The Surprising Republican Civil War That Erupted Over Nelson Mandela and Apartheid


Ronald Reagan was angry. It was October 1986, and his veto against the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act had just been overridden — and by a Republican-controlled Senate, at that.

He had appeared on TV a month earlier to warn Americans against the Anti-Apartheid Act, decrying it as "immoral" and "utterly repugnant." Congress disagreed, and one month later, it produced the two-thirds majority needed to override Reagan and pass tough new measures against South Africa's apartheid government. These measures included a ban on bank loans and new investments in South Africa, a sharp reduction of imports, and prevented most South African officials from traveling to the United States. The Act also called for the repeal of apartheid laws and the release of political prisoners like African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela, who had spent the last 23 years in prison.

[Read more about Nelson Mandela's passing here]

It is difficult to fully comprehend the evils of apartheid today. Blacks were denied citizenship and the right to vote. They were forcibly relocated into impoverished reservations. People of color were barred from operating businesses or owning land inside white areas, which comprised most of the country. Sexual relations or marriage between people of color and whites was strictly forbidden. Racial segregation was enforced in public areas, including schools, hospitals, trains, beaches, bridges, churches and theaters. To enforce apartheid, the government often resorted to police brutality, the imprisonment and assassination of political dissidents, and the murder of black protesters.

The United States had a complicated relationship with South Africa. Hawks in the U.S. national security complex had argued since 1948 that South Africa was an important ally in the fight against communism. Their arguments persuaded presidents from Truman to Nixon to stifle criticisms of apartheid in the interest of maintaining good relations with the white South African government, whose leaders surpassed Joseph McCarthy in their anticommunist zeal.

Richard Nixon believed that American interests could best be served by working with the white Afrikaner government to thwart Soviet designs in Africa. The U.S. would discourage black resistance to apartheid, as such revolutionary fervor could only play into the hands of communists. Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger thus continued the same tragic trajectory initiated by Truman and Eisenhower by misreading nationalistic aspirations around the globe as communist uprisings. South Africa was forced into a bipolar fairy-tale in which U.S. inaction over apartheid seemed justified. Jimmy Carter tried to break with this pattern upon taking office by making apartheid a front-and-center issue, but he, too, gave way before the altar of national security and the belief that South Africa was needed as a partner in the fight against communism.

In Ronald Reagan's first term, a series of anti-apartheid protests erupted across South Africa. The Afrikaner government's response was merciless: over 2,000 blacks were killed, and almost 30,000 more were incarcerated as political prisoners. Military forces detained 3,000 black children. Americans watched the horror unfold on TV as white South African troops attacked black protesters with tanks, guns, whips, and attack dogs, evoking disturbing parallels to America's own not-so-distant racial strife in places like Selma, Birmingham, and Chicago.

The State Department warned that it would be premature to act, and urged Congress not to give in to emotional appeals for action. Reagan's newly appointed assistant secretary for African affairs, Chester Crocker, argued for an approach he optimistically dubbed "constructive engagement:"

"We continue to suffer from an inflated notion of American power despite considerable contrary evidence … since the power to coerce Pretoria is not in American hands, the limited influence available should be carefully husbanded for specific application to concrete issues of change ... If that means that the United States becomes engaged in what some observers label as only 'amelioration,' so be it ..."

Senator Paul Tsongas (D–Mass.) disagreed with the administration's passive approach:

Appalled by the rising violence, Americans began calling for action. Randall Robinson at TransAfrica, an advocacy group that had been founded with help from the Congressional Black Caucus, staged a sit-in at the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. — an act repeated by others across the country almost 6,000 times over the next two years. Americans across the political spectrum pressured their government to take action, and within months Congress began working on economic sanctions against South Africa.

Not everyone agreed.

Conservatives believed the U.S. had no business hectoring the South African government over apartheid. Senator Jesse Helms (R–N.C.), the Senate's leading race-baiter, took the Senate floor to filibuster on behalf of the apartheid government of South Africa. Helms was an old pro at using the filibuster: he had launched a similar one three years earlier against establishing a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. He was joined by like-minded conservatives including noted segregationist Strom Thurmond (R–S.C.) and future presidential hopeful Phil Gramm (R–Texas) in voting against the bill's final passage. Over in the House, Representative Dick Cheney (R–Wyo.) joined the minority in opposing the Anti-Apartheid Act. In earlier battles over South Africa, Cheney had denounced Nelson Mandela as a terrorist and argued against his release.

But conservatives were unable to stop the majority from acting. Congress approved the bill and sent it to President Reagan.

He vetoed it.

Reagan took his case directly to the people on a live TV broadcast. He echoed Crocker in urging Americans to be patient with South Africa's apartheid government. Reagan argued that sanctions would disproportionately hurt black South Africans without significantly undermining apartheid, and blamed black extremists for contributing to the violence. Change, if it were to come at all, would happen incrementally. He believed he had sold his case effectively, and considered the matter closed.

Back in the Senate, Edward Kennedy chastised Republicans for Reagan's actions:

"The Republican Party is at a crossroads. It must decide whether it wants to be the party of Lincoln or the party of apartheid."

Under considerable pressure, Republican moderates rallied. Thirty-seven (37) out of 53 Republican senators joined their Democratic colleagues to pass the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act over Reagan's veto. Conservatives fumed, but they were powerless to stop the law from passing. It was the first time in the 20th century that a presidential veto on a foreign policy issue had been overturned.

Reagan issued a tersely worded response:

"I deeply regret that Congress has seen fit to override my veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. Punitive sanctions, I believe, are not the best course of action; they hurt the very people they are intended to help ... [T]his will not solve the serious problems that plague that country."

But he was wrong.

Despite inconsistent enforcement by the Reagan administration, the law triggered a wave of international divestment in the apartheid regime. Banks refused to renew loans to South Africa. Foreign investment dried up, and exports to the U.S. and other countries contracted significantly. The enormous capital flight caused a dramatic decline in the exchange rate of the rand, and in 1989, Prime Minister P.W. Botha resigned. His successor, F.W. de Klerk, announced in his opening address to Parliament the end of the ban against the ANC and other black liberation groups, freedom of the press, and the release of all political prisoners. A few days later, Nelson Mandela walked out of Robben Island a free man after spending 27 years behind bars. Four years later, he was elected South Africa's first black president in the post-apartheid era.

Republican moderates deserve credit for having the courage to go against Reagan in passing the Anti-Apartheid Act. Though denounced by conservatives for their actions, they held firm. As a result, the United States directly contributed to the liberation of millions of people from one of the world's most oppressive regimes. It was a Wilsonian vision of America's ability to create positive change in the world, and it wouldn't have happened without Republicans working in common purpose with Democrats. When Newt Gingrich later became Speaker of the House, his partisan leadership style would make such collaboration all but impossible. But that was still eight years away, and for the moment members of both parties could take pride in what they had accomplished together.

Those who preached delay in fighting apartheid often pointed to the hopeless complexity of the situation. But to many Republicans in 1986, the issue was obvious:

"In the 1960s, when I was in college, civil rights issues were clear," explained Senator Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.), who voted to pass the Act over Reagan's veto. "After that, it became complicated with questions of quotas and other matters that split people of good will. When the apartheid issues came along, it made civil rights black and white again. It was not complicated."