Nelson Mandela, Now and Then

Nelson Mandela has died. There will be an endless stream of articles and blog entries on Mandela in the next several days.  Most will praise Mandela and much of the praise is well deserved. But as the National Journal notes, while many will be “eulogizing him for possessing a saintly character and serving as an inspiration for people worldwide,” much of the praise is coming “from the same groups and individuals who previously had harsh words for the man who had spent 27 years as a political prisoner and went on to lead post-apartheid South Africa.” Case in point: George W. Bush released the following statement:

“President Mandela was one of the great forces for freedom and equality of our time.  He bore his burdens with dignity and grace, and our world is better off because of his example.  This good man will be missed, but his contributions will live on forever.  Laura and I send our heartfelt sympathy to President Mandela’s family and to the citizens of the nation he loved.”

I doubt that these words came to mind in 2003 when Mandela denounced the impending war in Iraq. In his words: “What I am condemning is that one power, with a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust.” Moreover, as you may recall, Mandela  and members of the African National Congress were on the U.S. Terrorist Watchlist during the Bush administration (he was only removed in July of 2008, via legislation promoted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice). From terrorist to “one of the great forces for freedom and equality” in a few short years…quite a transition.

As many will remember, much of the Right had problems with MandelaRonald Reagan, with the support of much of the GOP in the House and Senate, opposed sanctions on, and divestment from, South Africa  (a position shared by Margaret Thatcher). In 1985, William F. Buckley wrote: “Where Mandela belongs, in his current frame of mind, is precisely where he is: in jail.” One must contextualize the opposition to Mandela. As Matt Welch (Reason) explains with some irony:

“The apartheid struggle was a proxy war of communism vs. capitalism, Soviets vs. Americans, and for many of the most serious proxy warriors, it was more important that Mandela was on the wrong side of the divide, and that the African National Congress mixed some communism and violence with its anti-totalitarianism. Sure, he was a political prisoner of a horridly unjust regime, but the man sometimes talked about nationalizing factories!”

The Cold War is over but the War on Terror has taken its place. While Mandela was removed from the Terrorist Watchlist in 2008, since that time the number of names on “Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment” has expanded from 540,000 to 875,000. I am certain that the list has been carefully vetted to exclude any future “great forces for freedom and equality.”

Thankfully, there is also some consistency in the praise for Mandela. Reason named Nelson Mandela one of its “35 Heroes of Freedom” in 2003,  offering the following praise: “Mandela cheerfully served a prison sentence that would have left Jesus bitter and spiteful. Sprung from jail, he showed remarkable forbearance and amity in overseeing South Africa’s post-apartheid transition, creating a model for how the world might finally push past centuries-old racial strife.”

5 thoughts on “Nelson Mandela, Now and Then

  1. To be fair, Reagan vociferously opposed apartheid and used diplomatic means to pressure the S.A. government. He opposed sanctions because he thought they would be counterproductive, a respectable position that many libertarians advocate today with respect to regimes like Cuba – nevertheless, in retrospect, a mistaken view, since sanctions seemingly did work to coerce the government.

    1. I stand corrected. “Support for apartheid” was an overstatement. But in the end, I think Reagan and others viewed apartheid as being preferable to the creation of a Soviet satellite, which they believed would be the outcome of a collapse of the regime.

      1. Sure, that’s plausible. The end of the Cold War and thus of the risk that the ANC would implement a communist dictatorship was certainly the necessary domestic prerequisite for political transition.

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