“In my view, the Reagan administration’s support and collaboration with (Apartheid South Africa) is equally immoral, evil, and totally un-Christian.” – Bishop Desmond Tutu
At the height of the Republican presidential primaries, late 2011 to early 2012, Republican contenders were falling all over themselves trying to compare themselves to Republican icon, the late president Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, the Ronald Reagan they all aspired to emulate is a mere mirage.
Over the years, Republicans have painstakingly worked to whitewash Reagan’s sordid past and turned him into a Republican “saint”, then held him up as the gold standard they all aspire to achieve. The real Ronald Reagan was a man so paralyzed by party ideology and fear of communism that he was willing to sacrifice American democratic ideals and Christian values.
To understand Ronald Reagan, we have to understand the Cold War mentality. During Reagan’s term, the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full swing. Americans and Soviets were fighting proxy turf battles around the world trying to spread their influence. America was gripped by a palpable fear of communism, and Ronald Reagan was the de facto “leader of the free world” and defender of Western-style capitalism.
When Reagan was elected into his first term in 1980, the apartheid government of South Africa under president P.W. Botha had occupied neighboring Namibia and was engaged in a battle against Cuban-backed Angolan rebels. Nelson Mandela was still in Prison.
Reagan’s Rationale for Defending South Africa
- South Africa was a valuable trade partner, rich in mineral wealth such as gold, diamonds and uranium.
- South Africa had supported the United States in every major war.
- South African president P.W. Botha was a staunch ally against Communism.
- A sudden revolution in South Africa could cause a power vacuum, ushering in Marxist-style Communism.
- If South Africa became Communist, there could be a domino effect leading to the spread of Communism in Africa and diminished American influence.
In stark opposition to the entire world, president Ronald Reagan, and his British ally, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, refused to agitate for majority rule and instead proposed a plan that more or less amounted to appeasement. Chester Crocker, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, crafted the Constructive Engagement policy that effectively prolonged Nelson Mandela’s incarceration, and delayed Namibia’s independence from South African occupation.
To the rest of the world, the issues were pretty clear cut. Trade sanctions and an arms embargo against South Africa would be enforced unless South Africa dismantled the racist Apartheid system and held free and fair democratic elections.
However, the Reagan administration through its Constructive Engagement policy muddied the negotiation process by linking the easing of the arms embargo to South Africa’s withdrawal from Namibia and the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. Effectively, Reagan subverted a simple cry for justice through selfish, political opportunism.
Ronald Reagan alone stood in the way as Congress tried to pass the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. Meanwhile, public sentiment against Apartheid increased as celebrities voiced their displeasure with Reagan’s stand. South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu visited the United States in 1984 and delivered a scathing indictment of Reagan’s administration in a speech on Capitol Hill.
Republican Representative Dick Cheney, who would subsequently serve as Vice President under George W. Bush, was quick to point out that Nelson Mandela was the head of an organization (African National Congress) that the State Department had classified as a terrorist organization.
Public support for Reagan’s policies eroded further when in 1985, Reagan’s own party (Republican Party) voted 89-4 in the Senate on a resolution condemning Apartheid. Reagan finally lost when Congress overrode his Veto against the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986.The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act banned all new trade and investment in South Africa and banned South African Airways flights from landing in U.S. airports.
“For this moment, at least, the President has become an irrelevancy to the ideals, heartfelt and spoken, of America.” -(Republican)Senator Lowell P. Weicker, Jr