In the desire to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s life — an iconic figure who triumphed over South Africa’s brutal apartheid regime — it’s tempting to homogenize his views into something everyone can support. This is not, however, an accurate representation of the man.
Mandela was a political activist and agitator. He did not shy away from controversy and he did not seek — or obtain — universal approval. Before and after his release from prison, he embraced an unabashedly progressive and provocative platform. As one commentator put it shortly after the announcement of the freedom fighter’s death, “Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel. Over the next few days you will try so, so hard to make him something he was not, and you will fail. You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X. You will try to hide his anger from view.”
As the world remembers Mandela, here are some of the things he believed that many will gloss over.
1. Mandela blasted the Iraq War and American imperialism. Mandela called Bush “a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly,” and accused him of “wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust” by going to war in Iraq. “All that (Mr. Bush) wants is Iraqi oil,” he said. Mandela even speculated that then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan was being undermined in the process because he was black. “They never did that when secretary-generals were white,” he said. He saw the Iraq War as a greater problem of American imperialism around the world. “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care,” he said.
2. Mandela called freedom from poverty a “fundamental human right.” Mandela considered poverty one of the greatest evils in the world, and spoke out against inequality everywhere. “Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times — times in which the world boasts breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation — that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils,” he said. He considered ending poverty a basic human duty: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life,” he said. “While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”
3. Mandela criticized the “War on Terror” and the labeling of individuals as terrorists without due process. On the U.S. terrorist watch list until 2008 himself, Mandela was an outspoken critic of President George W. Bush’s war on terror. He warned against rushing to label terrorists without due process. While forcefully calling for Osama bin Laden to be brought to justice, Mandela remarked, “The labeling of Osama bin Laden as the terrorist responsible for those acts before he had been tried and convicted could also be seen as undermining some of the basic tenets of the rule of law.”
4. Mandela called out racism in America. On a trip to New York City in 1990, Mandela made a point of visiting Harlem and praising African Americans’ struggles against “the injustices of racist discrimination and economic equality.” He reminded a larger crowd at Yankee Stadium that racism was not exclusively a South African phenomenon. “As we enter the last decade of the 20th century, it is intolerable, unacceptable, that the cancer of racism is still eating away at the fabric of societies in different parts of our planet,” he said. “All of us, black and white, should spare no effort in our struggle against all forms and manifestations of racism, wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head.”
5. Mandela embraced some of America’s biggest political enemies. Mandela incited shock and anger in many American communities for refusing to denounce Cuban dictator Fidel Castro or Libyan Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who had lent their support to Mandela against South African apartheid. “One of the mistakes the Western world makes is to think that their enemies should be our enemies,” he explained to an American TV audience. “We have our own struggle.” He added that those leaders “are placing resources at our disposal to win the struggle.” He also called the controversial Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat “a comrade in arms.”
6. Mandela was a die-hard supporter of labor unions. Mandela visited the Detroit auto workers union when touring the U.S., immediately claiming kinship with them. “Sisters and brothers, friends and comrades, the man who is speaking is not a stranger here,” he said. “The man who is speaking is a member of the UAW. I am your flesh and blood.”
The world is celebrating Nelson Mandela as a selfless visionary who led his country out of the grips of apartheid into democracy and freedom. But some of the very people lavishing praise on South Africa’s first black president worked tirelessly to undermine his cause and portray the African National Congress he lead as pawns of the Soviet Union.
In fact, American conservatives have long been willing to overlook South Africa’s racist apartheid government in service of fighting communism abroad. Below is a short history, and some explanation, of how conservatives approached Mandela with the hostility they did:
National Review predicts end of white rule would result in “the collapse of civilization.”
After Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, the magazine observedthat “The South African courts have sentenced a batch of admitted terrorists to life in the penitentiary, and you would think the court had just finished barbecuing St. Joan, to hear the howls from the Liberal press.” By March of the following year, conservative Russell Kirk argued in the pages of the magazine that democracy in South Africa “would bring anarchy and the collapse of civilization” and the government “would be domination by witch doctors (still numerous and powerful) and reckless demagogues.”
Reagan described apartheid South Africa as a “good country.”
After President Jimmy Carter imposed sanctions on South Africa Reagan reversed course, labeling the African National Congress a terrorist organization. As he explained to CBS’ Walter Cronkite in 1981, the United States should support the South Africa regime because it is “a country that has stood by us in every war we’ve ever fought, a country that, strategically, is essential to the free world in its production of minerals.” In 1985, he told an interviewer: “They have eliminated the segregation that we once had in our own country — the type of thing where hotels and restaurants and places of entertainment and so forth were segregated — that has all been eliminated.” He later walked back the comment. As late as 1988, Reagan called apartheid “a tribal policy more than…a racial policy.”
Jerry Falwell urges supporters to oppose sanctions.
The late Jerry Falwell urged“supporters to write their congressmen and senators to tell them to oppose sanctions against the apartheid regime.” “The liberal media has for too long suppressed the other side of the story in South Africa,” he said. “It is very important that we stay close enough to South Africa so that it does not fall prey to the clutches of Communism.”
180 House members opposed free Mandela resolution.
In 1986, 145 Republicans and 45 Democrats voted down a non-binding House resolutionurging the Government of South Africa to indicate its willingness to negotiate with the black majority by granting unconditional freedom to Nelson Mandela, recognizing the African National Congress; and establishing a framework for political talks. This included Dick Cheney, John McCain, Newt Gingrich, Dan Coats, Pat Roberts, Joe Barton. Asked in 2000 if he regretted the vote, Cheney said he did not adding, “The ANC was then viewed as a terrorist organization.”
