
Sign from apartheid South Africa | Wikimedia Commons
A Genuine Commitment:
STICKEL: We needed to convey our genuine commitment to support their objectives—the CAAA made this very clear—and that we were there to fund South African ideas and programs and not come in as donors so often do with their own solutions and their own ways of doing things. So, in the first months, this early crew of folks were out meeting and talking and listening and introducing themselves to a wide array of people.

Q: Do you recall how broadly spread geographically the program was? Was it fairly broadly spread around the country or were you confined more to the Johannesburg area?

STICKEL: Well, certainly in the beginning we had more connections and contacts in the Johannesburg area. And it also made sense because a lot of the national level programs were operating out of Johannesburg. But we tried really hard to extend the outreach of the program and establish more geographic balance in the portfolio. But there were other problems. Every area had its own political landscape and the Eastern Cape, for example, was very much more anti-U.S. than the Johannesburg/Pretoria area, and parts of Transvaal. So, we were slow in getting started in that part of the country. It took us a long time, many months of conversations before we established much of a presence there. In Cape Town we were able to get a foothold a little earlier, mostly through the legal assistance and human rights portfolios. There were some very good political lawyers down there—representing unions, farm workers, activists—and they evolved over time into some of our most effective grantees. And there was a multiplier effect—once we established bona fides with one well-regarded group in an area then the word would get out and we would have more groups willing to talk with us.

“Although, while I was there that had not yet become so politicized. It was to be much more serious a problem later on before the election.”

Balancing South African Politics:
STICKEL: Although, while I was there that had not yet become so politicized. It was to be much more serious a problem later on before the election. But yes, it was very complicated. Everything was complicated. And we had complications in Johannesburg because there was the Black Consciousness movement, which was distinct from the UDF (United Democratic Front), and that was another measure of balance we needed to watch. The UDF was the in-country partner to the ANC’s leadership-in-exile, and they were strongly in support of an non-racial agenda. But the BC (Black Consciousness) Movement was more interested in promoting black leadership and so, at the beginning, they were more inclined to accept our assistance because they saw the value of resources to meet their objectives. The UDF was, however, more reluctant because of the ANC’s position on U.S. foreign policy in Angola and Namibia, and they came onboard a little later once we had demonstrated convincingly that we supported their ultimate objectives.

Q: Okay. So, you were balancing all kinds of politics, between the government of South Africa and the various groups and then within the various groups the political background.


Q: And U.S. politics as well.

STICKEL: Right. And the Embassy…And then Washington. And so…We had to be sensitive and sensitized. As you know, in the end, a lot of our work in any country is building relationships and that’s what we were doing. And we didn’t have to make it up—the CAAA had laid out our objectives for us and it was really about conveying that message and reaching out, and allowing time for people to understand and trust us.

“… we did want to move more programs into the hands of South African community groups.”

South African Flag (2020) | GoodFreePhotos
South African Flag (2020) | GoodFreePhotos
USAID and South African Aid:
STICKEL: I think the basic shape of the project portfolio was pretty well defined in large part by the CAAA itself, by the sectors identified in the legislation. There was a focus on education but we tried to establish education programs that were based in South Africa. Although we retained a lot of the foreign scholarships, the bursary programs, we did want to move more programs into the hands of South African community groups. So we had an education program. And we had a program in what was called Community Outreach and Leadership Development, which was a bit of a catchall for community-based organizations that were seeking to provide services of a variety of sorts to their constituencies in the townships and throughout the country. We also had a private enterprise program, and also a labor union training program, which was a legacy program run from Washington for primarily domestic political reasons. There had been an earmark earlier that had locked that in. And then, of course, the human rights and legal assistance fund. So, those four programs were our bread and butter. All of the programs had the basic shape, umbrella projects under which we provided individual grants. An
d the great struggle was to figure out a way to manage the grant-making process through intermediaries so we weren’t doing individual grant-by-grant reviews, approvals, and oversight. But at the beginning we were unable to find any intermediaries that would have really met the intent of the CAAA. And so, we did all the work ourselves and the staff was limited which meant 15-hour, 16-hour days every day, while also hiring as fast as we could. Personnel was a continual problem. Getting slots was a problem. I know the first year we were in constant conversation with the Embassy to get an additional USDH (United States Direct Hire) slot for a controller. You may remember that. But we were also—and this was another piece of great luck and hugely important to the success of the program—able to hire some really wonderful and exceedingly talented FSNs (Foreign Service Nationals), South Africans who were willing to jump in and work as hard as we all did and help us understand the political landscape, help us run interference with the shifting sands of the domestic South African community politics and interpret the meaning of things, and, of course, putting us in touch with organizations that were doing good work. So, we were hiring South Africans as fast as we could into professional positions.

“That would not have happened had we not established a reputation by then for being on the side of what all the key actors and their supporters wanted.”

Establishing a Supportive Reputation:
STICKEL: And when I look back and think about how you would evaluate the program, one of the things that I think is very important to consider is how well prepared AID was in ’94 to help all of the parties involved get to that moment. And I wasn’t following it at the time, but I did read that we were asked to fund support for voting registration processes and facilitating a lot of the preparation for a smooth election and transition. That would not have happened had we not established a reputation by then for being on the side of what all the key actors and their supporters wanted….So, I think a lot of the work that we did, painstakingly meeting people and learning about how things worked and what to stay away from and how to present our AID requirements in that setting were very useful to folks who followed.

BA in Comparative Political Science, Mount Holyoke College 1971
MA, Fletcher School of Law And Diplomacy 1973
Joined the USAID
USAID International Development Intern (IDI) – Hired 1973
USAID Peru – Assistant Capital Development Officer (IDI) 1974-1977
USAID/W – Africa Bureau – Project Development Office 1985-1987
USAID South Africa – Assistant Director 1987-1990

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