Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 – 23 years ago. He had spent the previous 27 years in prison because he fought a brutal and unjust, racist regime. When he was released, and when apartheid was dismantled soon thereafter, he ascended to power. Although South Africa has been wracked with the sorts of socioeconomic problems that are exquisitely difficult to overcome after so many years of statutory leftover colonial racist inequality in rights, citizenship, and wealth, he sought only peace and reconciliation between whites and non-whites. Everything had been segregated – by actual and implied force – and nothing was equal. Black people lost their citizenship altogether. There was what we now call “ethnic cleansing” throughout postwar South Africa.
Despite all of that, Nelson Mandela sought no retribution or tit-for-tat expulsions; he worked tirelessly to return South Africa to all her people, and to bring justice and civil rights to all.
By doing good, and by seeking a just reconciliation, he showed the world how people should act.
Was he a terrorist? Why, because the violently racist government oppressing him and his people said he was? Because the group to which he belonged would resist the brutal Afrikaner minority rule? He never killed anyone, never threatened to hurt anyone. The apartheid terrorists considered him a terrorist. He was as much a terrorist as the Minutemen or the real tea partiers in Boston Harbor.
Was he a communist? Who cares? Did he establish a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of the proletariat when he came to office in South Africa? Did he set up a president-for-life kleptocracy like his neighbors in Zimbabwe? Did he seek to antagonize his former enemies, setting up years’ worth of civil war – a state of being not unknown in sub-Saharan Africa? Did he pick idiotic territorial fights with neighbors, assign himself the rank of “Marshal” and show up at military parades in epaulets, adorned with unearned medals?
None of these things. He was a true freedom fighter. A man whose entire world was about making a South Africa that would serve all of her people equally. He served one term in office. He waged no wars. He sought no revenge. He believed in democracy, freedom, accountability, and inclusion.
In 1986, a bipartisan bill here in the US was presented to President Reagan for consideration. The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act would have set up a series of sanctions against South Africa and her regime and economy. It was first introduced in 1972, but not seriously considered until 1985. The House and Senate conferenced out a compromise bill to restrict travel and trade with South Africa until apartheid was dismantled.
President Reagan vetoed the bill. He said that mild sanctions against one of the most unjust and brutal regimes in the world were “immoral” and “repugnant”. Dick Cheney voted against sanctions. Jesse Helms filibustered the bill, just as he had filibustered an earlier bill to bring about a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Strom Thurmond voted against it. All the racists were against this effort to bring justice to an oppressed black minority.
Reagan’s own in-house racialist, Pat Buchanan, helped the Gipper explain to the American people that these African National Congress blacks were just gunning for a race war. (Buchanan’s legacy : virulent racism and gutter anti-Semitism).
Nevertheless, a Republican-led Senate overrode Reagan’s veto. While the Heritage Foundation pimped the whore of an idea that Mandela was the real menace, and Grover Norquist was advising pro-apartheid student groups in South Africa on messaging, even Mitch McConnell was a rational moderate.
While the Republicans were dragging their feet, the Democrats were leading the fight against apartheid. In 1985, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) went on a tour of South Africa that included a visit with Winnie Mandela to discuss her imprisoned husband. Upon his return, Kennedy introduced the Anti-Apartheid Act that eventually became law. In July 1986 hearings, then Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) thundered at Secretary of State George Shultz: “I’m ashamed of this country that puts out a policy like this … I’m ashamed of the lack of moral backbone to this policy.”
As it became clear that constructive engagement was failing, even moderate Republicans began to shift. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) broke with Reagan and argued for a sanctions program. Eventually, in 1986, the Senate passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act with enough votes to override Reagan’s veto. “I think he is wrong,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), explaining his break with the administration. “We have waited long enough for him to come on board.”
The sanctions went through. Companies divested. Apartheid was repealed in 1991. Non-racial elections were held in 1994. Nelson Mandela was elected President.
Peace, justice, and equality. Seems like a good foundation for a country’s ethos and jurisprudence.