20 Senators and 83 House members oppose sanctions.
The 1986 bill cut virtually “all U.S. economic ties with South Africa, requiring American companies to cease operating there within 180 days.” Lawmakers had to overrideReagan’s veto. Sens. Thad Conrad, Orrin Hatch and Reps. Hal Rogers, Joe Barton, and Howard Coble all voted against imposing sanctions on the regime.
Jack Abramoff leads think tank dedicated to tearing down Mandela.
In 1986, the South African government helped fund and establish The International Freedom Foundation (IFF), a conservative think tank designed to “reverse the apartheid regime’s pariah status in Western political circles” and “portray the ANC as a tool of Soviet communism, thus undercutting the movement’s growing international acceptance as the government-in-waiting of a future multiracial South Africa.” The Washington branch of the IFF listed, among others, Senator Jesse Helms, James Inhofe as advisers. The lobbyist Jack Abramoff led the organization.
U.S. Senator testified in support of the apartheid government.
“In the late 1980s and early ’90s, after returning from his Mormon mission to South Africa,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) lobbiedfor South African interests and in 1987, “testified before the Utah State Senate in support of a resolution expressing support for the government of South Africa while racial segregation laws were enforced — largely to support U.S. mining interests in the region.”
Now, it would be unfair to say conservatism spoke univocally in condemnation of Mandela. A group of upstart Republicans in the mid-80s, led by Reps. Vin Weber, Robert Walker, and Newt Gingrich pushed hard for the United States to take a more critical stance on apartheid.
But this group was bucking the conservative mainstream at the time. “South Africa has been able to depend on conservatives in the United States . . . to treat them with benign neglect,” Weber said. That has a lot to do with the enduring conservative hostility towards rapid change. Conservatives see broad challenges, even to oppressive systems, as dangerous “revolutionary” change, whereas slower “evolutionary” tweaks in a better direction would be preferable.
Reagan’s South Africa point man, Chester A. Crocker, made this revolutionary/evolutionary binary into one of his three main principles for thinking about South Africa policy. “The circumstances in South Africa do not justify giving up on the hopes for evolutionary change (as distinguished from a revolutionary cataclysm),” he wrote in a famous Foreign Affairsessay. Many in the West, Crocker believed, held “a mistaken assumption that American and South African clocks are synchronized-that our impatience signifies the imminence of the revolution.”
It was Crocker, of course, who was mistaken, writing only about a decade before Mandela was freed from prison. But this skepticism about the possibility and desirability of radical change (Crocker seemed to think any dissolution of the apartheid government would necessarily be in part a violent one), together with the obvious cultural affinity that mainstream conservatives felt with Westernized Afrikaner elites, made conservatives distinctly inclined to view Mandela’s calls for political transformation with jaded eyes.
Heritage Foundation says Mandela is no “freedom fighter.” “Americans nevertheless have reasons to be skeptical of Mandela,” the foundation warned as he planned to visit the United States in 1990. “First, Nelson Mandela is not a freedom fighter. He repeatedly has supported terrorism. Since Mandela’s release from prison and his subsequent refusal to renounce violence, the Marxist-dominated ANC has launched terrorism and violence against civilians, claiming several hundred lives.”
Conservative think tank links Mandela to communists. “When Mandela made his first visit to the United States in 1990, following his release from prison, the IFF placed advertisementsin local papers designed to dampen public enthusiasm for Mandela,” Newsday reported. “One ad in the Miami Herald portrayed Mandela as an ally and defender of Cuba’s Fidel Castro. The city’s large Cuban community was so agitated that a ceremony to present Mandela with keys to the city was scrapped.
National Review labels Mandela a “communist” for opposing the Iraq war.
“[Mandela's] vicious anti-Americanism and support for Saddam Hussein should come as no surprise, given his long-standing dedication to Communism and praise for terrorists. The world finally saw that his wife Winnie, rather than being a saintly freedom-fighter, was a murderous thug.”
This positioning of Mandela as being on the wrong side of a divide between “friends” and “enemies” — once communism, in the 2000s Saddam and terrorism — is the most important ideological lesson to learn from this history of hostility to Mandela. Conservatives have a deep tendency to judge foreign conflicts principally by the proximity of each side to the enemy du jour.
The treatment of South Africa in Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous “Dictatorships and Double Standards” essay, where she argued that authoritarian anti-Communist states were more amenable to transition to democracy than revolutionary socialist governments, exemplifies this point nicely. She listed Jimmy Carter’s more confrontational South Africa policy as an example of the Carter Administration taking “at face value the claim of revolutionary groups to represent ‘popular’ aspirations and ‘progressive’ forces–regardless of the ties of these revolutionaries to the Soviet Union.”
Modern conservatives explaining the movement’s Mandela position in the past 12 hours have repeatedly employed Kirkpatrick-style to argue that conservative positions were, at the time, reasonable. “In retrospect, it’s easy to think of Mandela as the grandfatherly statesman,” Matt Lewis writes, “but the Soviet Union posed an existential threat; it’s not like nuclear weapons weren’t aimed at us. Such a thing has a way of focusing your priorities. In that milieu, one can understand why the U.S. would have been very cautious about anyone who had even ‘dabbled’ in Communism.” Deroy Murdock describes the view at the time as “Nelson Mandela was just another Fidel Castro or a Pol Pot, itching to slip from behind bars, savage his country, and surf atop the bones of his victims.”
Now, both Lewis and Murdock readily admit that this view was in hindsight mistaken. But the overemphasis on the friend/enemy distinction that blinded conservative’s to the justness of the ANC’s cause has hardly gone away.