For conservatives, a moment like the death of Nelson Mandela is hard. They want to make it clear that they are not racists like that. They aren’t like those people who believed in slavery or Jim Crow or apartheid. It’s just that what minority groups want today that’s all screwed up. Of course, in 20 years, they won’t admit to what they believe today either. That’s just what it is to be a conservative, as I discussed earlier today before I had even heard of Mandela’s death. My colleague Michael Stickings tweeted, “Republicans praising #Mandela should just shut the fuck up, because their politics are pretty much the exact opposite.” That’s absolutely correct.
But I can’t hear the name “Nelson Mandela” without thinking of the conservative icon—and let’s be honest, saint—Ronald Reagan. A couple of years ago, Justin Elliott wrote an excellent interview with historian David Schmitz for Salon, Reagan’s Embrace of Apartheid South Africa. It doesn’t contain a lot of new information for me, because I was around during that time and involved in the divestiture movement. This was the idea that we just shouldn’t do business with an explicitly racist country.
There was a counter argument, called the “Sullivan principles.” But even at the time, it sounded like nothing but apologetics. Reagan and others argued that we needed to stay engaged with the South African government, because there were moderates who wanted to change. Also, it was claimed that American companies were the only ones there who would hire blacks. Well, it turned out that the first idea just wasn’t true. And as for the second, there were lots of whites who employed blacks as servants. That wasn’t exactly moving the country forward. What’s more, by 1987, Sullivan himself had repudiated the idea. Schmitz noted, “The crackdown of 1986 and the reimposition of martial law just made a total lie out of the notion that there were moderates in the Afrikaner government.” But of course, Reagan held firm.
Elliott asked, “Would you argue that Reagan’s foreign policy extended the life of the regime in South Africa?” Schmitz responded:
According to Reagan, it was all about the Soviet Union. If blacks got the right to vote, the Soviets would sweep in and take over the country. But I don’t believe that at all. I think that deep down, Reagan was a bigot. He simply thought that whites were better. I return again and again to how he launched his presidential campaign in Mississippi at the Neshoba County Fair where he talked about “states’ rights.” That was a dog-whistle heard ’round the world.
And Reagan repeatedly called Nelson Mandela a terrorist. He put Mandela and the African National Congress on the United States terror watch list. And they stayed there until the last six months of Bush Jr’s presidency. Just in time for his 90th birthday, the United States government admitted that Nelson Mandela was not a terrorist. But today, while supporting policies that go against everything that Nelson Mandela stood for, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor tweets out:
Nelson Mandela demonstrated a lifelong commitment to justice and human rights, and his legacy should serve as an example for all of us.
— Eric Cantor (@GOPLeader) December 5, 2013
And why not. Now that he’s dead, he is no threat to the unjust status quo, which Cantor and his Republican allies are so committed to protecting.