Who would’ve thought that the death of Nelson Mandela would help dig up Reagan’s horrible record on South Africa? The passing of the African nation’s former president has caused Reagan’s policy of coddling the apartheid regime in the 1980s to be re-examined and amplified.
This renewed criticism of Reagan is resonating with people, and all this unwanted attention is worrying some on the right, as it should, particularly at a time when another country’s first black president—Barack Obama, that is— is experiencing a low point in his popularity. Presumably, from a strictly Machiavellian realpolitik point of view, the right would want to capitalize on President Obama’s historically low poll numbers, given that attacking the president is what they do best — it’s just about the only thing they do, in the absence of any useful legislative proposals.
Some right-wing commentators, talking heads and reliable standard-bearers are doubling down on their love for the Gipper by either justifying his stance on the apartheid regime and branding Mandela’s African National Congress as communists or terrorists, or rewriting history and claiming Reagan opposed apartheid, or worse, that the Afrikaner brand of Jim Crow rulers were moderates.
Here is a taste of what some conservative commentators had to say of late. For example, in the Daily Caller, Charles C. Johnson argued that Reagan opposed apartheid, calling it “a malevolent and archaic system totally alien to our ideals,” and called for the release of all political prisoners, including Mandela.
Arnold Steinberg in Frontpage Mag spoke of the “mythology” that the 1980s was “the lost decade in dealing with South Africa.” He points to Ed Perkins, Reagan’s black ambassador to South Africa, who rejected segregated housing for black State Department staff. Under Steinberg’s version of historical revisionism, Reagan engaged in a strategic policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa. “And, at that time during the Cold War, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress was a Marxist, if not pro-Communist, organization, so prudence was required,” he added.
Similarly, Newt Gingrich said that “This is just another excuse for the left to try to smear Reagan.” He added, “And I think people who are Reagan loyalists, who know that Reagan had condemned apartheid, Reagan had called for Mandela to be released, Reagan actually appointed the first black ambassador to South Africa whose job was to pressure the Afrikaans government.”
And Pat Buchanan said that Reagan equated sanctions against the apartheid state to “declaring economic warfare on the people of South Africa.”
Meanwhile, the undisputed fact is that Reagan bolstered the apartheid government through aid and support—financial and otherwise— to South Africa. Further, he placed the African National Congress on the U.S. list of terrorist groups, and vetoed sanctions against the country. Moreover, after he was elected, Reagan said America could not “abandon a country that has stood by us in every war we’ve fought, a country that is strategically essential to the free world.”
For a Republican Party that has already lost all credibility with voters of color over civil rights and voting rights, hitching their wagon to Reagan’s pro-apartheid policy should leave you speechless. You will be hard pressed to think of a better way for the right to shoot itself in the foot when it comes to that so-called minority outreach that was dead on arrival.
Apartheid was an ugly, repressive system that made blacks non-citizens without rights in their own country, including no right to vote. They were forcibly relocated to bantustans and subjected to humiliating racial segregation, imprisonment, police brutality and killings. And in this country, there was an anti-apartheid movement with sit-ins at the South African Embassy, and student protests demanding that universities divest from South Africa. Reagan was simply on the shamefully wrong side of history, and lawmakers such as Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond backed him up on it. If you want to cosign that, then go ahead, you are on your own.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove