The world press is filled with encomiums for South African leader Nelson Mandela, laudatory statements by President Obama and other world leaders, editorials praising his courage in fighting against and then leading his country out of racial oppression.
“My first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics was a protest against apartheid,” Mr. Obama said when Mr. Mandela died this week. “Like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set.”
But it wasn’t that long ago that many elected officials and political leaders in the United States –conservatives, mainly – were outspoken in their opposition to what Mandela represented, which to them was socialism (or worse yet, communism) and borderline terrorism since Mandela had advocated armed resistance to South Africa’s white minority regime.
With Soviet influence spreading to parts of Africa, the stability of South Africa had become a Cold War issue related to US national security. In 1981, President Reagan described it as “a country that has stood by us in every war we’ve ever fought, a country that, strategically, is essential to the free world in its production of minerals.”
Later during the Reagan administration, the debate centered on the effort to impose tougher economic sanctions on South Africa because of apartheid. Mr. Reagan argued against sanctions, advocating instead “constructive engagement” with the white regime.
Reagan vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, but Congress – Republican moderates as well as Democrats – overrode that veto.
Dick Cheney, then a congressman from Wyoming, voted against sanctions. But it was another Republican – southerner Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – who saw things in the context of America’s own history of racial oppression and inequality.
"In the 1960s, when I was in college, civil rights issues were clear," Sen. McConnell said in explaining his vote to override Reagan’s veto. "After that, it became complicated with questions of quotas and other matters that split people of good will. When the apartheid issues came along, it made civil rights black and white again. It was not complicated."
Within a few years, apartheid officially ended in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela walked away from the prison that had held him for 27 years to become the country’s first freely-elected president.
In retrospect, writes Peter Beinert on thedailybeast.com, it’s important not to “sanitize” Mandela’s history. “Mandela’s leftist ties did sometimes blind him to communism’s crimes,” Beinert writes.
At the same time, he could be unsparing in his criticism of the United States – on the US invasion of Iraq, for example, just as Martin Luther King, Jr. was on the Vietnam War.
“As with King, it is this subversive aspect of Mandela’s legacy that is most in danger of being erased as he enters America’s pantheon of sanitized moral icons,” Beinert writes. “But it is precisely the aspect that Americans most badly need.”
Commentators on the right have been taking a decidedly unsanitized view of Mandela’s legacy.
“The bulk of his adult life, Nelson Mandela was a failed Marxist revolutionary and leftist icon, the Che Guevara of Africa,” begins the Wall Street Journal editorial noting Mandela’s passing.
After a detailed review of Mandela’s accomplishments and failings, the editorial concludes: “Mandela became the biggest of African men by refusing to act like a typical African ‘Big Man.’ He transcended his party's history of Marxism, tribalism and violence. The continent and world were fortunate to have him.”
Writing in the Atlantic, senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates finds such phrasing condescending and racist.
“It is certainly true that ‘most African rulers’ do not willingly hand over power,” he writes. “That is because most human leaders do not hand over power. What racism does is take a basic human tendency and make it the property of ancestry. As though Franco never happened. As though Hitler and Stalin never happened. As though Pinochet never happened. As though we did not prop up Mobutu. As though South Carolina was not, for most of its history, ruled by Big Men as nefarious and vicious as any ‘African ruler.’”
Some prominent conservatives have used Mandela’s passing to score domestic political points – former US Senator and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum likening the “great injustice” of apartheid to the “great injustice” of the Affordable Care Act.
But almost without exception, Republican elected officials have been as laudatory of Mandela as have Democrats. “From prisoner to president, Mr. Mandela demonstrated a lifelong commitment to justice and human rights, and his legacy should serve as an example for all of us,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia.
But the problem for many of them (as noted in blog post comments here and here) – and it’s a problem for the Republican Party generally as it seeks to attract black voters – is that many of their supporters come across as racist in their comments about Nelson Mandela.