Apartheid Amnesia

How the GOP conveniently forgot about its role in propping up a white supremacist regime.

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Getty Images

On Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday, the world is celebrating the former South African president and cheering for his recovery. The U.S. Congress even managed a rare display of bipartisanship for the occasion, with members of both parties taking turns to laud Mandela as they stood in front of the Statue of Freedom in Emancipation Hall. "At times it can almost feel like we are talking about an old friend," said Rep. John Boehner (R-OH.) "He never lost faith in the strength of the human spirit," added Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).Today, Nelson Mandela is a celebrated elder statesman that both Democrats and Republicans heap praise on.

This wasn’t always the case. When Mandela was imprisoned and struggling to end apartheid, the Republican Party — through the policies of the Reagan administration and the work of party activists — opposed U.S. sanctions against the white supremacist regime. Though they didn’t support apartheid by any means, they turned a blind eye towards the cruelty of the system and failed to support Mandela in his time of greatest need. Today, Republicans will cheer on Mandela, but the Republican Party’s historical relationship with South Africa, and Mandela in particular, exposes a sad chapter in the history of the American right.

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In 1985, Mandela’s 22nd year in prison, then South African President P.W. Botha gave a speech affirming apartheid’s rejection of "one-man-one-vote" and defending Mandela’s imprisonment. The infamous "Rubicon Speech" fueled ongoing rioting in South Africa and prompted the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela’s party, to call for the United States to impose sanctions.

President Ronald Reagan and the American right were not sympathetic to that request. "Our relationship with South Africa … has always over the years been a friendly one," Reagan said in a 1985 radio interview, rejecting any change in policy. Televangelist Jerry Falwell went one step further and visited South Africa the week after Botha’s speech to insist that sanctions were opposed "in every segment of every [South African] community."

Right-wing ambivalence toward apartheid in the 1980s was a product of South African support for the United States during the Cold War. In 1969 and early 1970, President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, then national security advisor, formulated a policy of increased communication with and relaxed criticism of the white regime. The apartheid system was unlikely to change anytime soon, the Nixon administration thought, so there was little point in pressuring a valuable ally who was working with the United States to contain Soviet influence in Africa.

When Reagan came to office in 1981, he launched a policy of "constructive engagement" with South Africa designed by Chester Crocker, his assistant secretary of state for African affairs. In line with Nixon’s policy, constructive engagement was intended to deepen ties between the United States and the apartheid government in South Africa by prioritizing trade. Crocker was a true believer in the power of trade to open up the country to reform: It would eventually become too expensive to discriminate against blacks in the workplace, he thought.

Officially, the goal of the Reagan administration was to end apartheid. But its behind-the-scenes work revealed a startling degree of comfort with the South African regime — or at least ignorance of how apartheid worked. For a July 1986 speech to the World Affairs Council in Washington D.C., Reagan rejected a moderate State Department draft and instead instructed his speechwriter, Pat Buchanan, to draft a version arguing that Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) employed "terrorist tactics" and "proclaims a goal of creating a communist state." (Buchanan later dismissed Mandela as a "train-bomber" and defended the hardline position.) Reagan himself never seemed to really understand the moral repugnance of apartheid. He described the system in a 1988 interview with ABC’s Sam Donaldson as "a tribal policy more than … a racial policy."

While the Republicans were dragging their feet, the Democrats were leading the fight against apartheid. In 1985, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) went on a tour of South Africa that included a visit with Winnie Mandela to discuss her imprisoned husband. Upon his return, Kennedy introduced the Anti-Apartheid Act that eventually became law. In July 1986 hearings, then Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE)  thundered at Secretary of State George Shultz: "I’m ashamed of this country that puts out a policy like this … I’m ashamed of the lack of moral backbone to this policy."

As it became clear that constructive engagement was failing, even moderate Republicans began to shift. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) broke with Reagan and argued for a sanctions program. Eventually, in 1986, the Senate passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act with enough votes to override Reagan’s veto. "I think he is wrong," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), explaining his break with the administration. "We have waited long enough for him to come on board."

