Most of the world is rightly celebrating the life and lessons of Nelson Mandela. Warts and all Mandela will go down as a pivotal figure in the last decades of the 20th Century and will no doubt remain the gold standard for the difficult, seemingly impossible politics of racial reconciliation.
Still it’s fascinating to see the broad and deep bipartisan out pouring of respect for a man that the Reagan Administration contended in the 1980’s was head of a terrorist organization, a designation that was not formally changed until 2008. There is some reason to believe the CIA tipped off South Africa’s whites-only government to Mandela’s whereabouts in 1962, a tip that ultimately led to his trial and lengthy incarceration.
I’m reminded of the intense and passionate debates in the early 1980’s over whether Ronald Reagan could be pressured to impose economic sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa. Then-Congressman Dick Cheney voted in 1985 against a resolution that called for Mandela’s release from jail and commentators from George Will to William F. Buckley defended the white South African government and condemned Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC) as just a pawn of the Soviet Union.
After much debate the Congress in 1986 voted to do what the Reagan Administration wouldn’t and imposed economic sanctions on the apartheid government of South Africa. The president vetoed the legislation. Reagan, knowing he held a weak hand in the face of growing public outcry over the continued oppression of blacks in South Africa, pulled out all the stops in order to sustain his veto.
As the New York Times reported at the time, “Mr. Reagan made a major effort…to salvage his veto, and he called a number of Senators personally, arguing that he would appear weak and ineffective” in an upcoming summit meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev “if he were rebuffed by the Republican-controlled Senate on a major foreign policy question.”
The Senate eventually voted 78-21 to override Reagan’s veto of the sanctions legislation, but not before Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican, warned that “the thrust of this legislation is to bring about violent, revolutionary change, and after that, tyranny.” Helms and Mandela are now both dead and we know who was right.
For the record, the Northwest delegation in 1986 was entirely Republican. Oregon’s senators – Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood – and Washington’s senators – Dan Evans and Slade Gorton voted for the sanctions against South Africa and to override Reagan’s veto. Idaho’s senators Steve Symms and Jim McClure voted with Jesse Helms.
The U.S. was actually quite late in adopting a policy of isolating South Africa in part because the country’s leaders spent so much of the post-war world viewing every event in every corner of the world through the narrow prism of the Cold War. The logic was simple and wrong: Soviets supplied backing to the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela was in jail for being a leader of the ANC, therefore it must logically follow that we had to oppose the ANC. But the larger lesson here is simply that time and again in the post-war world the United States misread, from Vietnam to South Africa and even on to Iraq, the nature of national struggles over self-determination.
Successive State Departments and CIA wise guys framed nearly every issue as a struggle pitting the democratic West versus the Evil Empire, when often, as Nelson Mandela showed us, the great twilight struggles of the last half of the 20th Century were typically about more basic and more enduring things – the right to vote, the right to self determination, the right to throw off colonial shackles, the right to make your own way, the right to be treated with dignity. We too often lacked the imagination that might have allowed us envision that a man imprisoned for 27 years might walk out of his prison cell, Gandhi or King-like, and embrace a type of political and racial reconciliation that would usher in a peaceful revolution the likes of which a Jesse Helms simply could not fathom.
For most of his too short life, we must recall, his own government spied on the revolutionary Dr. King, convinced he must be a Communist agent.
As the world – and almost every American politician – rushes to get right with Mandela, we would do well to remember at least two things. Mandela was not a saint, but rather a remarkably pragmatic politician and a damn good one too, and in many ways a much better politician than some of the Americans who for so long failed to understand his motivations and talents.
The second is that Mandela was a revolutionary; a revolutionary who, fortunately for his country and the world, made the transition from advocate of armed struggle to champion of constitutional democracy. For too long his movement and the man were seen in the United States through the foggy lens of what some call American exceptionalism, the idea that our system and our approach is automatically superior to every other system or approach. This notion, that political legitimacy can only come about as the result of a fully baked western-style Jeffersonian democracy, has driven American foreign policy since at least Woodrow Wilson and has often left us blind to the real motivations of nationalist or anti-colonial movements from Vietnam to Soweto.
Part of the legacy of Mandela and us is that the United States has often been exceptionally wrong for too long about movements like the fight to end apartheid in South Africa and wrong about the people who lead those fights. So, by all means, celebrate the life of a man who now belongs to the ages and whose name fits in the same sentence with Gandhi and Dr. King, and while doing so remember that our own history as a nation traces its origins to a messy and bloody revolution and the vision and leadership of determined, political men whose real motive was freedom.