Saturday, December 7, 2013

Mandela and Reagan: The History and Truth that Right-Wing Republicans Would Rather Forget

by Nomad

The perception that the Republican Party is the a party of racists goes back many years. Along with other Republicans, President Reagan worked hard to defeat any anti-Apartheid legislation. 

Reagan's Veto

With the long-predicted death of Nelson Mandela, we can expect to hear a lot of swell things being said in memorial about this man's courage and humanism as he led his nation toward greater equality.
Both sides of the political spectrum are bound to say a lot of things in praise of Mandela and his work and life. In the next few days, you will hear about the evils of apartheid and how much better the world is without it.

However, there's another point that none of us should forget. When it came to apartheid, the Reagan Republicans were definitely on the wrong side of history.

Sagar Jethani, writing for PolicyMic, reminds us of the history of the Reagan's administration's attitude toward South Africa's policy of apartheid.  
It was October 1986, and his veto against the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act had just been overridden — and by a Republican-controlled Senate, at that.
He had appeared on TV a month earlier to warn Americans against the Anti-Apartheid Act, decrying it as "immoral" and "utterly repugnant." Congress disagreed, and one month later, it produced the two-thirds majority needed to override Reagan and pass tough new measures against South Africa's apartheid government.
Interestingly, Reagan was able to hijack the moral message by deeming measures against apartheid to be worse than the institutionalized discrimination against black South Africans. What was really needed was "constructive engagement" with Afrikaner government, according to Reagan's newly appointed assistant secretary for African affairs, Chester Crocker.

Rather surprisingly, Crocker told the press that American influence was limited and foreign policy must not be swayed by emotion.
"We continue to suffer from an inflated notion of American power despite considerable contrary evidence … since the power to coerce Pretoria is not in American hands, the limited influence available should be carefully husbanded for specific application to concrete issues of change.."
Can you imagine the reaction from conservative political organizations today if President Obama dared to tell people that American power was an "inflated notion" and that American influence was "limited"? (And as events would clearly show, that idea was wrong.)

In fact, the Reagan administration's obsession with winning the Cold War was behind its decision to back the South African government, despite its discriminatory policies. The administration saw the popular support for race equality as part of a larger conspiracy by the Soviet Union to destabilize the region. While perhaps not untrue, the view was also deeply flawed and would lead to a foreign policy embarrassment. 

News Networks and White Fear

It is helpful to step back a couple of years in time to see how this situation unfolded.
The Anti-Apartheid movement  in the UK had been exerting a good deal of pressure on politicians there but, until the mid-1980s had been largely ignored by the American press. More importantly was how the issue was being served up in American homes. 

Prior to the 1980s, the lack of popular support toward U.S. based anti-apartheid movement was a result of ongoing media misrepresentation of black liberation ideologies in the United States. Popular media coverage, especially throughout the 1970s, featured internal conflicts within liberation groups that framed the organizations as a dangerous radical fringe within the United States. Popular opinion did not shift in favor of U.S. based anti-apartheid activism until the mid-1980s when activists curtailed their radical liberation rhetoric and instead exploited selective popular memories of the domestic black freedom struggle for public consumption.
As Bratyanski points out, the American press had largely portrayed the South African activists - like Mandela and others- as Communist-backed organizers, determined to undermine South Africa. Black youths were "on the rampage" and news organizations offered American viewers plenty of news footage to prove it.

As we know, one powerful image of a burning car and a looted shop is quite effective as reducing any moral arguments. Larger questions about the legitimacy of white-minority rule, which were the underlying cause of the civil unrest, were generally ignored.
 One example:
On June 22, 1976, Howard K. Smith, co-anchor on ABC’s World News, offered a scathing commentary regarding “black rioters” in Soweto. Smith attempted to sympathize with the white minority of South Africa and denounced the “dangerous communist involvement” around Soweto that had obviously influenced the actions of the “black rioters.” He challenged black South Africans that demanded back the land the Afrikaners had settled a century earlier. 
After all, Smith continued, the land in dispute was not taken from anybody since much of the land that the Afrikaner descendants settled was “empty.” 
Interestingly the same argument has been made successfully against Palestinians by Israelis and conservatives in the US when it comes to the occupied lands. 
Professor Bratyanski continues:
Black South Africans, according to Smith, disrespected the “highly successful economy” of the white minority in favor of an economy under an unproven “black rule.” He concluded his one minute and forty second commentary by cautioning against the potential of black rule as it was “apt to be vengeful and destructive.”
Smith and other reporters repeatedly referred to the demonstrations and protests within South Africa as “riots” and in one instance stated the residents of Soweto were engaged in “massive anti-white rioting.”
At home, news organizations played on both conservative white  fears of a black Apocalypse as well as a Communist victory of the Cold War. While networks were framing the issue in terms of violence and insurrection against the South African government by black rioters," the uprising reinvigorated campus and U.S. based anti-apartheid groups and inspired new coalitions."
The tide was turning and news organizations were as usual looking the other way.