Reagan, however, was not alone. An expansive Republican network supported a hardline stance on South Africa. From the Heritage Foundation to Republican lobbyists to the televangelists leading the religious right, the Republican Party — with a few courageous exceptions — didn’t think that ending apartheid was as important as maintaining economic relations with South Africa.

The conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation was the main source of intellectual fodder for this position. During the debate over sanctions, Heritage’s director of foreign policy studies, Jeff Gayner, argued that the United States should "cease advocating the release of Nelson Mandela" because of his links to terrorism and communism. Michael Johns, the African and Third World affairs policy analyst at Heritage (who would later go on to be a leading spokesman for the Tea Party), carried on the fight even after sanctions had been passed, arguing that capitalism was "the most efficient and promising anti-apartheid program."

Lobbyists hired by the South African regime also played a role in the perpetuation of the idea of Mandela as a threat. These groups lobbied and publicly attacked politicians who opposed the South African regime’s interests. Republican operatives Marion Smoak and Carl Shipley led an aggressive campaign in 1982 to defeat Rep. Howard Wolpe (D-MI) because of his support for sanctions. Later, Smoak and Shipley hired now-Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) as a lobbyist after he returned from his Mormon mission in South Africa.

Some of today’s most recognizable political operatives also played a role in pushing the apartheid government’s agenda. In 1985, following his term as national chair of College Republicans, Grover Norquist was brought to South Africa for a conservative conference, where he advised a pro-apartheid student group on how to more effectively make its case to the American public. While there, he criticized anti-apartheid activists on American college campuses: Apartheid "is the one foreign policy debate that the Left can get involved in and feel that they have the moral high ground," he said, adding that South Africa was a "complicated situation."

A young political operative named Jack Abramoff was also involved. From 1986 to 1992, South African intelligence services spent $1.5 million per year to fund the International Freedom Foundation, a lobbying group championing South Africa where Abramoff served as president. One of the group’s missions was to delegitimize Mandela’s ANC by linking it to Soviet communism. It was Abramoff who oversaw the full-page newspaper ads taken out by the organization attacking Mandela and who helped organize House committee hearings on the dangers of the ANC. When a 1995 Newsday investigation revealed the South African intelligence backing for the operation, Abramoff and advisory board members — including Sens. Jesse Helms (R-NC) and James Inhofe (R-OK) — pled ignorance.

But those who came closest to open support for apartheid were televangelists from the religious right. The socially conservative policies of the Afrikaans regime made South Africa a special cause for many televangelists. Jerry Falwell praised the "Christian country" for its abortion policy in the 1980s, and after his 1985 visit, called for "reinvestment" by U.S. companies and urged his followers to buy Kruggerand coins to help boost the South African economy.

Jimmy Swaggart, another popular televangelist, told his viewers that the conflict in South Africa was nothing less than a struggle between Christian civilization and the Antichrist. In his presidential campaign in 1988, televangelist Pat Robertson called advocates for sanctions the "allies of those who favor a one-party Marxist Government in South Africa." After his race ended, he became even more direct: "There needs to be some kind of protection for the minority which the white people represent now," he said in 1992. And in 1993, he said on his show, "I know we don’t like apartheid, but the blacks in South Africa, in Soweto, don’t have it all that bad." At a time when the Dutch Reformed Church, the traditional theological backer of apartheid, was reversing its position, the American religious right provided new religious cover — and they made the case to millions of Americans who tuned into their shows.

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When Nelson Mandela was freed from jail in 1988, Republicans tried to sweep their support for his erstwhile jailers under the rug. President George H.W. Bush hosted Mandela at the White House and praised him as "a man who embodies the hopes of millions." Mandela gave a speech to Congress at which the assembled legislators, including many who had once voted against economic sanctions, interrupted him with three standing ovations and 12 rounds of applause.

Today, leaders of both parties have once again cheered for Mandela. What he really could have used was their help when he was imprisoned on Robben Island, trying to end apartheid.  

Samuel Kleiner is a fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project.