Beyond the eulogies bestowed this week on the late and truly great Nelson Mandela, a visionary, revolutionary, and peacemaker, there is much for Americans to learn from the story of his vexed relationship with our country. We will forget the mistakes perpetrated in dealing with him at our own peril.
To put it simply, the same Washington figures who so wrongly coddled Pretoria’s apartheid regime three decades ago – people like Dick Cheney and the neoconservatives – now tell us, wrongly again, that the United States should abandon negotiations with Iran and continue the embargo of Cuba. (And of course these are the same experts, politicians, and pundits who promoted war against Iraq, while assuring us that the invasion would be a cheap cakewalk.)
Back when the Reagan administration reversed President Jimmy Carter’s policy of pressure on the white government of South Africa, the Republicans explained that the African National Congress was merely a group of Marxist terrorists. Besides, the white Afrikaners were friendly to the United States as a matter of geopolitics if not democratic principle, and their mineral wealth argued for them even more loudly.
Yet long before sanctions finally passed over Reagan’s veto and right-wing opposition, any serious analyst could see that the white South African government, like all of the old colonial regimes in Africa, was inevitably doomed. In the eyes of the world, if not Washington, the ANC was no more “terrorist” than the perpetrators of the Sharpeville massacre, while the liberation army’s bombings had far greater moral justification than apartheid’s murders, tortures, and everyday oppression.
Indeed, Mandela and his movement were seen as the legitimate voice of South Africa’s black majority by civilized governments on every continent, including many of our traditional allies. By the time the United States finally passed South African sanctions, similar boycotts had been legislated in dozens of other countries – which was why they ultimately worked.
Without sanctions, the Reaganites had no realistic plan for defusing the explosive, potentially tragic situation in South Africa, and no methods of cooperation with the world community that sought a peaceful transition there. Behind a fig-leaf policy called “constructive engagement,” they instead seemed to believe that they could sustain the unsustainable, perhaps indefinitely.
Such policy illusions were not only morally flawed but strategically stupid, risking the permanent mistrust of the African people, whose continent has since become so vital to the planet’s economic and environmental future. Fortunately, the Clinton administration persistently engaged with Africa –and specifically with Mandela – in ways that helped to heal that ugly breach. It is a project that President Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chelsea Clinton, in her role at their family foundation, have continued to pursue energetically.