TransAfrica and the Forgotten Four

In 1984, one lobbying group took matters into their own hands and put the issue on the political stage.
On Wednesday, November 21, 1984, activists departed from the offices of the foreign policy lobbying organization TransAfrica in Washington, D.C., and headed over to the South African Embassy for an appointment with that country’s Ambassador. The four activists, Congressman Walter Fauntroy (D-DC), Georgetown law professor Eleanor Holmes Norton, U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Mary Frances Berry, and Executive Director of TransAfrica Randall Robinson were arrested later that day for trespassing at the embassy. They refused to leave the Ambassador’s offices after demanding the release of recently imprisoned trade unionists in South Africa and the end of apartheid.
It was a well-coordinated operation, with the media stationed outside to record the subsequent arrests. The headlines and the broadcasts sparked a larger political movement with hundreds of volunteers lending their support for newly-created Free South Africa Movement (FSAM). This was followed by a year-long demonstration in front of the South African embassy in Washington.

Celebrities soon joined in. For example, Artists United Against Apartheid was formed in 1985 by record producer Arthur Baker and Steven Van Zandt, formerly of Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band. The list of artists included names like Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Bob Geldof, Peter Gabriel, Ringo Starr and many others.

Hollywood stars also joined in:

To the fight on apartheid, the former leaders of the march to racial equality in the US added their own names:  
The press took notice when celebrities participated in the demonstration outside of the Embassy, but even more so when a distinguished figure such as seventy-one-year-old Rosa Parks appeared in the picket line on a cold December morning.18 Parks arrived at the South African Embassy to lend her considerable historical weight to the FSAM campaign and stated, “I am grateful to be here today lending my support.” Her presence was coordinated to “shame U.S. policy makers as well as the nation” into action against the apartheid government of South Africa. 
Although there had been many demonstrations in the past, this latest effort was markedly different. It had successfully connected the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the United States with the war on apartheid. The attempts by conservative groups to paint the issue solely as a battle for Cold War superiority were dissolving.
The problem was nobody had bothered to tell President Reagan. 

The Party of Lincoln vs. South Africa

As Journalist Jethani explains
In Ronald Reagan's first term, a series of anti-apartheid protests erupted across South Africa. The Afrikaner government's response was merciless: over 2,000 blacks were killed, and almost 30,000 more were incarcerated as political prisoners. Military forces detained 3,000 black children. Americans watched the horror unfold on TV as white South African troops attacked black protesters with tanks, guns, whips, and attack dogs, evoking disturbing parallels to America's own not-so-distant racial strife in places like Selma, Birmingham, and Chicago.
It was, of course, hard not to draw a comparison between past police brutality in the American South and police brutality in South Africa. And yet that's exactly what some conservative Republican leaders tried to ignore the parallels.
Conservatives believed the U.S. had no business hectoring the South African government over apartheid. Senator Jesse Helms (R–N.C.), the Senate's leading race-baiter, took the Senate floor to filibuster on behalf of the apartheid government of South Africa. Helms was an old pro at using the filibuster: he had launched a similar one three years earlier against establishing a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. He was joined by like-minded conservatives including noted segregationist Strom Thurmond (R–S.C.) and future presidential hopeful Phil Gramm (R–Texas) in voting against the bill's final passage. Over in the House, Representative Dick Cheney (R–Wyo.) joined the minority in opposing the Anti-Apartheid Act. In earlier battles over South Africa, Cheney had denounced Nelson Mandela as a terrorist and argued against his release.
The minority lost the debate and the bill calling for sanctions was approved and sent to the White House. Reagan promptly vetoed it which led Senator Edward Kennedy to say:
"The Republican Party is at a crossroads. It must decide whether it wants to be the party of Lincoln or the party of apartheid."
In a live TV broadcast, Reagan argued that patience with the South African government was required, not American political pressure. Sanctions would hurt black South Africans, he explained, without doing much to change the situation. Black extremists who called for violence were the true cause of the problem.
With his veto, Reagan considered the matter closed. 
But he was wrong. 
Under considerable pressure, Republican moderates rallied. Thirty-seven (37) out of 53 Republican senators joined their Democratic colleagues to pass the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act over Reagan's veto. Conservatives fumed, but they were powerless to stop the law from passing. It was the first time in the 20th century that a presidential veto on a foreign policy issue had been overturned.
It was clearly a defeat for the Reagan administration.
But it is worth a closer look at how exactly the strategy failed. The problem wasn't simply a matter of opening old wounds in the south or a matter of ingrained prejudice. With links drawn to the civil rights movement in the US, moderates in the Republican party saw political risks in being associated with support of apartheid.

The Reagan foreign policy advisers had other foreign policy considerations. South Africa formed a bulwark against Communist infiltration of African nations. It had covertly trained and armed rebel insurgents to undermine popular support for Soviet-backed leaders. (This subject has also been highlighted in a previous blog post on Grover Norquist.)

One key point, which was lost on conservative Republicans, was that inequality and injustice is an open invitation for all extremists seeking to undermine stability. (The Soviets were- at least, for a time- able to exploit this Western hypocrisy around the world.)

No amount of police or military power will successfully suppress the desire for social justice. A nation without political legitimacy, without the support of the majority of its people, is a disaster waiting to happen.  (Cheney still hasn't evolved any further on this issue.)

In any case, time marched on and Reagan was left behind. The victory belonged to the left and to the moderate Republicans and today the conservatives would rather not discuss the finer points.

Following this anti-apartheid bill victory, the activist organizations would turn their sites to a new effort: the release from prison of the charismatic leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
His name was Nelson Mandela.

Related articles