It’s impossible to mourn the death of Nelson Mandela without remembering how his burgeoning human rights movement was repeatedly dissed during the 1980s by the president of the United States.
Sorry, Reagan fans, but it’s historical truth that The Gipper whiffed when inmate Mandela and the civilized world needed him most. Just when the anti-apartheid movement was peaking, when even moderate Republicans were calling for economic sanctions against the racist South African regime (back then, we still had moderate Republicans), when that regime was stifling dissent by killing 2000 blacks and jailing 30,000 more…that’s when Reagan, the sainted conservative icon, was arguably at his worst.
Perhaps you don’t remember how vicious apartheid really was; perhaps you’re too young to remember. These highlights should suffice: While Mandela in middle age was breaking limestone quarry rocks in a prison surrounded by shark-infested waters, the regime was enforcing racial segregation in schools, hospitals, churches, trains, theaters, pools, and virtually all other public settings. Blacks were banned from owning land or running businesses in designated white areas. Blacks were banned from sexually consorting with whites. The regime, in addition to employing standard police oppression, sustained the status quo by mastering the art of political assassination.
Presidents in both parties, dating back to Harry Truman, had averted their eyes. The racists were avowed anti-communists, and during the Cold War, that was good enough for us. But by the late ’70s – when Jimmy Carter put apartheid on the front burner, when human rights activists began to demand that American firms cut their investment links to South Africa – the zeitigeist had shifted profoundly.
Enter Reagan, who hit the breaks on history. He insisted that the racists in power were “strategically essential to the free world,” thereby eliding the fact that the majority of South Africa’s citizens were tragically un-free.
He was woefully out of touch with the moral imperatives of racial justice; ultimately, his aid and comfort to the regime extended its life. As historian David Schmitz has pointed out, Reagan’s cluelessness “gave (the regime) hope that the United States would stick with it. (Reagan) gave it continued flow of aid as well as ideological support. (Reagan) delayed the changes that were going to come…So there was harm in the lengthening. There was harm in the violence that continued.”
Reagan sustained the racist status quo in a number of ways. His administration violated a U.N. arms embargo against the regime. His administration vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would’ve imposed economic sanctions. His administration endorsed a billion-dollar IMF loan to the regime. His administration placed Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, on the US. terrorism watch list (a move that won plaudits from congressman Dick Cheney, who called the ANC “a terrorist organization”). Mandela’s party wasn’t removed from the terrorism watch list until 2008.
And some of the stuff that Reagan said…well, sometimes the guy could be a real piece of work. In 1985, he told a radio interviewer that the South African regime had ended apartheid and ushered in a new era of nirvana: “They have eliminated the segregation that we once had in our country – the type of thing where hotels and restaurants and places of entertainment and so forth were segregated – that has all been eliminated.” (As Reagan biographer Lou Cannon was to write six years later, this president “often didn’t realize how much he didn’t know.”)
But I’ve saved the worst for last.
In 1986, Congress finally got so fed up with South Africa that it crafted a sweeping crackdown measure – a ban on bank loans, a ban on new U.S. investments, a ban on steel, coal, and agricultural imports to American shores, a demand for the repeal of apartheid laws, and a demand that Mandela be released from prison (1986 marked his 23rd year in jail). It was called the Anti-Apartheid Act, and despite filibustering resistence from the era’s usual suspects (Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond), it passed both chambers with ease.
But Reagan called the act “immoral” and “utterly repugnant.” He vetoed it.
Reagan was applauded by people like Helms – who predicted that a U.S. crackdown on apartheid would “bring about violent, revolutionary change, and, after that, tyranny” – but in the end he was humiliated and repudiated. The Democratic-run House and the Republican-run Senate overwhelmingly overrode his veto.
History was made. For the first time in the 20th century, a presidential veto of a foreign policy issue was nixed by the lawmakers. In the Senate, 31 GOPers broke with the president. Dick Lugar (a tea-party victim in the 2012 primaries) said that Reagan had failed to put himself “on the right side of history.” A freshman named Mitch McConnell said of Reagan, “I think he is ill-advised. I think he is wrong.”
He was indeed. The ’86 law, enforced without much enthusiasm by Team Reagan, triggered a global chain reaction. Foreign investment withered, South African imports dried up worldwide, the exchange rate of South Africa’s currency plummeted – and apartheid’s champion, P. W. Botha, quit his job in ’89. One year later, Botha’s successor made Mandela a free man. Four years later, the free man became president.
Ultimately, America did right by Mandela – even if it had to bypass a president to do so.
And it’s noteworthy that while the president was laboring to hold back the wave, a college kid named Barack Obama was welcoming it. At an ’80s anti-apartheid rally for Mandela and his movement, Obama said: “It’s happening an ocean away, but it’s a struggle that touches each and every one of us…A choice between right and wrong.” Here’s hoping that Mandela’s transformative work will inform and inspire kids to come.
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