Mandela fought white supremacy. Who stood with him when it counted?

I will never forget the day when Nelson Mandela walked out of prison. He was already both a leader and organizer on the one hand, and a symbol and icon on the other.

Mandela’s cause, to dismantle apartheid, was so hard because of the immense privileges it gave the white minority of South Africa.

We usually think of systems of racial hierarchy as “racist,” a term that focuses us on those on the bottom.  And sometimes “racism” makes us think of attitudes toward the objects of racial animus, not the differences in resources, benefits and potential opportunities to thrive.

But apartheid was transparently not just about negative opinions toward blacks and the other main racial category used, “coloureds.” (The actual terminology used in Population Registration Act No 30 of 1950 was White, Coloured, Bantu (Black African), and other.)

South African internal passport, required for person with Bantu classification to travel outside of legally created "homeland"

South African internal passport, required for people with Bantu classifications to travel outside of their apartheid law created “homeland”

It was a system of internal passports, legally mandated limits on work, social interactions, education and political power — in addition to separate facilities, transportation, and places of living.

And it was a system where whites lived privileged lives, with average incomes fourteen times greater than blacks’ incomes. Whites had much greater access to doctors, with one doctor per 400 whites, as compared to one doctor per 44,000 blacks.

This privilege was based on white supremacy — the view that whites are better.

And some Americans supported white supremacy in South Africa

This support was not limited to some small fringe, but included some prominent conservative leaders and some Republicans. (Please note the emphasis on some.)

One was the very influential conservative writer, Bill Buckley.

In the fall of 1962, during a visit to South Africa, arranged by the Information Ministry, Buckley wrote that South African apartheid “has evolved into a serious program designed to cope with a melodramatic dilemma on whose solution hangs, quite literally, the question of life or death for the white man in South Africa.” [source]

As Coates notes:

Buckley’s racket as an American paid propagandist for white supremacy would be repeated over the years in conservative circles. As Sam Kleiner demonstrates in Foreign Policy, apartheid would ultimately draw some of America’s most celebrated conservatives into its orbit. The roster includes Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff, Jesse Helms, and Senator Jeff Flake. Jerry Falwell denounced Desmond Tutu as a “phony” and led a “reinvestment” campaign during the 1980s. At the late hour of 1993, Pat Robertson opined, “I know we don’t like apartheid, but the blacks in South Africa, in Soweto, don’t have it all that bad.”

Not all prominent conservatives were so dishonorable. When Congress overrode President Ronald Reagan’s veto of sanctions of South Africa, Mitch McConnell, for instance, was forthright—”I think he is wrong … We have waited long enough for him to come on board.” When Falwell embarrassed himself by condemning Tutu, some Republican senators denounced him.

Maine’s Senators, both Republican Bill Cohen and Democrat George Mitchell, supported the sanctions against South Africa.

We should remember that history and herald those who stood with Mandela when it counted

In our country and around the world, activists pushed for change. They promoted divestment campaigns and pushed governments, international sports organizations,   businesses and organizations and individuals with investments to take action.

This included work in Maine, now the whitest state in the country.

As Markeplace Morning Report discussed:

In 1982, the University of Maine became one of the first 10 universities in the country to completely divest from country. Philosophy professor Douglas Allen was one of those people who ultimately convinced the board of trustees to pull its $1.9 million from South Africa.   

“It was a difficult argument, and it took years of work, research, providing all the documentation, lobbying,” he says. [source]

As activists worked to change South Africa’s system of white supremacy, President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher opposed sanctions. This, of course, does not mean they thought apartheid and its institutionalization of racial supremacy were right.

Reagan and Thatcher said apartheid was wrong, but they didn’t support actions that did the most to pressure the South African government. Without a doubt, their responses were conditioned in part by Cold War worries about how a changed South Africa might fit in a bilateral world, when most countries were allied either with the United States or the Soviet Union.

In contrast, former Senator Dick Lugar, who was defeated by a Tea Party candidate in the Indiana Republican party primary of 2012, led on sanctions.

Lugar, who was a U.S. Senator from Indiana and head of the Foreign Relations committee at the time, was the chief sponsor of the bill that urged the president to put more pressure on the Pretoria Government of South Africa to end apartheid. The override of the veto passed in 1986. As New York Times originally reported on Oct. 2, 1986:

Senator Richard G. Lugar, the Indiana Republican who heads the Foreign Relations Committee and was the chief sponsor of the measure, appealed in emotional terms to Pretoria to heed the action taken by Congress.

After Mandela’s death, Lugar released a statement that said, “One of the brightest moments of my public service came on the day of a luncheon in the U.S. Capitol building when Nelson Mandela personally thanked me and those who had supported my anti-apartheid legislative framework for U.S. foreign policy over a presidential veto.” [source]

Mandela was a great man who changed history

And in remembering him, we should recall the realities of the apartheid system and herald those who worked to dismantle it and to create a better society.

This is the official photo of Mandela casting his vote in the 1994 elections. It was the first time Mandela had voted in his life. It was taken at Ohlange School, Inanda, Durban by the IEC’s official photographer, Paul Weinberg. It is one of only two images of this event. Photo by Paul Weinberg via Wikipedia Commons.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives.