How American Conservatives Turned A Blind Eye To South African Apartheid


As news of Nelson Mandela's death spread on Thursday, Americans on the right and left lauded his accomplishments and expressed their sadness at his passing. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the former South African president "an unrelenting voice for democracy." Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) applauded Mandela as "an inspiration for defenders of liberty around the globe."

But though conservatives celebrate Mandela today, they weren't always behind him.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out at The Atlantic, National Review founder and editor William F. Buckley wrote in a 1985 column that Nelson Mandela belongs in jail. In the piece, Buckley defends the apartheid government, and argues that white South Africans saw themselves as an endangered minority:

I was in South Africa for the first time in 1962, and it happened that our guide was the son-in-law of Mr. Verwoerd, the then prime minister. The young guide, much taken by the doctrine of apartheid, was -- surprisingly -- very critical of American racial practices, by which he meant Jim Crow in the South, and the systematic deprivation, by Americans, of votes for what we then called Negroes. "I just don't understand it," he said. "What excuse do you people have? You outnumber the Negroes by 10 to one. Our problem is entirely different. They outnumber us by six to one."
We need to understand that white South Africans see their society as one that would not survive one-man-one-vote.

New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait argues that this attitude is very much in line with contemporary conservative anxieties about race:

The distinguishing element of conservative thinking on race is the belief that, at any given moment, the balance of actual or threatened power is arrayed against whites. The conservative line often concedes that whites may have sinned against blacks in the past, and may even continue to do so, but that at the present moment the risk lies in taking things too far in the opposite direction.

"A failure to grasp the historical character of racism is not merely a recurring problem for conservative racial thought, it is its defining quality," Chait concludes.

And Buckley was not alone. Foreign Policy reported back in July:

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."

Conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation vocally opposed the 1986 anti-apartheid act. The American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of conservative state legislators that often produces draft legislation, also put out literature discouraging sanctions on South Africa.

Some of the country's most high-profile conservatives, including Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff, and now-senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) were also advocates for apartheid-era South Africa.

To their credit, Republican members of Congress -- current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell among them -- did favor sanctions, and ended up passing the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986, overruling President Ronald Reagan's veto.

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