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:
1960sNational Review predicts end of white rule would result in “the collapse of civilization.”
1980sReagan described apartheid South Africa as a “good country.”
Jerry Falwell urges supporters to oppose sanctions.
180 House members opposed free Mandela resolution.
20 Senators and 83 House members oppose sanctions.
Jack Abramoff leads think tank dedicated to tearing down Mandela.
U.S. Senator testified in support of the apartheid government.
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 Affairs essay. 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.
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 advertisements in 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.
2000sNational Review labels Mandela a “communist” for opposing the Iraq war.
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.