How the right tried to ruin Nelson Mandela

Powerful conservatives spent decades trying to take down the South African leader

Published December 6, 2013 7:38PM (EST)

The most obvious thing you could say about Nelson Mandela is that he died a widely loved man — as the Onion facetiously noted  yesterday, "the first politician to be missed." What's been somewhat harder to glean from the mad rush to eulogize the African leader is the antagonism that many powerful Americans -- and in particular those of the conservative persuasion -- exhibited toward Mandela, before, during and after his 27-year imprisonment. What follows are a few of the most  notable ways in which Mandela's American malefactors demonstrated their distaste for the man:

The CIA was instrumental in Mandela's 1962 arrest: South Africa was a source of great anxiety for the American government in the heyday of the Cold War. Fearful of Soviet influence, and of the prospect that the Western-friendly apartheid regime might lose control, the intelligence community took an active interest in the country. Working with a person inside the African National Congress, of which Mandela was then a leader, the CIA obtained the information necessary to locate and arrest Mandela.

Reagan vetoed the 1986 Anti-Apartheid Bill, which called for harsh sanctions against South Africa: "Immoral and utterly repugnant" were the words he used to describe the proposed sanctions. Congress ultimately overrode the veto -- sanctions were ultimately lifted when apartheid ended -- but without the help of a Wyoming congressman named Dick Cheney, who defended the vote even decades later.

Reagan also placed Mandela on the terrorist watch list: Echoing the position of South Africa's apartheid regime, Reagan officially recognized the African National Congress as a terrorist organization. There Mandela remained until 2008.

A Jack Abramoff-led think tank, called the International Freedom Foundation, was actually a front for the South African government: The group -- which also had links to former Sen. Jesse Helms -- funneled as much as $1.5 million a year into public relations efforts designed to boost the apartheid regime while discrediting Mandela and the African National Congress.

Which isn't to say that the rest of the conservative movement was much better: With some notable exceptions, including Newt Gingrich, a large swath of the conservative movement was unified in support of the apartheid regime, and distrustful of Mandela, whom many identified as a "terrorist." (Salon's Alex Halperin notes a complete reversal of that attitude today.)

National Review founder William F. Buckley decried Mandela as a champion of "Marxist class politics." Jerry Falwell, in the clutches of Red Panic, inveighed against the liberal media that he claimed had "for too long suppressed the other side of the story in South Africa," warning that the fall of the apartheid regime would portend communist takeover. As late as 1990, the Heritage Foundation raged that he was definitely "not a freedom fighter." Other names tied to anti-Mandela activism: Pat Robertson, Grover Norquist and sitting Republican Sen. Jeff Flake.

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Hanging over each of these examples is one burning question: Why the hostility?

"Let me put it simply: It's not surprising that people of that political tendency viewed Mandela as a threat," explains Locksley Edmondson, professor of Africana studies at Cornell University. "Mandela, and the larger freedom struggle in South Africa he represented, was targeted as anti-Western for at least three major reasons."

One reason, Edmondson explains, was a Western commercial interest in the preservation of the apartheid system. "The South African economy was particularly strengthened by the fact that blacks had no economic rights. They couldn't form trade unions. There was a massive exploitation of black labor, which helped to boost the white minority-controlled South African economy. The United States and Britain, particularly, were beneficiaries of apartheid racism for that reason."

Additionally, Edmondson says, geo-strategic considerations motivated conservative animus — in particular, the fear that Mandela and the African National Congress were fomenting a Communist revolution. This impression, perpetuated by the apartheid regime, was in reality inaccurate.

"The ANC was not a political party," Edmondson notes. "It had all different types of people. It was made up of progressive whites, of Indians, who were 3 percent of the population; of Africans. Some were Communists, some were not Communists, some were capitalists, some were socialists. But across that divide, many had a common bond in destroying the rigid structure of minority white racism in South Africa."

And the third reason?

"Let's put it this way: In the United States, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, race still was a tricky problem. Quite a few people saw South Africa as the last bastion of white rule. This tied into that hostility to the struggle for black South African freedom," Edmondson says.

By Peter Finocchiaro

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Cia Conservatives Dick Cheney Nelson Mandela Ronald Reagan South Africa