Thursday, December 12, 2013
A Response to Revisionists
by Dee Newman
Nelson Mandela was first and foremost a courageous resistance and freedom fighter. With his death, we are now witnessing a nauseating spectacle – the “whitewashing” of history. Conservative mealy-mouthed politicians and pundits, many of whom once considered and called him a terrorist, who not only supported his incarceration for 27 years, but also the apartheid regime that brutalized and confined him, are now rushing eagerly (though awkwardly) to praise him as their hero.
Perhaps, it’s inevitable that those who are on the wrong side of history will at some point attempt to reinterpret their past. However, in order to do so, the concealment of words and actions that are now considered offensive and unacceptable, may be difficult to remove from film footage and archival material.
When the Afrikaner nationalists took power in 1948 and turned white minority rule and racial segregation into an ideology called apartheid, Black South Africans began to be systematically indoctrinated, taught to believe that they were inherently inferior to white Europeans. They were denied citizenship, the right to vote, and were forcibly relocated into deprived and destitute reservations. All people of color were legally prevented from owning land or businesses inside areas controlled by Afrikaners. The white minority government forbade marriage and/or sexual relationships between people of color and Afrikaners. Racial segregation was strictly enforced. To preserve apartheid, the government employed police brutality, the assassination and imprisonment of political dissidents, as well as the out-right murder of black non-violent protesters.
By the 1960s, given the fact that the South African apartheid government continued to be back by the west (including the United States) and that the non-violent resistance to apartheid had largely failed, it should be no surprise that the African National Congress (ANC) chose to align itself with its only supporter – the Soviet Union. This alliance, however, alienated allies in the free world, making it even more difficult to rally support for the anti-apartheid struggle.
Though there were always a few courageous individuals in the U.S. Congress who opposed apartheid as well as communism, the hawks in the U.S. (especially southern Dixiecrats) had persuaded presidents from Truman to Nixon to curb criticisms of the apartheid regime, whose leadership they believed was an important ally in the fight against communism.
However, by the 1970s protests began to increase in the United States, demanding that universities and corporations divest from South Africa to put pressure on the regime to end apartheid. In March 1978, I participated in a massive demonstration in Nashville, Tennessee, protesting the Davis Cup tennis match between South Africa and the United States at Vanderbilt University. As a result, only eleven hundred people attended the matches, while several thousand marched from the State Capitol to Centennial Park across West End Avenue from the university.
During this period, the Reverend Leon Sullivan, a Baptist minister in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, argued, if corporations agree to certain standards of fair employment in South Africa, they should not be subjected to protests or divestiture. “Constructive engagement” was presented as a position of compromise between those who advocated for the permanence of apartheid and those that sought its immediate termination.
Sullivan believed that there were moderates in the South African government with whom we could constructively engage and that eventually they would promote gradual change and political reform. There were many well-meaning people in the United States who thought that the Sullivan principles of constructive engagement was a reasonable strategy. But, there was no real pressure ever put on the regime. And eventually, the policy was exposed for what it was – a futile exercise of appeasement.
Upon taking office Jimmy Carter tried to break from the Sullivan approach, but he, too, yielded to the political pressure by conservatives. It was not until Ronald Reagan took office when a series of anti-apartheid protests erupted across South Africa that a majority of Americans began to call for immediate action. They could no longer turn a blind eye to the horror they were witnessing on the nightly news broadcasts, as white South African troops attacked black protesters with tanks, guns, clubs and attack dogs, reminding us all of our own not-so-distant racial history.
Appalled by the rising violence, Americans across the political spectrum began pressuring their representatives to take action, and within two years Congress was threatening to pass legislation that would place sanctions on South Africa and restrict the flow of American aid to the regime.
Conservatives, however, remained adamant in their belief that the U.S. had no business harassing the South African government over apartheid. President Reagan continued to threaten to veto any legislation that sanctioned the South African government even after Prime Minister P. W. Botha gave his “Rubicon speech” on Aug. 15, 1985, asserting that South Africa would never accept one man, one vote in a unitary system.
Until then, the Reagan administration had worked closely with Prime Minister Botha. President Reagan had publicly supported the South African government, portraying Botha as a moderate and a reformist.
In the Senate, North Carolina’s Senator Jesse Helms took the Senate floor to filibuster on behalf of the apartheid government of South Africa. Other like-minded conservatives, including South Carolina’s infamous segregationist Strom Thurmond who voted against the bill’s final passage, joined Helms. Over in the House, Wyoming’s Representative Dick Cheney joined the conservative minority in opposing the Anti-Apartheid Act. Cheney’s steadfast opposition to sanctioning the apartheid government had been long and extensive, denouncing Nelson Mandela as a terrorist, arguing against his release.
President Reagan took his case directly to the American people on a live television broadcast, warning them that the Anti-Apartheid Act was "immoral" and "utterly repugnant." Fortunately, one month later the president and conservatives were unable to stop the majority from acting. The conciliatory bill was approved by a veto-proof two-thirds majority in both the House and the Republican-controlled Senate and sent to the president. Reagan did as he promised. He vetoed the act.
In October 1986, under considerable pressure, Republican moderates came together. Out of 53 Republican senators 37 joined their Democratic colleagues to pass the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act over President Reagan's veto. It was the first time in the nation’s history that a presidential veto on a foreign policy issue had been overturned.
Republican moderates (lead by Senator Nancy Kassebaum) deserve enormous praise for having the courage to go against President Reagan and their conservative colleagues in passing the Anti-Apartheid Act. As a result, the United States directly contributed to the liberation of millions of people from one of the world's most oppressive regimes.
Rather than trying to politicize Nelson Mandela's death through the “whitewashing” of history, Americans should celebrate the fact that his legacy initiated rare bipartisan agreement.